Control

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.

 

I’m very sweet…)
I’m very sweet…)
Unless you go into my space, which I control…
Unless you go into my space, which I control…
And then, I’m friendly again, as long is it’s on my terms…
And then, I’m friendly again, as long is it’s on my terms…

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?

 

 

 

The Value of the Plastic Pony.

In Singapore, I teach some of my clinics on a simulator horse, called Plastic Jack.  And, honestly, I think Plastic Jack is worth his weight in gold.

A lot of people will have seen them – life size “horses” sitting atop a platform and computer, allowing them to halt, walk, trot and canter.  The movement feels similar to that of a live horse, although not exactly the same since he isn’t swinging his weight along with all four legs.

A few times now, I have gone simulator indoor skydiving, mainly to figure out exactly how I’m using my core and how I can influence my direction and stability with nothing to reach out and hold onto, or floor to push off.  Last time, I chatted to the dive instructor and asked him how lifelike it was.  Similar, was his reply.  You get the upward push of air, but you don’t get the pockets of turbulence, the sudden rush of up or down draught, and you certainly don’t get the cross wind.  When flying through the air outside, you get wind from all directions, in a simulator tube, it’s all one way.  (As I write this, sitting in a plane, I can certainly vouch for what happens with up draughts, down draughts and cross winds).  A wind tunnel is too regular and even.  And, that is similar to what happens on Plastic Jack.  He’s very safe.  No one has fallen off, you don’t even have to wear a hard hat, and there isn’t any tilt through his corners, or falling in or out around the circle, but it’s as close as.

Now, some people sit on a version of Jack for 5 minutes, use the pressure sensors and get a read out of what the pony’s sensor panels have to say – you are 56% to the left, and 63% tipping forwards.  And that, in my opinion, is a bit worth less.  A fun joyride, sure, but does it actually teach you anything or help?

Where Jack comes into his own, is when we can play.  Before the rider gets on, we work through a whole variety of exercises to understand and experiment through tensegrity and alignment.  We’ve sat on Styrofoam or polystyrene balls, blown up balloons, and pulled each other around.  We’ve thought of how balls bounce, how violin strings are tensioned and how our diaphragm works.  And, we’ve watched videos of Charlotte and worked through photographs of the last Olympics.  Now, finally, we get on Plastic Jack and we play with low tensegrity, high tensegrity, having both seat bones, stability of the fascia spiral lines using bands, and the way in which blowing up a balloon activates the core.  By having Jack cantering along in one place, I can stand next to the rider and place my hands where I want them too, asking them to push one side of their pelvis, fill in their back, breathe to their kidneys or rest their head against the head rest in their car in a much clearer way than they ever could sitting atop a real live, moving horse.  The proof comes in the next day, when their regular coach says – Oh My, I can see a change in your riding…

So, you up for a challenge?  Find out if there is a local version of Plastic Jack and go along for a lesson.  It can be tricky to find someone to actually teach you on one, rather than just getting a printout, but if you can find a horse and a trainer, magic will happen!

 

Dare to ask questions

“Dare to ask questions. There are answers to any question.”
–Lailah Gifty Akita

I read this quote recently, and thought it’s that simple, but so many people seem to come unstuck when it comes to asking a question.

When I start a lesson with a new client, one of the first things that I’ll say to them – this is a three-way conversation.  There are three of us here in the arena, each with a brain and an opinion…

Dare to Ask Questions
Dare to Ask Questions

I’m going to keep asking you, the rider, questions….  Do you feel that?  Do you notice this?  Remember how you felt when you were skiing down that mountain; hiking up that hill; doing somersaults in the gym….   Does that make sense?  And, at any time, you, the rider can say – no.  No, I can’t feel my right foot moving.  No, I don’t get the feeling of tone from when I was shooting hoops.  No, that picture of balancing a tennis ball doesn’t make sense in my brain.

The horse has a massive part of this three-way conversation.  Who knows what the rider actually feels like?  Who knows if the horse finds it easy to keep his balance, or if the rider is being left behind and is difficult to carry?  The horse is the only one who knows what it feels like to be a horse, the only one to feel what it is like to carry this particular rider.  The horse has the most important opinion of all.   If the horse suddenly lifts his back, reaches into the rein, starts to move in a more balanced manner, he approves of the changes that the rider is making.  If he suddenly hollows, tilts, twists, then his opinion is less positive.

But, what of the third part of the conversation?  The rider must have a voice, dare to ask questions.  Do we think we’ll sound stupid?  Or show ourselves up?

As the lesson is unfolding, I’m asking “does this make sense?”  And, I’m really hoping that the rider will say “yes, yes it makes sense, and how about this?”, or “what about that”.

“Can you explain something else?”

“Can I ask another question?”

“What about this?”

Believe me, no question is stupid – I’ve been asked a whole host more questions than I’d have thought possible…  Some are showing me that I didn’t do a good enough job of explaining.  Some make me think.  Some are a lot more observant than I’d have thought that level of rider would be noticing.  And some, I’ll say, yes, I’ll explain that in a lesson or two’s time, but today isn’t the day.  But, are people wrong to ask the questions?  Not at all, for every question there’ll be an answer.

 

Around the world

Creating confidence in young riders is best achieved with easily gained challenges and lots of repetitions.

During the lesson, leaders and ponies often need to minute or two to recover after trotting and there are many exercises that the rider can practice in halt.  The most simple and widely known is Around the World.

At its simplest, the rider turns 360 degrees whilst sitting on the pony.  The rider begins by raising one leg – in this case the right – and takes it over the pony’s neck so that they are sitting facing sideways, both legs on the pony’s left side.  The left leg is then raised and taken over the pony’s quarters so that the rider is facing the tail.  The right leg is taken over the quarters to take the rider sideways, facing right.  Finally, the left leg passes over the neck so the rider is back to facing forward.  This is then repeated in the opposite direction.

If there is a group of riders, they can then do Around the World as a race, all riders setting off on ready, steady, go, and shouting out their pony’s name as they get back “home”.  Doing the exercise with their hands on their head makes it much for riders to find their balance.

Another option is to take the rider on a journey, Around their World.  They begin at home – this could be by saying that they at the riding school for very young riders, or they name of the town or country for slightly older children.  As they sit sideways, they say the name of another place.  Either a place they go (like the shops, home, school etc), or another city or country.  As they travel around, backwards and sideways again, they choose another place to go, arriving back at the riding school or the actual town as they arrive back facing forwards.  Repeat this going the other way around the pony, choosing new places to go.  This is a really good way of teaching children about their environment and the world that they live in.

I also ask the riders, how they are getting there?  What is the mode of transport?  For serious children, this maybe literal – if it is far it could be by plane.  If over water, maybe a boat.  If the next town, a car or bicycle.  Other children will come up with flying carpets, skiing behind a whale, floating on a cloud.  The sky is the limit!

Moving on to other exercises will help to get the rider supple and confident moving about on top of the pony.   Change of seat is little more difficult to do.  The rider begins the same as Around the World, lifting the right leg over the pony’s neck and so sitting facing to the left.  They take their left hand across their body to hold the pommel (front of the saddle).  Their right arm goes across their back and they hold the cantle (rear of the saddle).  Keeping their legs hanging down the left side of the pony, the rider rolls their body over, so facing the right side of the pony, their stomach on the saddle and their weight supported on their arms.  The rider then swings their right leg up, over the pony’s quarters and they sit up again, back in the saddle.  Repeat this in the opposite direction, beginning with the left leg over the pony’s neck.

Kick ups are another useful and fun exercise.  The rider holds the cantle of the saddle with both hands.  Leaning their upper body back, they use their core and thigh muscles to lift both legs, swinging them up so that their heels kick together above the pony’s neck.  Care must be taken that the pony will stand still and not fidget or take fright when the rider’s legs move up through their line of vision.  It should be stressed to the rider to lift their legs high enough not to kick their pony on the neck.  As the legs touch together, the rider then lets them come gently back to the pony’s sides without kicking him.  While first learning, it can help to have a person standing on each side of the pony.  They each hold one of the rider’s feet, and on counting 1, 2, 3, swing the foot up, helping the rider to kick their feet above the pony’s neck.  The rider is then encouraged to try it out on their own.

Once the rider can do this, they can move onto the kick up behind.  This is much more difficult.  The hands are placed on the front of the knee rolls.  The rider should again try to move in one fluid movement, and needs to have a reasonably strong upper body.  It often helps if they have the idea of doing a hand stand.  In one swing, the head and neck fold forward toward the pony’s shoulder and the rider raises their body up onto their hands, allowing the legs to swing up and out behind, so they can kick the entire length of their leg together, above the pony’s tail.  Once their legs have kicked together, they softly and smoothly come back down to sit upright in the saddle.

As the rider gets more able, they can do all of these unaided, but the pony should always be held – a runaway pony in the middle of the exercise would be disastrous.  Done carefully in a controlled environment, these all exercises with encourage confidence, balance and good use of the core.

 

 

The power of play

The power of play

When people ask what I do, I generally reply, I play with ponies. And, yes, by ponies, I mean anything with four legs, a tail and hopefully two ears (maybe not, knowing me), who neighs.  Originally, there were two reasons for my “Playing with Ponies” answer.  It started with my family who, with waning patience, kept asking, “so when are you going to stop playing with ponies and get a real job?”.  Ya, that didn’t happen did it?  As far as they were concerned, being outside in the dirt, spending more time with ponies than people, that wasn’t a real job.  (After all these years, they kind of accept it isn’t likely to change…)

The second reason is that for many people, anything to do with working with horses is a second-class job, it’s for stupid people who had no other avenues open to them. The number of times I have met someone, we have been chatting as equals, and when they ask what I do, they go on to say, oh, well…  And then dumb down the conversation.  I did actually have a guy once say to me, oh well, at least that was an option that was open to you….  He did apologise later, but only after he discovered that I could actually string words together in conversation.  Clearly, if you could, you would have a real, or office job, and if you can’t, you settle for ponies.  Hmmm…. So, I jump in before they do – what do you do?  Oh, I just play with ponies, not a big job like yours…

(Considering that the equine industry is one of the biggest in the world, generating around $300 million annually and employing about 1.6 million people, there are a lot of us lucky people out there.)

I am fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Mary Wanless, founder of Ride with your Mind.  A word she hates is “Try”.  Can you feel what your seat bones are doing?  I’m trying…. To try implies that you are putting in hard, pointless effort for something that won’t happen.  I hate that I procrastinate – I’ll try to change.  I don’t like being so disorganised, I’ll try to fix it.  I need to lose weight / give up sugar / get fitter / give up smoking / get out of bed earlier….  I’ll try. I’m ambivalent about change – maybe I will, maybe I won’t, its pointless effort…  I’m trying.

I feel as disenchanted about a different word – work.  It’s Monday, I have to go to work – ugh.  I hate work, I need a holiday.  I need to work, but I’m tired.  Work is what you slog through 5 – 6 days a week to get to your weekend. Work, is not a place we choose.  I work hard at the office, but I play tennis at the weekend.  Different? Recently, I posted a photo on Instagram, sea, sun, sand, saying damn, another tough day in the office, looking for a yoga retreat venue…  And, a friend commented, “Ashleigh, do you ever work?”  Honestly, really, truthfully, no.  I don’t think I have ever done a day’s work in my life.  I think, I inquire, I dabble, I explore, I (hopefully) inspire, or lead, or suggest, but work?  No, I don’t do that.

Another hard day in the office then….
Another hard day in the office then….

How about our four-legged friends.  Do they think, today I’ll work on my flying changes?  Ummm, hate to disillusion you, but no.  Horses don’t work.  In their natural state, they survive.  They eat, they drink, they run from danger, they reproduce.  And, they play.  They play to learn, to explore their world, their strength, their place in the herd. They play to learn how to become a winning stallion or a lead mare.  They don’t expel energy to work.  Working would wear them down, making it easier for that tiger to eat them…

And yet, we take our horses into an arena and we set to work.  Working a horse, implies for us, that it is going to be a hard grind.  I’m working hard on his half passes.  I’m working for a better dressage score, or a more balanced canter to jump clear rounds. I’m working him to wear him out before we go hacking, so he doesn’t buck me off….  I’m going to my office to work.  And for him?  I’m being worked by my human – she is working at my leg yielding…  Is that fun?  Is that putting either of you in a good space to learn, understand, progress?  I don’t think so.

Recently, I wound up somewhere new, with new people, new ponies.  On one of the first days, they asked if we were going to work ponies, and I said no, but we can play with ponies…  They initially didn’t get it.  And then, we took three little geldings into the arena, in a belting wind, and opened up a huge square of tarpaulin.  The wind blew, the plastic flapped, the ponies snorted and chased each other, and they played.  It was an hour of laughing, of hanging onto corners of tarp, of team work, and of brave ponies exploring, bouncing on and off the plastic, allowing themselves to be wrapped up and covered over.  Did we, humans or ponies, work?  No. Was it serious?  Well, here I am careful how I answer – I was watchful.  I checked the ponies weren’t stressed, flooded, anxious.  I watched them for signs that this was difficult.  I watched that the humans were safe.  It wasn’t blindly doing a free for all…  Is that serious – to a degree yes, I guess so, but it was to encourage safe play, not to work.  Did the ponies play?  Yes. Did those ponies leave the arena with more confidence?  Yes. The interesting thing was the youngest pony.  He gets quite bullied by the other two, definitely the lowest in pecking order. He was the one we targeted the most, and he was the one who ended up totally wrapped up.  And he definitely grew from the experience, he was a lot more cocky and self-assured with his two little friends the next day, actually chasing (in play) the lead pony.  Did the humans learn within the play?  Yes, I kept asking – notice, how is he breathing, notice, where is he looking, is his tail still, is his eye soft.  The humans learnt about noticing, but the learning was through play.

Playing with Ponies
Playing with Ponies

Play makes us happy.  It raises our spirits.  Work – well often it stresses us.  Which one do you think inspires your pony to offer more?  Are you going to work your horse today, or are you going to go and play with a half pass?

(As a post script – I was happily surprised when I read “The Human Condition”, Hannah Arendt, 1958, this definition of work…  “Work, unlike labor, has a clearly defined beginning and end. It leaves behind a durable object, such as a tool, rather than an object for consumption. These durable objects become part of the world we live in. Work involves an element of violation or violence in which the worker interrupts nature in order to obtain and shape raw materials. For example, a tree is cut down to obtain wood, or the earth is mined to obtain metals. Work comprises the whole process, from the original idea for the object, to the obtaining of raw materials, to the finished product. The process of work is determined by the categories of means and end.”  So, to work a horse is to create a violation that interrupts his nature…  Is that how you want to be with your horse?  Her definition of Action is much closer to where I want to be…  Maybe it’s just my geek brain over thinking!!!!)

Happy Playing!

Use of Gadgets

and this is how fast he is working it out – just a few minutes later

I read somewhere, the rider is an artist or sculptor, the horse is the medium with which he works.  (And, if anyone has the origin or author, please let me know!)  I like this image.  A friend had two photos on her fridge door.  One was a scruffy, dirty little dark grey colt, with a long black mane and tail, thick winter coat, unshod and slightly long hooves, a bit unkempt. Tail dragging on the ground where it hadn’t been trimmed.  He was slightly ewe necked, weak behind and totally undeveloped.  He was standing, looking slightly wild eyed, in a headcollar, an unseen person holding him steady.  The other photo on her fridge door, shows a magnificent dressage horse, stunningly turned out, gleaming pure white coat, clean, brushed out mane and tail also pure white, tidy hooves, beautiful topline with a big cresty neck and lovely development through his back, quarters and thighs.  Truly, a stunning horse bursting with health and power. He is standing square, oozing confidence and charisma, in a double bridle and dressage saddle, ready for work. And, yes, it is the same horse, taken about 8 years apart.

This horse, was truly an artist’s creation.  He was never hurried or pressured, he was sculpted step by step, sometimes one step forwards, two steps back.  As he was being produced, he was given time to find balance; his muscles were given time to develop; the wrong muscles were given time to soften and let go; his brain was given time to understand; he was given time to become confident and trial new behaviour; he was given time for deep practice, to slowly, slowly understand and create something magnificent.

Another quote that I adore – “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” – Michelangelo.  (Even I know this one’s origin!)  This horse, that I am describing above, that is exactly what happened with him and his training – the stunning, calm, presence filled creature in the second photo was always there, and my friend had the knowledge and patience to carve until she set him free.

So, why am I writing this?

Did Michelangelo take power tools to his marble and produce his angel at record speed? Of course not, he would have taken his time, felt the marble, thought and felt about what he was producing, and as an artist, filed away bit by bit.

The classically trained horses have the benefit of time, they are produced over years, so that if he only offers piaffe at 12, it doesn’t matter, because its part of the process, not a race to the finish line.  Which is why these horses stay sound and working into their twenties.

And my point is?  Well, I have been trying to work out, just why would trainers use gadgets?  In my opinion, draw reins, tie downs, martingales, balance reins, should be burned.  There is no place for them.  So, just why do some trainers love them?  Here are my theories…

Can you ride your horse in a simple snaffle and loose cavesson noseband
Can you ride your horse in a simple snaffle and loose cavesson noseband?

The first is the one that I can most empathise with – you have a nice young horse for a novice rider and want the rider to feel what they are aiming for – you don’t want to damage the horse’s back by letting him run around with his head in the air, but the rider hasn’t learned the feel.  Ideally, find the rider a schoolmaster to have some lessons on, but having taught in all sorts of weird and wonderful places, I know it isn’t always possible…   Do I agree with it?  No. But, it’s the one answer that I can see some logic behind.

Next, they want fast answers.  As I said, Michelangelo took time to carve his angel.  But, if he was being pressured to mass produce pieces to sell quickly, to get more chunks of marble out there to the public, and he had a power tool to hand, would it have made it quicker?  Sure.  He could have produced 50 in the time it took to carve 1.  And, since so many were being made, it would be ok if a couple were chipped or flawed, right?  Quantity over quality.  If you own a stallion and want to get his progeny out there and competing, to get more mares in, to raise the stud fee, then you want his babies out there fast, (often mass produced) and winning at 3 or 4 years old.  So, for speed and faster financial reward, use gadgets.

Ego, I also think, can play a role.  If I, as a trainer, am teaching a lesson, and the horse’s head is in the air, am I concerned with what bystanders may be thinking?  Am I looking at the other trainers walking by, and thinking, oooh, this looks bad, my pupil has her horse’s head in the air – what will that mean for my reputation, best I tie it’s head down…  I remember once, riding a riding school horse.  He didn’t go forward, had no go off the leg, and, honestly, felt quite unlevel.  I was just trucking him along the track, with his head in the air, just working on GO. I later found out, one of the junior instructors was very concerned about the fact that this horse’s head was in the air.  Would it have benefited myself or my horse to tie his head down?  No.  Would it have made the junior instructor happier to see his head tucked in?  Oh yes

This horse is at the beginning of his session.  All he is wearing is a rope halter and his boots…  Will he change the way he is going?  This gorgeous horse is Road Runner, owned by Genevieve West
This horse is at the beginning of his session. All he is wearing is a rope halter and his boots… Will he change the way he is going? This gorgeous horse is Road Runner, owned by Genevieve West

Having pupils over horsed.  This is a biggie.  Your pupil buys a horse who is a little too much for them.  Maybe they chose the horse before becoming your pupil, or maybe you bought the horse for them, hoping that they would “grow into” each other, and now, Oh Dear, it’s bordering on being unsafe…  So, we just tie the head down.  This one is a real bug bear for me – educate, both horse and rider. School the horse correctly, teach the rider.  Slow down the lessons, teach them in a walk, until they have more control, and then in trot. Keep them on the lunge, or in a smaller arena.  Educate, don’t punish the horse for being more horse than a rider should be riding.  Buck Brannaman has a great quote – “When someone tells me they want a pushbutton horse, I say you might as well buy yourself some fairy dust.  You’ll bring that horse down to your level in no time”. That fabulous, flashy horse, can be dumbed down pretty quick in a pair of running reins.

Lazy teaching – this is another one that really annoys me.  I can’t be bothered to teach you about contact, so we’ll just pull his head down.  I CAN’T teach you how to ride the horse rounder, through his back or into a quiet hand, because I don’t have enough understanding or the words, so we’ll put draw reins on.  A trainer’s role is to train, to help the pupil to understand.  A trainer shouldn’t take a short cut to avoid teaching the lesson. This is often accompanied by the trainer sitting on the fence with a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a fan club.  Luckily, I only see this very, very rarely!

and this is how fast he is working it out – just a few minutes later
and this is how fast he is working it out – just a few minutes later

How much do you agree?  Sure, there maybe other circumstances, or other reasons that a trainer may try to convince you that using gadgets is the best option, but 99% of the time, I bet it comes down to one of these five…  What are you doing with your horse?  Are you carefully shaping the angel who lies within the marble, or are you forcing a shape that is going to chip and crack?
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You are utterly insane and irresponsible …

“You are utterly insane and irresponsible, how awful” or “Oh my, wonderful, I am so jealous” are the two comments most commonly offered by people when I tell them what I do for a living – freelance coaching.  With a twist.  The area that I cover is – anywhere in the world.  Some locations are recurring, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kenya, South Africa, England, Germany and Spain, while others are one offs – such as Italy or Costa Rica.

Growing up and learning to ride, I was the good pupil, who tried desperately to follow my coaches prompts – make the horse forward, get the horse round, use more leg, ride the canter, being some of those shouted instructions that I would be furiously trying to follow.  It wouldn’t have occurred to me to voice my inner thought of – How?  How do I make the horse rounder?  How do I keep my leg still?  How do I get my lazy horse more forward or my whizzy horse to settle?  Somehow, lots of excellent coaching produced a rider able to compete across the disciplines and produce horses, but there was always that little inner dialogue of – how is this working?  Teaching was a challenge, because I could always see the problem, and see what I wanted to change but often lacked the words or linear set of cues to get the changes I wanted for my pupils.

Thousands of miles in dressage arenas, jumping arenas, cross country courses, race tracks, endurance tracks, bridle paths and lunge rings later, my back started to give out, partly due to a lot of incorrect posture along the way.  At that point I was already experimenting with many ideas, but discovered Mary Wanless and her “Ride With Your Mind” system.  Finally, I had some of the “how to” answers.  How does the horse come rounder?  How can I protect my back?  In her words – she teaches a “tool kit” – things that we as riders need to get our head around.  I became a certified RWYM coach, and that opened my mind to more possibilities and thoughts, creating an eclectic mix that I use today.

I count myself lucky in that I have managed to experience a lot of different things, partly for fun, partly as teaching research, which allows me to connect to my pupils existing skills and has put me in front of some amazing coaches across a lot of different sports.  This year, a rider with scuba diving experience was battling with her horse’s flying changes to the right, while to the left was great.  Our discussion revolved around how, when asking for the left changes, she put her body into scuba diving positive buoyancy mode, while when asking for the difficult right changes she went into negative buoyancy mode.  Instantly, by accessing muscle memory that her body understood, she could ride the changes in either direction.  A young rider was battling with her jumping position and a discussion around our shared interest in rock climbing fixed the issue.  (You can’t pull up with your arms, you have to push up with your core and legs).  And yet another rider was constantly slightly behind the movement, causing frustration and irritation on her sensitive pony, which we worked through…  How?  That morning, I had climbed off a plane with a heavy back pack.  On getting onto the escalator going up towards immigration, the back pack had pulled backwards on my shoulders, almost pulling me off my feet.  I had to engage my core, match the packs backward force with my own forward force, so keeping me vertical on the escalator.  This rider was being the back pack pulling her little gelding backwards.  As soon as we worked through how to engage her core to match his forward momentum, all was better in their world.

Lessons are eclectic, thoughtful and make a rider stop and think.  “Be a frog” or “more tennis balls” have been shouted across arenas, after discussion with riders has made this the explanation that puts them where their horse and I need them to be.    My business is Kuda Guru, which means Horse Teacher.  People assume it means I am the horse riding instructor, but the spin I put on it is, your horse is your teacher, I just translate.

The first question I ask of a rider during a lesson – if I could fix one thing, what would it be?  They will answer, I wish he was more forward / straighter / rhythmic / slower / had impulsion / was balanced.  And in my mind, I always think, if I could ask the horse, what would he wish for?  Generally, the answer I imagine is the same as that the rider just gave.  The rider who says, I wish my horse had a better rhythm, is often a rider who is not riding in a rhythm themselves.  And I bet their horse is thinking, I wish my rider had a better rhythm.  We can’t make the horse have a better rhythm, but if the rider and I can put a better rhythm into that rider, the horse now has a dancing partner that he can work with.  At that point, the horse generally finds rhythm, breathes a sigh of relief and I get to translate – look at that, your horse has rhythm, don’t believe me, believe him.  When your horse goes better, believe that you are doing something right…  He is the expert at being the horse, all I do is translate.

So, what do you wish for when riding your horse?  Would he wish for the same thing?  How can you create that in your own body?

If you would like to follow my travels, thoughts, blogs and learn more, you can follow my Facebook page,  https://www.facebook.com/Kudaguru/  or my new and improved website will be up and running this month at www.kudaguru.com

Happy Riding!

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Just teach the trees …

No matter how beautiful or distracting they are, please do not teach the trees…

At the moment I am doing a big clear out, trying to get rid of mountains of papers, lightening my suitcase, and looking to find that elusive piece of paper that seems to have vanished…  And, at the bottom of the pile, I have found an old certificate, which is what has nudged my mind down this path.

Many, many, years ago, I had just left school and a friend and I spent our times hanging out with our horses.  I was already eventing big time, and the excuse was that my horse needed hours of road work (he was too fit if I’m honest, could tow me around an open track and still be running away with me at the end, hardly even breathing hard), and I was schooling horses for owners to fund my eventing, so, the days at the yard just happened…  Our mothers despaired at our tomboy-ness and my friend’s mother came up with a plan – go on a modelling course.  We reluctantly agreed (well, we weren’t given much choice actually) so off we went.  We did our time, got through our hours, returned to our ponies.  (Being 6-foot-tall, and at that time ultra-skinny, they offered me a modelling contract, on condition that I lost a couple of kilograms…  Talk about the unhealthy effects of modelling…  There were the gym guys telling me to do weights to build up for my eventing, sports doctors telling me to add more protein to build up, and the models telling me to lose weight – let’s just say the modelling, thankfully, never happened…)  We were handed our certificates at the end, which is the bit of paper I started this with, somehow it managed to survive all these years…

My first event horse, "Golden Marble" who ensured that I spent so much time at the yard
My first event horse, “Golden Marble” who ensured that I spent so much time at the yard

Also, many, many years ago, I went to a coaching seminar and during the Q&A session after lessons, a coach asked what he should do if expected to teach a student at a lower level than he regularly agreed to.  The guest speaker advised him to just get through it – by “Just Teaching the Trees” if that is what it took.  Choose a tree and direct your comments that way.  I was beyond shocked and, if I am honest, it did have a profound effect on my coaching – never, ever will I make a pupil feel unimportant.  If you’re there to help someone, help them.  If you are not interested, don’t be there in the first place.  Don’t just get through the hours to receive your pay check.

No matter how beautiful or distracting they are, please do not teach the trees…
No matter how beautiful or distracting they are, please do not teach the trees…

Now, that whole modelling course, I swear, they were teaching trees.  The agency had obviously decided that either they needed to make more money, or try to find new models, and so, a course was put on.  The thing that has made me remember it for all these years, is how utterly unprofessional and disinterested they were.  The lady running it would be chatting to her boyfriend / husband / model friend most of the time, throwing the odd comment to us occasionally.  She would set a task for us to do and wonder off, not supervising at all.  We really were an inconvenience and her lack of interest was appalling.  How does anyone run a business like that?

Over the years, I have ended up doing a lot of examining, and must admit to failing more than my fair share of wanna be instructors.  If you are teaching, you have to invest in your clients.  You need to have an interest in helping them to improve, and them getting something tangible out of their sessions.  Even under exam stress, you can see the instructors who genuinely want their pupils to gain something.  And you can see the ones who will be teaching at home, sitting on the fence, drinking their coffee and talking to their groupies on the rail, or checking their phone messages.

As an instructor, what do I want from my pupil?  A willingness to learn; a desire to be there; an open mind; a sense of exploration; the courage to speak up; the appreciation of having a very large animal willing to interact and work together; a sense of fun…

And what should you, as a pupil what from your instructor?  A desire to help you; an understanding of their subject; an empathy for you and your horse; a moral code to protect you both; the same sense of gratitude to the four-legged team member; the same sense of fun and exploration, but ultimately, the respect for you, the client, to actually be there imparting knowledge to YOU and not chatting to a TREE…

What would you add in your quest for the perfect instructor?

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