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!

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