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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