Stop “Should-ing” all over yourself (….. and your horse….)

If you’re one of those lucky people who doesn’t ever tend to get stressed about anything – or know anyone that gets stressed about anything – well, this probably isn’t a blog that will be of much interest to you. For the rest of us ….. read on…..

One of the benefits of your other half being a counsellor is that you don’t necessarily just get to say “GRRRRRR, I’m really stressed”. That’s not enough. Yes, let the stress out rather than suppress it, but what I mean is, you then need to take a good look at why you’re stressed and do something about it. This is good advice for everyone, not just those that live with counsellors.

When you boil it right down, and are very honest about it, it seems to me that what makes us stressed is that gap between what we are doing and what we think we “should” be doing. For example, if I “should” be somewhere for dinner at 7.30pm but actually I didn’t even leave the house until 7pm and it’s a good hour’s drive to get there, I’m probably going to feel stressed about the gap between where I am (in the car!) and where I should be (at the dinner).

OK, those of you that know me will probably realise that I’m so used to being late for dinner engagements that maybe if truth be told I won’t actually be that bothered, but you get the idea.   However, it’s not just being late that can cause a significant gap between what we are doing and what we think we “should” be doing:

“I’m 30 and I should be married by now….”

“I’m 35 and I should have kids by now….”

“I’m 40 and I should by now have found a job that I like….”

“I’m 45 and I should have started saving for my pension far too long ago….”

“I “should” fit into those jeans….”

“I should see more of my parents…..”

“I have a nice house/ car/ partner/ job, etc…… I “should” be happy” [so why aren’t I?]

Now don’t get me wrong, that gap between what we are doing and what we think we should be doing isn’t always such a bad thing. Indeed, for some of us that gap is what inspires us to get up in the morning and get things done. An Olympic athlete will feel that he “should” make it to the Olympics so she or he will make damn sure she/ he gets up in the morning and does the necessary training to get there.

There are also some “should’s” that are necessary for society to operate in a civilised manner. One “should” not do harm to another person, for example.

Most of us, though, aren’t sociopaths that are overly troubled by obedience to civil law, and also most of us aren’t Olympic athletes. Most of us muddle along as best we can trying to get things right and being plagued by that gap between where we are and where we think we should be. And by the way, where do all of those “should’s” that trouble us so much come from anyway? So what if I’m over 35 and don’t have kids? Maybe I just don’t want to have them? Who is to say I should have them anyway?

As with so many things in life, this life issue plays out on a regular basis not just in our relationship with ourselves, but in our relationship with our horses. Have you ever considered how often you “should” all over your horse?

I’ve been “should-ing” a bit over Buffy of late, I’ll admit.   After a rocky start to the eventing season last year, in the end we managed a very respectable end to the season and we’ve then been working hard over the weekend to prepare for the season ahead. However, we got to our first big venue a couple of weeks ago and it all fell apart. She “should” have been OK. Yep, well, she wasn’t, I get to go back a level (again) until she is and then rebuild from there and that’s just horses for you. No real point me thinking about what she “should” be doing by now – it’s irrelevant – what she is doing now is really the point, and then working on a training plan to develop from there.

For some reason a lot of people who compete have a big thing about feeling their horses “should” be given a chance to compete and do well in competitions and that somehow they let their horses down if they fail on either of those two “should’s”. If truth be told, I don’t think horses have any particular Olympic goals. In fact, I’m not particularly convinced that horses have any goals beyond munching food, running and rolling with their friends and, well, not a whole lot more. It’s us human’s that get caught up in the “should’s” with regard to their horse.

“He’s a 4yo, he should be in ridden work already….”

“He’s a 5yo, he should be ready for age classes…..”

“He’s been out before, he “should” be used to different environments….”

The thing is with horses, though, that they really don’t at all have the same expectations as to what “should” be happening as we do. They haven’t read our own personal “should’s”. And why should they? Horse’s just “are”.

This is why it really is crucial to listen to our horse’s responses for what they are, and not through our own personal filter of “should’s”.

I recently had a really very good saddle fitter over to help me fit a saddle for one of my youngsters. For all the different saddles he had, there were two in particular that looked like good fits. They “should” have worked. But when I sat on my youngster and asked her to trot she point blank refused. She hadn’t realised that they “should” fit. She didn’t like them. End of story. Time to find a different style of saddle to suit her instead (…. Turns out she prefers a particular style of jump saddle that her shoulder blades can glide under, not dressage saddles that sit behind the shoulder blades…).

Going back a few years, I had another particularly athletic youngster that seemed to find broncing a good idea. She looked sound. She was young. She “should” have been physically fine so surely the broncing “should” have been a young horse behavioural issue. No, on investigation she was bilaterally lame behind. No wonder she never really looked unsound. No wonder she bronced. More fool me for carrying on and thinking she “should” be OK when she was telling me loud and clear that she wasn’t.

So next time you’re feeling stressed about the gap between where you are and where you think you “should” be, or where you are with your horse and where you think you “should” be with your horse, maybe first stop and just have a good think about that. It’s not very useful to “should” all over yourself. It’s even less useful to should all over your horse.

“You have two choices, to control your mind or to let your mind control you.” 

― Paulo Coelho, Veronika Decides to Die

 

doris rolling (2)
Doris has no real idea (or care) that she “should” be my super duper event horse…….

 

 

All I Want for Christmas….. Is a Sound Horse….

It’s been a little while since my last blog post and a lot has happened since then – some of it good, some of it not so good.

In general I like to think that I’m a lucky person; I was born in a country free of civil war and have been in a position to get a good education and work to now have a nice house, some land for the horses, etc. I am also blessed with a very understanding other half.   Most people would think that my situation is a good one to be in and indeed they’d probably be right.

However, I can assure you that none of that means anything when you’re holding your horse, cut and bleeding from an accident that really wasn’t your fault, as you wait and hope against hope that the vet will arrive quickly and no permanent damage has been done; or when your vet tells you that your horse has suspensory damage likely to render them a field ornament; or, as tends to be inevitable, when you make “that” call to the vet. I assure you, when that stuff is going on, I don’t feel very lucky at all. Who would?

The thing about horses is that, much like any good drug, they can leave you high as a kite one day and the next day you can be wallowing in despair.

I have had some really good moments in 2015. After something of a dodgy start, Buffy seems to have finally decided that she is up for this eventing lark and she completed her last event of the season in good style. I have also now completed my 5th clinic with Philippe Karl and much to my delight, when I asked PK the question that I have been hiding from “Monsieur, are you happy that Buffy is the right horse to carry on with through the course and that she has the capability to come to the level you want her to”, the answer from PK was a clear “Yes!”. Considering I took Buffy on as a bit of a punt, knowing that she has Kissing Spines, you can imagine that on hearing this view from Monsieur I felt pretty happy.

However, coming towards the end of 2015 I find myself to be struggling. Doris, my lovely 6 year old, the one that should have been able to jump the moon for me, the one I have had since a yearling and who I have already patiently nursed through a large fireworks related accident, has hind suspensory ligament damage. Her future as my superstar event horse now has a serious question mark over it and only time will tell if she will come right (though in the meantime she does make an exceedingly pretty field ornament). To say I am gutted is an understatement.

Nothing knows how to break your heart like a horse does.

So why do we do it? Why do we allow our hearts to be so readily broken (not to mention sometimes also our bodies) by these beautiful creatures?

I have been asking myself this a lot lately. The thing is, to get anywhere in eventing, or indeed even to successfully complete the Philippe Karl course and ultimately pass his teacher training exams, you need to want it. You need to be hungry to be out there riding and mucking out every day when everyone else is either in bed still, or they’re already snuggled up in front of the telly with a glass of wine. You need to lust for it.

It’s pretty hard to still keep that passion burning in you when the flames are so readily quenched by your own tears from the heartbreak of another horse with soundness issues.

So then what you are left with is a choice.

Do you choose to let your passion fade and die? Or do you find a way to stoke the fire and carry on?

Some might argue that passion is just that – it’s passion. A feeling. An emotion. How can it be a choice? I disagree.

We can let life – and our life choices – strangle our passions and tell ourselves that in fact our passions really aren’t that important as after all; life is tough sometimes and it’s better to be easy on ourselves, or perhaps we must turn to other priorities. Or maybe we can even avoid telling ourselves that we are letting our passions slip into oblivion and instead just tell ourselves that we’ll come back to them later …… except of course later never really comes.

Or we can actively decide that our passions are worth it. Do what it takes to stoke the fire. I’ve never yet read a book about someone performing a great challenge who didn’t at some point question whether they can go on. Climbing Everest is never easy. But who wants to be the one that got part of the way there but never managed to make it to the top?

So I’ve given myself a suitable kick in the backside and reminded myself that I just simply couldn’t bear to reach an age that I was too old or too broken to ride any more and wonder “if only”. “If only” I might have kept my dreams, what might I have achieved?

For me, stoking the fire has included:

  • Planning out my 2016 schedule of horse training (lessons/ clinics/ competitions, etc) – with my remaining sound horses!
  • Making sure I remember to do the fun stuff (dates to go Bloodhounding now diarised – and looking forward to going out on Boxing Day!)
  • Finding inspirational books to read
  • Watching on You Tube the eventers and also the classical dressage riders I admire and wish to emulate.
  • Getting out there and still riding my horses!

 

So, onward and upward for 2016. Maybe there will still be times that all I can manage to do is Keep Buggering On (thanks Churchill) and yes I’ll need to keep working to take the lows as well as the highs, but hey, I never did like knitting!

 

“Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

CC1_4192_Class 2 - Cross Country - Camera 2

Knowledge is Better than Equipment

So I’ve just got home from my third ridden clinic with French classical dressage master, Philippe Karl, and as ever I’m inspired.

The title to this blog is in fact, I admit, a rather catchy little phrase that Monsieur came up with during our clinic. The more I think about it, though, the more that simple statement sums up so nicely Monsieur’s approach. He passionately opposes the use of any sort of gadgetry/ draw reins/ side reins, etc, but he doesn’t just say that from the sidelines, he gives clear reasons for his views and what’s more proposes credible alternatives.

One of the plus sides of training with a gentleman who has ridden and trained countless horses up to high school moves is that he’s got a lot of stuff worked out. I have yet to see him sit on a new horse in one of the clinics that doesn’t then look instantly amazing. I have also yet to see Monsieur himself fail to look amazing on a horse – it matters not whether it is a flash warmblood, an ex-racer, an Iberian or a cob – he looks amazing. As does the horse.

So how does he do it? Surely if I can work that out, I’ll have found the keys to the Kingdom of the Holy Grail of Riding? (indeed, I’m very much hoping that over the next few years’ training with Monsieur Karl, I will not just work this out but be able to emulate it!)

Well, first of all, I don’t think it can be denied that the way he sits on a horse is nothing short of poetry. His position is elegant, supple, secure, strong – I could go on – it simply has its own special sort of energy and I for one just never tire of looking at it. Having such an amazing seat must surely help get your message across to a horse, though in fact I have heard Monsieur say a number of times that riders with less than perfect seats can still be highly competent if they are otherwise sufficiently knowledgeable.

I could probably after that go on about the fact that Monsieur has worked out how it is that different horses need to be ridden differently, but all within a set of guidelines he has carefully crafted through his years of high level experience.

Or I could go on about the fact that Monsieur has worked out how to separate out clearly, for horse and rider, different aids for different things – such as the aid for poll flexion being quite a specific hand action, rather than using the more commonly accepted “yank and crank” theory whereby all you need to do to “collect and round” a horse is hold the front end together while pushing the back end forward.

Within minutes Monsieur can have an inverted ex-racer flexing his poll, a contracted warmblood moving freely forward or a common looking riding school horse starting shoulder in. And all of this done through understanding of the need to clearly separate your aids, to respect the balance and nature of the horse and to work with a horse through intelligence rather than force.

Having all of these things at his disposal, it is perhaps, then, no surprise that Monsieur does not require the use of any sort of “gadget” to acquire “proper” posture in the horse. Why would he, he can do it perfectly well without! But what about us mere mortals?

Well, the first thing to be very clear on is that Monseiur’s school of riding absolutely opposes the use of any coercive training aids – no pessoa’s no equi-ami’s and not even any side reins. Indeed, if I or any of his students were to use them, we would be kicked out of his school quicker than you’ll get bucked off a wild stallion.

So what’s so wrong with these training aids anyway? Well, to name but a few points:

  1. Have you actually ever watched a horse’s mouth when its bit is attached to what is effectively a piece of string that is then wrapped around the rest of its body? When the rest of his body moves, this causes the bit to move. What is the horse supposed to do about that? Is it a signal to him? Or must he just learn that it is meaningless?
  2. Such training aids at best put the horse in a particular position. If you are skilled at using the training aids, the position might – if you are very skilled – be a pleasing one. But what about if you then want him to go in a different position? A horse should no more train in one set frame than a bodybuilder should work on his biceps without also doing exercises for his triceps. And simply warming up the horse on the lunge without the gadgetry clipped on to the bit is not the answer, as this does nothing to teach the horse to politely follow the bit, he is merely grateful that he is not yet strapped into position.
  3. What more often happens is that the horse simply learns to duck behind the bit. He learns to overflex. Overflexion is not actually a good thing, despite the number of riders you see still using it. Rollkur is of course an extreme example of overflexion but overflexion is overflexion and is not how the horse is supposed to properly use his body.   When in nature does a horse in motion overflex? Oh, and have you ever then tried to pull on the reins to stop a horse that is overflexing? He just tucks his head in further but he doesn’t necessarily stop!
  4. The horse may alternatively come to the view that the way out of his bondage is to lean on the bit. Then when the rider gets on board the horse will expect to lean on the rider and feel dead mouthed. Not much fun.
  5. In fact, whether the horse leans on the bit or ducks behind it, as a means to try and solve his man-made problem, the point is that the horse isn’t actually learning any sort of a true relationship with the hand. Gadgetry cannot follow the horse’s mouth when he needs it to, it cannot feel if the horse needs to stretch, it cannot allow him to bend laterally…. Basically it cannot replace the timing and feel of a person.
  6. Most (all?) training aids work on the premise that they are tightened equally on the left and right sides. So we send the horse trotting round on circles on the lunge but in a rein position asking him to be straight through his body. Again, back to fixing the horse in a position – but at the expense, then, of lateral suppleness.

I genuinely believe that if any rider took the time to seriously consider all of the above points and then study in depth Philippe Karl’s work and to see how he uses his in-hand bridle training to teach the horse a variety of different head carriages/ ways of going, etc, they would never feel the need to use gadgetry again.

Unfortunately, though, even some vets do advocate the use of some training aids, such as the pessoa. As those of you that follow my blogs will know, in fact the horse that I am working with on the PK programme has kissing spine and so as you may imagine I’ve done my homework on different kissing spine treatment options and for the vast majority of them, the use of the pessoa features heavily. Unfortunately, though, vets are not always good trainers. And by the way I equally know a number of vets and physio’s who won’t touch a pessoa (or similar) with a barge pole.

If you read my last blog, you’ll know that last year I got a young horse with kissing spines, as a project (yes, I know, I’m a little crazy). At the recent clinic I was therefore somewhat biting my nails to know if Monsieur thought she was improving enough to carry on with the course!. Well, over the last nearly 18 months I’ve done stacks of in-hand bridle work, and work on her lateral flexibility (shoulder in, haunches in, half pass, etc, but also bending the neck laterally a lot, while having her body continue to move forward and straight, so that the muscles in the neck can be stretched laterally).   I’ve also worked a lot on riding Buffy in different head carriage positions and using her back in different ways. We have also in fact been able to practice jumping and pole work. Plus we’ve hacked for miles. A pretty good rehab plan by anyone’s standards and backed up by physio treatments but the use of any gadgetry has been notable by its absence.

But has it been enough? Was Monsieur happy that Buffy was improving enough to continue on the course with?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! J J J

Enough said.

“Brutality begins where knowledge ends. Ignorance and compulsion appear simultaneously.” Charles de Kunffy

Poor Fred needs a safe word!
Poor Fred needs a safe word!

Cartoon courtesy of “Fed Up Fred”

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fed-Up-Fred/765154803582033?fref=ts

Some Important Lessons To Reflect On Ahead of Our Next PK Clinic

As I get ready to make the now familiar journey to Northamptonshire to continue my training with French classical dressage master Philippe Karl, I can’t help but feel a certain amount of pressure to demonstrate clear progress in Buffy’s training. I’m not quite sure if that pressure is real (as in does Monsieur expect the same amount of improvement as I do?) or if it’s a bit in my head, but either way, it’s there in my mind. Are we ready? Have we done our homework enough? Have we done our homework too much and overcooked some exercises? But, most importantly, is she sound enough?

I took Buffy on at the beginning of last year, knowing that she has kissing spine. My gamble really was that with appropriate training and management, her condition could be managed and even improved. Surgery is always a back-stop option for us but it’s something I see as a last resort. Why did I go and buy a horse despite knowing she has kissing spine? Well, as ever, my heart over-ruled my head. That and she is very pretty.

When I bought Buffy, I was very clear in my mind that she was to be treated as a re-hab project and that my riding and work with her would have to be in keeping with what gives her back the best chance of soundness. You wouldn’t have ever said she was “lame” as such, but for sure her hind end movement wasn’t all it should be and her canter was more of a job to sit to than a pleasure. But, and this is actually one of the biggest reasons I still bought Buffy, she is a horse that I felt wanted to try.

Fortunately, Monsieur Karl’s work lends itself very heavily towards re-hab work. What I think has really massively helped me work with Buffy to increase her lateral flexibility, but without ever worrying her or getting into trouble with her, is his method of in-hand bridle-work. Being able to train all lateral moves from the ground, and increase Buffy’s lateral flexibility, before asking her to do that work under saddle, has no doubt helped our case.

But – have we progressed enough? At the December PK clinic, Monsieur seemed happy that our walk and trot had improved but the canter was still very much an issue. Since that clinic we have been working on finding some cadence in walk and trot, to improve those paces, to then help us find a better canter. We have also been experimenting with different head positions in canter, to see how she can best carry herself in the canter. This is, of course, alongside other general hacking work and also jumping, as I’m not a believer in having the horse spend all his time trotting round in circles in the school.

I do very much feel that Buffy has improved. She has got stronger, fitter and more flexible laterally. She was rising 6 when she came to me, so of course one would anyway hope that as she gets older her training would continue to develop these things. But in my heart of hearts, I still have my doubts about the quality of her canter. It has improved, but has it improved enough?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I imagine that Monsieur will set me straight by the end of next week, for better or for worse, and I may need to reconcile myself to getting an answer I don’t like. This is a very difficult prospect for me – I’m a worker and I like to think I always put in the effort required to get things done – but sometimes that still isn’t enough and there are physical limitations that one must (however begrudgingly) accept.

However, come what may, the one guiding principle that I must keep in my mind, and in my heart, is that, as aforementioned, I must make sure the work I do with Buffy is in keeping with giving her back the best chance of soundness. To push her too quickly to fulfil my own aims is simply not good horsemanship and what’s more it offends that little girl inside me that still sees her horses as an object of love. I won’t do it – and to be fair, I don’t think anyone on the course would ask me to, least of all PK – it is only the pressure I put on myself that I must struggle with. So there is this vaguely schizophrenic thought process within my own mind that on the one hand I want to do well and progress through the course and on the other I want to do what’s right by my horse.

However, being business-like about it for a minute, at the end of the day, the point of being on the course is to ultimately demonstrate that you can bring your horse to a standard suitable to pass a ridden exam, showing certain moves with sufficient quality. More than that, for me, ultimately I want to then be progressing on to the high school movements under Monsieur’s tutelage. So I need an equine partner to be able to achieve that goal.

It’s not all bad. Even if Buffy turns out not to be the horse to continue on the course with, there are still many other things that I plan for us to do together, and there is no question that she will stay with me, and hopefully over a longer time-frame she can continue to improve further. I am also fortunate to have another younger horse coming up as a reserve horse.

For me, the key to good horsemanship is to make sure that the over-arching consideration is to do what’s right by my horse. If I end up crying into my (large) glass of red wine one evening because PK has told me that Buffy will not be up to getting to the level I want us both to get to, then I’m sure my course-mates will remind me of this fact, even though it may at that point be of cold comfort. But I’ll know I’ll have done the right thing by my horse. As will Buffy. That’s a lesson more important for us all to learn than the High School movements.

To many, the words love, hope and dreams are synonymous with horses. - Author unknown
To many, the words love, hope and dreams are synonymous with horses. – Author unknown

The Real Cost of Production?

When you are looking for the Holy Grail of Horsemanship, you can’t help but also see a lot of things that you’d probably rather not.

One such thing is young horses being rushed in their training – doing things before they are ready to willingly accept them, and before their bodies are able to do as asked. There a couple of different video clips doing “the rounds” on Facebook at the moment, which illustrate these points so well for me.

The first is a video of a racehorse trainer that seems to have made a promotional video, which shows a young thoroughbred going through the “backing process”. Or should I say, the “breaking process”.

In this particular case, the young horse didn’t actually even lunge that well (though probably he had been lunged at least a bit before) and from the bronking involved when the saddle first went on, I’d say that he had quite clearly never had a saddle on before. So the horse was chased around a round arena, saddle on and long lines wrapping around his hind legs, until he stopped bronking in response to the saddle. Then the rider got on, despite the horse initially moving quickly away at the prospect. The rider got bronked off at first but got on again and the horse was quickly off the lunge line and getting smacks on his hind quarters to get him cantering around the area. The trainer was very proud at how quickly this could all be achieved. I was more struck by the way the horse was panting and wondering how the little racehorse possibly had the strength to carry his (not so small) male rider in a way that could even give him a hope of not later developing kissing spines.

The second video is a clip of a lovely stallion at the Belgium National stallion test 2015. The 3 year old had lovely paces but was being held into a frame well beyond his years, as evidenced by the rider’s busy hands, spurs and carriage of the horse. You also have to wonder how long he would have been ridden for previously, to prepare him for that test.

So, two very different examples – a racehorse quickly learning to be sat on and go, and a baby dressage horse being held into a frame. Both different. Both wrong.

A horse’s skeleton takes time to come to full maturity. Yes, even thoroughbreds. Most commentators agree that in fact the spine does not finish developing until at least the age of 6 (albeit most people would accept that generally a horse can be started at the age of 4, when the majority of his growing is done). But it’s not just the skeleton we need to worry about, there is muscle development. A horse isn’t naturally designed to carry a person – we need to help them strengthen in their backs to allow them to carry us in a fashion that is not damaging to them. This strengthening process takes time. Have you ever tried to take up a new sport and noticed how much your muscles later hurt? Your muscles need time to develop and adjust. Quite a lot of time, in some cases. Same for the horse.

There is then also the mental aspect. Proponents of starting young horses in a matter of minutes will tell you that the horse can handle it and to do anything else is to go at the human’s pace, rather than the horse’s pace. Really? So why, then, does starting the horse in a matter of minutes leave the horse sweating and panting? Do you really think that is something the horse is OK with? Just because he can be forced to accept it, doesn’t mean he should have to.

I love starting young horses. Truly, it’s a passion of mine. Preparing a horse for that first sit on him, with him understanding what is required of him, what is happening to him, and having him participate in the process with you. That’s what it’s all about. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve done your job well, there should be no need to make the horse feel he has to start bronking, and the horse should feel OK with the process, from beginning to end.  As for how long that process will take? Well how long is a piece of string? You can get better over the years at meeting a horse and judging how long you think it will take but to commit to a definitive timeframe, well I can’t see how you can do that without risk of rushing the horse – either mentally or physically.   Some horses will be stronger than others, some will be better balanced than others, and so on. And I have, and will continue to, tell people I won’t start their horse unless he is physically strong enough, and well enough prepared.

The above said, if you are reading this, you will probably (more or less) already agree with me, or else I suspect we would not have much in common. I also suspect that rather a lot of people (even those not reading this blog!) would in general agree that rushing the backing of a horse is a bad idea. Great….. but then how come it still happens so often that we see horses started in less time than it takes me to make and drink a nice cup of tea, and 3 year old dressage horses at competitions?

Money would be the first answer I would think of. Most people commercially producing horses this way are doing it for monetary gain. If they didn’t make money doing this, they would do something else.

Add on top of that systems are already being created to reward the rushing of youngsters. Three year old ridden stallion gradings. Four year old young horse classes. What else is this other than a system for people producing young horses to make money as quickly as they can? And don’t even get me started on the age that some young thoroughbreds are out racing.

But here’s the rub…. These systems only continue because people make money out of them. Its supply and demand – if there are consumers to buy a product, then there is someone who will sell that product. Doesn’t really matter what the product is, the result is the same the world over. So, if you don’t like it, stop being a consumer of it.

Were you thinking this doesn’t apply to you because anyway you’re not in a position to buy 3 year old stallion out of the stallion gradings? Well, OK, maybe you’re not, and maybe you wouldn’t anyway. But have you ever bought a young horse and asked the producer when they start their young horses, or done your research on the producer to see what exactly they do and how they do it? Perhaps you should.   Or if you have a young horse you want to send away for starting, or further training, have you actually gone and had a good chat with whomever you are paying for this service, to see what sort of practices they actually support?

Or even if you’re not in the market for a new horse, have you thought about sponsorship deals for the horsey products you buy? Why support a sponsor that in turn supports abusive practices? Or even the magazines you buy – if they are promoting practices that should quite rightly be called abuse and not training, why give your money to them?

By the way, buying a young horse from a producer more concerned with lining their pockets than the welfare and longevity of the horses they produce is not rescuing the horse. It is doing nothing more than continuing to promote and support a system that should come to an end. No better than buying a puppy from a puppy farmer – you might have helped that one puppy but you won’t have helped the many that will be bred after him.

And before you wonder what difference your little bit of purchasing power will make, consider this. When I was a teenager, ozone destroying CFC’s were commonly used, most cosmetics companies used products tested on animals and if you asked for vegetarian food at a restaurant you’d probably get a goats cheese salad, if you were lucky. These things have changed over the years because the consumer said they wanted something else. The power to make a change is in our hands. We should use it wisely.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

— Margaret Mead

A horse can be forced to accept many things but it doesn't mean he should be.
A horse can be forced to accept many things but it doesn’t mean he should be.

The Horse Will Teach You If You’ll Listen

Those of you that have been following my blogs will have noticed that I question things. A lot. At times this leads to my own special blend of insanity but mostly I tend to think that it serves me – and my horses – well, as I am always looking for better answers for us both.

But that’s not the same thing as being inconsistent and indecisive around my horses, or indeed when I teach. At the end of the day, while it is useful to challenge oneself to always want to find a better way to do things, at any given point in time, one can only work with what one has.   In other words, sometimes you need to just get on with it and try something, as the alternatives of procrastination and trying nothing seldom help.

But how to reconcile the questioning with the need to crack on and do something? Well, as you might have guessed, I have thought about this a lot. My thoughts go something like this.

I think the big thing is to look to the horse for feedback. Hardly rocket science, I hear you say. However, the catch of course is how you judge the feedback you get from your horse. In other words, what particular coloured spectacles are you looking at that behaviour through?

For example, I ask my mare for right lead canter and what I get is a lot of tail swishing followed by left lead canter. Why?

Was my mare:

  • Being belligerent (well, it is a mare, after all…..)?
  • Weak on her left hind and therefore finding it difficult to strike off on a right canter lead?
  • Naturally crooked to the left?
  • Sore in her back (when did that saddle last get checked?)?
  • Unbalanced at the particular moment in time I asked her to canter?
  • Telling me that she had ulcers?
  • Young and confused and not really clear on there being a different aid for right and left lead canter?
  • Unhappy in her mouth?

Was I:

  • Crooked in my pelvis (or elsewhere!) when I asked for canter?
  • Poor in my timing for when I asked for the canter?
  • Confusing my mare because her prior jockey had asked for canter using different aids to the ones I choose?
  • Using too much of my outside leg while asking for canter?

Should I:

  • Stop the mare immediately and ask again for right lead canter, this time on a small circle, so she “has no choice” but to do right lead canter?
  • Show her who’s boss and reprimand her for doing left lead canter then “make” her do right lead canter?
  • Let the mare canter on a bit and see if she will put a change in herself?
  • Let the mare canter up the long side then ask for a quiet downward transition before the next corner and try again?
  • Pop over a little cross-pole that was anyway set up in the school and hope we land on the right lead.
  • When asking for canter right again, do so from a haunches in or a shoulder in position?
  • Change rein, to then be able to do half 10 metre circle to the right, and then move diagonally to the fence, asking the horse for the canter right position as I come off the half circle onto the diagonal?
  • Touch the horse with the whip on his left haunch next time I ask for left lead canter?
  • Touch the horse with the whip on his right shoulder next time I ask for left lead canter?
  • Trot over the little cross pole I have set up and push on with a plan to land in right lead canter?
  • Ensure that when I then get right lead canter, we carry on a bit in canter so that the horse knows that’s what I wanted?
  • Ensure that when I get right lead canter, I then click and treat, so that the horse knows that’s what I wanted?
  • Change the bit?
  • Leave cantering for a while and go back to doing exercises in walk and trot to build up her strength and straightness?
  • Go do some other exercises to see if the tail swishing is specific to asking for canter right or if it happens in other situations?
  • Go back to ground work and practicing right lead canter while lunging?
  • Finish up riding for the day, she’s probably just muscle sore from cross country practice yesterday and could do with a day off?
  • Call the vet/ physiotherapist/ chiropractor/ farrier/ saddler?

Or as Freud might say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe she’s just tired and she’ll be just fine tomorrow so I shouldn’t over-analyse this time?

OMG, suddenly this has just got even more complex than rocket science! I asked my mare to do something and she did something that wasn’t what I had in mind and seemed grumpy about so doing (yes, by the way, I do count tail swishing as a sign that the horse isn’t happy about something, and no, it’s not normal ridden behaviour – at least not in my world). So was that a training issue, a balance issue, a physical issue, a communication issue, etc? Or am I just a bad rider (I’m sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen to Monsieur….)?!

Well, I could probably spend a lot of time procrastinating about this predicament.   There are doubtless internet forums that I could go to where people that have never seen me or my horse would be able to diagnose unequivocally what it is that I must do. However, when I’m up there in left lead canter when I want to be in right lead canter, that’s just no good (especially if my horse is young and we won’t survive well cantering around a corner in an unbalanced counter canter)…. For better or worse I must do something. So how to decide what to do?

For me, it really helps to already know the horse you are working with, or to at least have done a few other things with it before you start cantering around. So, for any horse I work with, I would want to quickly assess a few key points about it, such as what it’s natural crookedness is, how well it does (or doesn’t) cope with any loss of balance, how easily it accepts responding to my aids, it’s level of pre-existing education and its general disposition (is it a horse that worries about life/ is it pretty secure in its own skin, etc). These things will then all inform what my next step would be.

So, if I know the horse has a natural crookedness, then following the theory of occam’s razor (the obvious thing is probably the right thing), probably I got left lead because of the mare’s natural crookedness. So I would then quietly bring the mare back down to walk or trot and ask again, but this time from a position where I am putting her balance in the necessary position to favour the canter right strike off. If I’ve tried that a few times and have had no joy, I might then think about whether the crookedness is deeply ingrained, and probably also coupled with weakness, I may well go back to supping exercises in walk and trot for a bit.

Alternatively, if the horse is just young and uncoordinated, I might accept a little bit of canter on the “wrong” lead on the straight side of the school before going back to trot and then try again, this time again putting the horse in a better balance to get the right lead canter (e.g. coming off a half circle to change the rein and shifting the weight by going from the half circle to a short diagonal to the outside of the school). If the young horse is really very green, and probably weak, I’d think about whether we just need to go and hack for a bit (to build up strength in straight lines) or perhaps have someone help me on the ground by lunging the horse in canter with me on board.

On the other hand, if the horse is already well educated, I’d probably more immediately go back to trot or walk and ask again. If I still don’t get it, and I’m on a horse that doesn’t normally have a problem with it, then I’d be thinking more along the lines of whether there is a soreness somewhere I need to address.

I could go on…… but the point is, there isn’t necessarily a single “right” answer for every situation. However, what you need to do is try and work through the different possible solutions to a problem in a way that is ideally helpful, but at least not harmful, both to your horse’s education and your horse’s body.

One of my particularly ingrained beliefs is that horses are social creatures that generally just want to get along with us (and if a horse doesn’t fit that description then probably a person screwed that up for them at some point and so it’s my job to find a way for the horse to feel able to go back to being a social creature that wants to get along with us). So, I see everything to do with horses through those particular coloured spectacles. I don’t ever see a horse not doing as I asked as pure belligerence/ malice/ naughtiness, etc……. I see it as a lack of understanding/ balance/ communication/ bravery/ training, etc, or as a response to pain/ fear.

This point of view actually then makes things a lot clearer for me when deciding how to go about rectifying issues. So then when thinking through how I deal with a problem, I have a mental checklist to ask myself:

  • Whether the horse understands what I’m asking of him? (am I asking him right/ have I correctly assessed his pre-existing education/ have I ensured that my training has built things up in small enough increments that I have given my horse the ability to understand what I’m asking of him/ do I need to do something to help my horse understand what I am asking of him, etc).
  • Whether the horse is physically able to give me what I’m asking of him? (i.e. is he crooked, is he sore, etc).
  • Whether the horse is mentally able to give me what I’m asking of him? (is he scared/ lacking confidence/ distracted, etc).
  • Whether, given all of the above, I am being reasonable in my request (if not maybe I need to go back a few steps in the learning process for the horse) and, if so, whether I am asking him in the best possible way? (and “best” in this context can be interpreted as anything from tactful to blunt, depending on the needs of the situation).

So, OK, I’ve assessed the situation and done as I think best given all the above. Then what? What if what I thought best in fact doesn’t work best? Maybe it didn’t really work at all? Maybe it worked OK but something else would have worked better? How do I know? That’s the real brain teaser, eh?

That’s where, quite frankly, informed trial and error comes into it. You have to try something and see if it works (and if in doubt I might be tempted to try a more “mild” solution first – I’m not going to call the vet the first time I get a wrong canter lead any more than I would go straight to using a stick on a horse). Then you probably also have to think about whether next time you therefore try that same thing or whether you try something different.   All you can then really do is make a decision on whether what you are doing with your horse is making the situation better or worse. In truth, it actually really is that crude. I believe that is what they call “judgement”, and of course one aspires to acquire “good judgment” – though I am reminded of the saying by Ray Hunt that good judgement comes from living through bad judgement!

And here we come full circle. We must try something and look to the horse to see if it worked. We can ask other people for help along the way, and indeed we should do that, and fundamentally what you will be doing is acquiring new and (hopefully) improved tools for interpreting your horse’s actions and finding ways to change/ improve them. However, two different trainers can tell you two different things and still both be potentially “right”, just as surely as a trainer can tell you something that probably isn’t that great at all. It is then for you, as the horse’s guardian, to take a judgement call on what it is that you are being told and which thing best suits your particular horse at that particular time. It is therefore the horse’s expert judgement – and critique – that you must learn to follow if you ever hope to be a good rider.

The horse will teach you if you’ll listen – Ray Hunt

I listen to Fin a Lot.....
I listen to Fin a Lot…..

What If I Were To Tell You……. Everything You Thought You Knew Was a Lie?

The thing about trying to find my own personal Holy Grail of horse riding is that I have had to somehow filter through a lot of information and experiences and decide if they are leading me towards my goal or away from it. I’ve spent a lot of time doing this. I don’t pretend to have found my Holy Grail yet but for sure I’ve come across a lot of false leads along the way.

The problem, of course, is how to decide whether the path you are on is taking you towards your Holy Grail, or away from it? (especially when you’re still not even entirely sure what your Holy Grail looks like….).

If you’ve been following my blog so far, you’ll have noticed that I spend a lot of time thinking about people’s belief systems and how these affect what information people will and won’t accept into their learning. But what happens when we come to question our beliefs? What if everything you thought you knew about horse riding was a lie?

Such a breaking down and rebuilding of belief systems seems to have happened to me now so many times that my belief system is that I don’t even have a fixed belief system about most things – I see what I think I know at any given moment as a working hypothesis, nothing more and nothing less.

For example, years ago I used to think that side reins were necessary for a horse to find his balance and a “good” way of going/ teach acceptance of the bit.   This is what I was taught and it was how things were done and who would I be to question that?   As my learning progressed, I started to see how side reins in fact often taught the horse to either tuck behind the bit or to lean on it, I saw how they taught the horse to offer a fixed head carriage, I saw how in fact it was easy for a horse to catch himself in the mouth with the side reins (worse in a pessoa, when almost every movement of the hind legs caught the horse in the mouth)… and so on – I saw things that I simply never saw before because I was taught not to see them.   More importantly, I started to also see, and search for, viable alternatives to side reins, so that I felt able to train without them.

Having then later done a lot of natural horsemanship style training, I also thought that “bending a horse to a stop” was a good idea and that young horses ought to be taught this so that you have emergency brakes available to you from day one of ridden work. This worked well for me for quite some time, so the belief got quite engrained. However, I then came across a young horse whose balance was so very important to her that she couldn’t tolerate this, and she let me know that in quite an explosive way. Well perhaps I just hadn’t used the technique properly? Maybe…. But then maybe that technique just wasn’t right for her? Fortunately I decided to accept the young mare’s feedback and she was perfectly happy to stop for me if I just asked her to while allowing her to maintain her balance.

Being the tenacious sort of a person that I am, I also thought it was pretty imperative to always make your point and get what you want from your horse when you wanted it (not necessarily by being rough, but I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that you shouldn’t quit on a bad note?). Well, OK, but does that mean that 2 hours later you should still be in the school trying to make your point when the horse has long since mentally left? Or, do you persevere with a young horse until he is accepting what you are doing up there? Do you know what, nowadays I tend to think that sometimes it is just better to get out while you’re all alive and tomorrow is another day. In particular, that same young mare taught me that some days are just not your day ….. if things are just getting worse, well, better to stop before they get worse still and start afresh tomorrow. Then, the real test becomes whether – on a longer timescale – things are overall getting better…. If they are, then so what if a few days in between really don’t go your way?

Shoes are another very good example. For years, like most people, I shod my horses. Well, that’s just what you do, isn’t it? Then one day I ended up using a farrier who told me my horses actually have good feet and perhaps I might like to see if they would be OK without shoes? I was somewhat taken aback. Was he mad? I pay him to shoe my horses! How can I hack on the roads without shoes on?! Roll on 7 years or so and all my horses are barefoot and indeed I event barefoot. I’m not part of the barefoot taliban and if I have a horse that struggles too much without shoes, they get shod, but if I can manage them barefoot, that is my preference.

I could go on…. There are just so many examples of things that I “thought” I knew that turned out to be not necessarily right – or at least not right for every horse.

The result of all this has been that I now have an ongoing dialogue in my mind to analyse and assess whether what I am doing with my horses at any given point in time is in fact the best way of doing things – or at least the best way available to me at that particular time. I have to be very careful not to let this creep over into overwhelming self doubt or some sort of paralysis by analysis and I temper this self analysis with the knowledge that learning comes from getting things wrong as much as it comes from getting things right.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?) this need to analyse then spills over into my raising questions of any trainer that I then work with. This probably quite substantially limits the number of trainers that can tolerate working with me. It is not enough for them to tell me to do something, I want to understand why I am doing it, and if the answer I get is lacking in depth then I’m just not interested. You might say I have trust issues with trainers and I suppose really I do, though I don’t mean it in a personal way, it’s just that over the years I’ve believed so many things that I then started to “unbelieve”, how do I ever know that the thing I am asked to believe now won’t be “unbelieved” in time to come? Conversely, when I give lessons, I fully expect my student to want to understand what I am asking them to do and why.

Some of my friends who knew that I had applied for the Philippe Karl teacher training course did, therefore, rather wonder how he – or I – would get on! To my delight, though, Monsieur Karl is quite happy to take questions, and indeed he has many theory evenings throughout the course where questions are invited. It seems to me that Monsieur has a similarly enquiring mind, and while I’d be surprised if he lives in the same state of borderline overpowering self doubt that I do, he has certainly taken all the training he has ever had and questioned it, researched the work of the Old Masters and, through working with countless horses, then come to his own conclusions. To be fair, though, Monsieur has a few years on me – hopefully by the time I get to his age, I’ll have a few more things figured out – though equally I hope I never lose quite so much self doubt that I stop looking for better answers.

It seems, though, that all too often in our society – and particularly in the horse world – questions that should be asked are not asked. Riders are taught that their horse is being naughty if he isn’t giving the rider what he wants; the rider must “win” and “show the horse who is boss”. Crank nosebands/ strong bits/ draw reins are now so common that they are barely thought of as even being remedial, they are just standard practice. Tail swishing, grinding teeth, tight backs and hind legs failing to move well are just par for the course, nothing to be concerned about.

I saw a young rider post a picture on Facebook the other day, of her trotting a lovely young horse. The picture got lots of comments about how nice the pair looked. All I could see was a horse that was over-bent, in a heavy contact, it’s mouth trying to open even despite the tight flash noseband, its hind legs desperately under-tracking, the front leg landing before the hind leg, spurs dug in to the horse’s sides and the tail in mid-swish. But, just as I have in the past been blind to so many things, this young rider was blind to all these things – and why wouldn’t she be, her trainers are telling her that she is making a nice picture. The young rider is a sweet girl and loves her horse.

Perhaps one day, too, that young rider will go looking for some different answers? But what makes a person do that? Does a horse lover know at some level that using stronger bits and bigger spurs just doesn’t really “feel” right? Or when the horse stops wanting to go down to the school with them, or he starts “playing up” as soon as he is mounted, does the rider think that perhaps they might have had a part in that, or is the horse just being “naughty”? Or will the horse just quietly endure his lot while the rider goes and wins some rosettes, until the horse’s body breaks down and he is eventually signed off lame?

Something that always inspires me at the Philippe Karl clinics is when a new rider comes for a lesson with one of the trainee instructors and often the first thing that happens is that the rider is shown a new way of using his hands and given clear instruction that the hands and the legs are never to be used in opposition. The new rider had probably never before considered that they were, in fact, using their hands and their legs in opposition – after all, aren’t you supposed to “push the horse up into the bridle”? They would have never before thought that by using the hand and the leg at the same time, in effect you are asking the horse to disobey one or the other (even though maybe at best they might have wondered why they were having to use more hand and then more leg, in ever increasing quantities). You see the rider at that point become a bit internally troubled – has everything their prior training system taught them been a lie? Can they really accept that, and have to change their belief systems and consider a new way of training? Or is PK some sort of dangerous minority cult extremist to be avoided in the future?

I don’t know all the answers. I’m not sure I’d even trust anyone that ever claimed to have all the answers. But I have a lot of questions, and that’s a good start.

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

– George Bernard Shaw

I think I will always be that little child that asks "but why....."
I think I will always be that little child that asks “but why…..”

Feel the Fear and DO IT Anyway

If we’re really honest, most of us have, at some point, been scared up there on a horse. OK, maybe not so much if you’re a young lad in their teens/ early 20’s and still believe yourself to be invincible but that’s normally only because they haven’t yet hurt themselves badly enough.

Riding is, after all, a risk sport. As the saying goes, “if you work with horses, it’s not a question of if you’ll get hurt, it’s just when and how badly”. I think that, fundamentally, if you can’t accept that, then riding probably isn’t the sport for you.  Us horse riders are a funny bunch.

That said, clearly there are different risks to different situations – jumping on an unbacked sports horse or going Point to Pointing are generally regarded as being in a higher risk category than going for a nice little ride on a twenty-something been there, done it, got the T-shirt cob. So, clearly, there is already a lot of scope for riders to match their risk appetite to the sort of horse they choose to ride and the activities they then choose to do with that horse. We find the sort of horse and the sort of activity we like and we will generally then stay within that comfort zone – and each person’s comfort zone will be different.

So, far so good. But what happens if we want to expand our comfort zones and start doing something more risky. Or something happens and all of a sudden our comfort zone is smashed and we find ourselves bloodied and broken on the floor?

Well, this happened to me last year and only really now am I feeling sufficiently past it to tell the tale and hope that some of what I’ve learned may help others.

A lot of my friends seem to regard me as a brave rider (more on that later – be careful who you compare yourself to!). I guess I am fairly game. I’ve ridden since I was a child and spent many years feeling pretty invincible and being one of the kids at the yard that got chucked on a lot of new horses. I’ve also had a fair few significant falls in my time, including a full rotational fall out hunting, falling thanks to a dog under my horses’ feet and cracking my head open on the road (I know, I know – the last time I went out hacking without a helmet), busting a hip out eventing, not to mention the obligatory broken ribs, etc. However, amazingly until 2013 I never really had a fall that bothered me quite so massively. In fact slightly the opposite – oddly enough when I cracked my head open I had a strange sense of euphoria at not having died! Same after I regained consciousness following my rotational fall.

My fall in 2013 was different, though. I was backing a young horse and really thought I had prepared her well and indeed I generally really enjoy starting young horses albeit I feel very keenly the responsibility of starting a young horse’s ridden education. I could get on and off her, move around up there, etc. However, what I hadn’t bargained for was how worried she would then become when she was first asked to walk and have my balance affect hers in motion. I felt her back go up and my unfortunate reaction was to push her on forwards. Bad move. The broncs continued to escalate, as did the speed and it became clear that the situation was beyond recovery so it was all I could do to look for a place to land that didn’t seem to be on the school fence. As I landed (badly), I was then vaguely aware of the horse then continuing to gallop in laps around the school and being thankful that she had the good grace not to do me any more damage until Trev managed to catch her for me. I know now that with this horse that forward was not my friend. I should have stopped and rubbed her until she regained her composure. Hindsight is not a great gift when you are reeling on the floor.

The difference with this fall was in part that it really hurt (shoulder dislocation being the main injury) but actually I think the main reason was psychological. I just didn’t see it coming. I probably should have.   I have never (and hope never again) to be the reason for such a violent reaction in a horse. I was mortified. Not only was my judgement so wrong but now I’d gone and given the horse a bad start and scared her all the more by coming off. I had failed.

To say that my confidence was dented was an understatement.

At that stage, even if I was mentally ready to get back on that horse, physically I couldn’t – at least until I was sufficiently sure my arm would remain in its socket. However, I wanted to repair the mistake I had made with my mare as soon as I could so I found a competent, lovely young jockey to help me (the aforementioned type of young lad in his 20’s who still believed he was invincible), while I provided ground control.   I was (and am) very grateful for his help but I’ll admit that it did nothing for repairing my bond with her. I sat on her a bit myself also but it was more an exercise in self-control on my part to do so than anything else.

As fate had it, though, our work with the mare in 2013 was cut short by a terrible accident. Some unexpected daytime fireworks let off by someone in a neighbouring field left my mare careering through several layers of fencing and galloping up the lane. Fortunately she was apprehended by some good neighbours. However, her injuries required many stitches and a long period of box rest.

2013 also wasn’t a great year for me for other reasons. In particular my other mare, then a 5yo, was bucking a lot under saddle, which, many vets bills later, was found to be as a result of bilateral hind leg PSD. Later that year I started looking for another horse. I wanted something I could crack on and event so spent a lot of time looking at 5 and 6yo’s who had already been with a variety of different pro’s. When you’re already feeling a bit shaky, I can assure you there is nothing worse for you than going and riding event horses ridden by full on pro’s (or, for that matter, horses that bronc on landing…). I’m a competent rider but I’m no Mary King. To top it all off, I also had a couple of crashing falls out eventing.

2013 was not a good year for me.

Roll on 2014 and it was time to restart my mare. I had a choice. I could have my invincible young lad jockey for me again or I could cowboy up and get back on the horse. I chose to cowboy up (or, as Trev calls it, MTFU – Man…. Up). That’s where it starts, with a choice.

Unfortunately, somewhere between the accident, the prolonged box rest and the time off, my mare had gone right back to square one in terms of accepting anyone up there on her back again. So, Trev ran ground control for me and I jockeyed. We took it really slow. Glacial. We’ve had a few set- backs along the way with saddle issues, etc. and she’s still a long way from being the finished article but we’re definitely back on track. The point is, though, that she and I have done it together – and I think it’s done as much to mend her as it has me.

I did, though, have a good amount of help along the way. Living with a counsellor certainly has its perks. These are the things that really got me through:

  • I understand that some fears are there for a reason and of course there is a line somewhere between bravery and stupidity. However, so long as you know something is within your skills set, life is too short to let your fears hold you back. Feel the fear and do it anyway (which, by the way, is a very good book that I would highly recommend reading for a pep talk).
  • Knowing that at some point, most people, even the likes of Mark Todd, have lost their nerve. It happens. It’s what you do about it that then matters.
  • Having a really good horse who reminds you that actually you can still ride! Fin, as ever, is an angel in white fur for me, for this.
  • Push your comfort zone, but don’t feel you have to actually break through it all the time. Sometimes we need to live in our comfort zone a bit before we can build up the brave to come out again. Just make sure you know that’s what you’re doing.
  • Find things that you are good at with your horse and focus on doing them well. Set yourself up to succeed! (we use that phrase for horse training but it applies equally for training yourself).
  • Be careful who you spend your time with. Spending it with 4* eventers who you can’t help but feel look at you with a certain sense of dismissal is not a good plan. Find the ones who help you feel brave again – the good ones will know what to do, even if there is an unspoken understanding that you don’t admit to each other you lost your nerve.
  • Look at what else is going on in your life. A loss of confidence rarely happens in isolation. Have a think about what else you need to work on to get where you want to.
  • Think about what it is you want, rather than what it is that you don’t want. So rather than sit there thinking “don’t buck”… think about the footfalls of the walk. Count them in your head and let your body move with them.
  • Having a really good horse who reminds you that actually you can still ride! Fin, as ever, is an angel in white fur for me, for this.   Did I already mention that? Good, it’s probably one of the most important things. Buffy (who I then bought in 2014) has also exceeded my expectations for how genuine and generous she has been. That helps.
  • In the meantime, until you get your mojo back, there is quite a lot that can be done to “fake it ‘til you make it”.   When we’re scared, there are a lot of physical symptoms that come through. If we can overcome them, that’s half the battle.

So,

  • Don’t get tense (since when did that ever help when we sit on a horse anyway, but of course we all still do it…. Unless we make a point of having a regular mental practice not to – run down each muscle group, head to foot, and tell those muscles to relax!);
  • Keep “soft eyes” (so use your peripheral vision – don’t go tunnel vision, that never helped anyone and it’s what we do when we’re nervous);
  • Keep your breathing regular and relaxed, and from your belly.
  • Oddly enough, licking your lips slowly can also really help; when we’re nervous, often our lips go dry – licking them can counteract our body’s tendencies to show physical symptoms of nerves as well as relaxing your jaw.

Last but not least – give yourself a pat. Remember – someone that is out there trying is already way ahead of someone who simply leaves their wishes in their dreams. If you don’t get scared every once in a while, how can you practice being brave?

You can't practice being brave if you're fearless...
You can’t practice being brave if you’re fearless…

Herd Dynamics – The Life of Brian

Brian is a special horse. He is a Friesian and was purchased by Trev (my other half) as a rather scrawny and malnourished 4 year old; nearly 7 years on he is now a beautiful big lad, built like a brick outhouse!

Brian isn’t like most other horses, for many reasons. How many horses do you know that will go out hunting and decide to amble along quietly, letting the rest of the field go totally out of sight because he didn’t really feel like galloping as it was a bit muddy? Yes, very special.

However, what is truly special about Brian is the way that he manages the herd for us. He really is worth his (rather ample) weight in gold for how well he does that job.

You see, Brian likes a quiet life. He likes mooching around the field, or standing around the big round bales of hay, quietly contemplating his rather contented situation. He also likes chilling out in the field shelter when it’s hot, with one or more of his friends hanging around, swishing flies from each other’s faces. He really doesn’t ask for much, although he’s equally happy to entertain Trev out for one of their nice little hacks, when it’s asked of him. However, for Brian to continue to enjoy such a quiet life, he needs the rest of his herd to be similarly quiet. So, while I’m not convinced that Brian ever put himself forward for any leadership roles, his insistence on everyone in the herd minding their manners and enabling him to continue his nice quiet life has in effect made him top horse in the herd.

I spend a lot of time watching our little herd of 6. I mean a lot. Trev is forever coming and telling me that I’m “staring again” and we’re late for something. Again. Or sometimes he’ll just take pity on me and bring me coffee instead.   However, my staring has taught me a lot about the dynamics of our little herd.

So long as it doesn’t get in the way of what he was doing (eating or dozing, mostly), Brian will sometimes ignore it if any of the other herd have a scrap over something, but if it appears to be in danger of interrupting Brian’s need for calm, Brian will tell them such behaviour is not wanted.   This telling can be a lift of the head and a *face* and if he is not well heeded then he’ll go over to the other horses – shoulder leading – and shoo them away. If they have the audacity not to go away promptly enough then he’ll turn his hind end and threaten to kick, although in all the years I’ve known Brian, he’s actually only ever laid a hoof on one horse, and then only enough to cause a small bruise (the other horse in question did, unfortunately, need to learn a few life lessons).

Whenever we get a new horse in that will be staying for a while and which we therefore want to introduce into our herd, they are always turned out first with Brian (after some time in a field next to him, of course, to get to know him a bit).   So long as the new horse respects Brian’s need for peace and quiet, all goes pretty smoothly. If the new horse is a bit pushy, Brian explains that if that’s how they’re going to be then they can be like that somewhere else. Away from him. He uses his trademark “shoulder offence” toward any pushy horse and if needs must will show them his hind end.   Without fail, they always get the message, though Brian really isn’t energetic enough to want to be doing any more than he has to and so nothing ever really comes to blows.

Once the new horse is well established with Brian, we’ll start to let other herd members go in with them. Normally things are happily uneventful by this stage. However, if there’s any trouble, Brian ostracises the offending new horse from the rest of the group; “If that’s how you’re going to be, be like that away from me and my herd. I like it quiet.” The offending horse can return once it has decided that quiet is a better option.

When it’s time for Brian’s humans to serve him and his herd dinner, they hang around the yard gate, in a large hard standing area we have. Any new horses, not yet ready to be fed in the group, are taken out and stabled for feeding, and any horses needing extras in their food are stabled for feeding to make sure they eat what they’re given. Otherwise, they all have the same food and it gets dished out in their bowls in the hard standing area. Brian, naturally, has his bowl first. Next in line is his 2nd lieutenant – Fin.   Closely followed by the mares and then last but not least the baby (a 2yo, orphaned from birth).

You’d probably have rightly assumed that the baby is at the bottom of the pecking order. Certainly that’s right to the extent that she’s not about to be pushing any of the other horses around any time soon. However, what does very regularly happen at dinner time is that baby shares Brian’s bowl with him. Naturally Brian starts first but then provided she isn’t rude about how she asks, Brian will generally let her share. A step toward Baby, with Brian’s shoulder leading, soon puts her straight if she thinks she’s going to be pushy about the whole situation. In fact, if truth be told, I rather suspect Baby thinks it’s a very good game to see how she can get to share Brian’s food. Baby is also allowed to share with one of the other strong mares in the group, Doris, though is less often seen sharing with any of the others.

Brian and Fin will also often share a food bowl (that is, it’s Brian’s food bowl and he allows Fin to share). Likewise Brian will share with Doris and also with another mare, Ritzy. Brian is actually surprisingly generous with his food (provided that we haven’t inadvertently been too slow in putting hay out when the grass is eaten down, leaving Brian feeling a bit too hungry to want to share!).

Brian is, though, probably the least brave of all our horses in terms of tolerating outside stimuli. When out hacking, he prefers if he and Trev go behind whatever horse I’m riding. He’ll be brave and go first if needs be, like if I’m on a youngster needing some help, but really it’s all a bit much effort and he prefers to mooch along behind.   He’s also hardly the first to work out new food situations, like putting a round bale of hay out in a new spot in the woods. So, as I say, I’m not all that convinced Brian is what you might call a traditional leader. However, he certainly does an outstanding job of keeping order in the herd for us.

If you stand and stare at our herd for as long as I often do, you’ll also notice that the “pecking order” is not lineal. It’s more a web of interaction. For example, Doris and Buffy – both very strong mares in the herd and who at first therefore clashed – have become very good mates and will often seek each other out for companionship and mutual grooming. However, if Doris wants Buffy to move out of the way, Buffy moves. Ritzy and Buffy haven’t really bonded, but they generally respect Brian’s wish for quiet in the herd. Buffy can move Ritzy around and Ritzy gets out of the way. However, Ritzy can move Doris around.

Trev and I often have the pleasure of chilling out in the woods by one of our fields, sitting with a small campfire and having a glass of wine. The horses will very often just come by with us and stand and chill. I used to worry about how safe that was, and I do still keep an eye that Baby in particular isn’t going to get pushed onto us by any of the rest of the herd. However, what I have learned is that the horses do in fact take pleasure in hanging around their humans – perhaps enjoying a little rub, or perhaps just standing in quiet company. They all know not to tread on their humans. It’s amazing what trust and intelligence a horse will display, when given the chance.

So what’s to learn from all of these musings? A lot, I think.

Sadly nowadays in the UK it is quite unusual for horses to live in such a herd such as Brian’s.   I can understand the reasons for this, not the least of which being the risk of injury, but in all the time Brian has looked after his herd, our injuries have been limited to the occasional bruising from a kick or bite, nothing worse. However, for me, the benefits of herd life in terms of the mental stability it offers the horses is worth the risk. And the sheer joy of being able to sit or stand within the herd and chill, you enjoying their company and them enjoying yours, is a treat and a therapy unlike no other.

There’s more, though. How often do you hear theories about how people think a horse operates within a herd, given as reason for how we need to behave with our horses? A very good idea, in my mind, except that somehow a lot of people have been sold the idea that we need to behave as the “Alpha” with our horses, as that’s the herd boss that tells all the others what to do ….. this word “Alpha”, in reality, generally being little more than an excuse for being a bully.

Now don’t get me wrong, Brian makes his point when he needs to. But he’s no bully. The other horses seriously enjoy being around him. They don’t move away from him as soon as he moves towards them, they can identify the times he wants them to move from the times he’s just coming by or perhaps he wants companionship. He has an air about him within the herd of just a nice, calm presence. He mutual grooms with all of the herd members at different times and he shares his food with most of them. You’ll often find 3 or 4 of the herd in with Brian in the field shelter, keeping away from flies and dozing in the summer. Oh, and when Fin gets wet (which he hates), he’ll rub all over Brian to try and dry off. These are not the actions of an “Alpha”, as most people use the term.

So Brian is not only invaluable to me as someone to make sure our little herd functions well, he is also my role model. If I must, I’ll make my point, but actually I’d much rather concentrate on being something that my horses just want to be around and co-operate with, and I’ll happily mutual groom with them and share food with them.     Life is just all a lot easier if things are done in quiet and calm understanding. Thank you, Brian.

Oh, and with a Blog title like this, I just couldn’t resist a quote from the Python crew:

Brian: I am NOT the Messiah!

Arthur: I say you are Lord, and I should know. I’ve followed a few.

Brian likes a quiet life.
Brian likes a quiet life.

My First Clinic with Philippe Karl

Well I got back late last night from my first riding clinic with PK and what can I say!? Wow! My head is still spinning…. and Buffy was Awesome!

But the question, of course, is did I find the Holy Grail at the clinic? Well, I think perhaps it’s too early days for that. There is a lot to do yet! However, I do feel like someone has just shone a light on the route to base camp!

Having been a “listener” on the first UK teacher training course, I’ve spent the last 3 years studying PK’s work. PK’s passion to educate riders to train horses in a better way is nothing short of inspirational. As well as teaching the riders (trainee PK teachers) on his teacher training course on their own horses, he gives theory lectures and also there are “guest riders” who come on and are given a lesson by the trainee PK teacher, under the close supervision of PK. On many days he’ll start at 8am and carry on until not far short of 8pm. Truly, there is a lot to learn and PK’s wish to educate is clear.

However, if my first riding clinic with PK has shone a light on the route to base camp, what has also become crystal clear to me is the difference between knowledge and understanding. As Albert Einstein so rightly said:

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

In the last 3 years, I have come to know a lot. PK is clearly not just a great horseman but he is also a gentlemen of very high education. He has in particular studied all the great Old Masters that history has to offer and he has taken a lot from their work (what he believes to be the good bits!). He also has an excellent understanding of biomechanics. This knowledge is all backed up by many years of experience, schooling horses to the highest level. PK is very generous with his knowledge and, as I say, I have learnt a lot.

It’s amazing, though, isn’t it? – you think you know something and then you then look to take that to the next level and realise there are holes in your knowledge that first need plugging….. and that of course it’s not just about “knowing” where to put your hands or your legs, etc – its understanding why you are doing what you are doing. Only with that understanding can you then truly own that knowledge, and apply it appropriately.

For example, one of the key principles of PK’s work is that he wants the horse to give his mouth – so basically lightly mouthing the bit in a relaxed manner. Indeed, his point is that the lightness in the reins should be the lightness the horse gives you through gently mouthing the bit (rather than dropping behind it!). To achieve this, PK will often initially ask the horse to work in a higher head position, with an open poll, and the rider having raised hands, using the reins in the corner of the horse’s mouth, to instigate a light mouthing of the bit. When I first watched the course, I couldn’t quite get my head around this – I could see that riders were encouraged to take a high hand position and use the reins in the corner of the horse’s mouth (rather than on the more sensitive tongue or, worse still, the bars of the mouth), but I couldn’t see why they would hold the position for any length of time. Now I understand they were just waiting for the mouth to give and then could move on to the next steps of flexing the horse’s neck laterally and then later flexing the poll. PK has a clear number of steps leading to having the horse give at the poll – he doesn’t want the horse to start flexing the poll simply when you pick up the reins – for many reasons, not least because then the horse will often then just give at the poll rather than in the mouth. By the way, have you ever clenched your jaw? Try it. Then think about what happens to the muscles in your neck and back.

What I love in particular about now being on PK’s teacher training course is that I truly believe that PK has a clear path to taking all the necessary steps to get from where I am, right up to the high school work. What he is teaching us now will stand us in good stead in 3, 5 or even 10 year’s time. No holes.

I have used an entire notebook during the course of not just my own 4 day riding clinic, but then staying on for an extra couple of days to watch the original UK trainee teachers carry on their work – and in particular their exams. I’ll be writing up those notes and for those interested in the more technical aspects will be producing a series of more detailed training articles (did I mention I was a study geek?).

I must here say a big thank you to those original trainee teachers as they have very graciously allowed me (and everyone else watching) to learn from their mistakes. It’s not been easy for them. I’ll try not to make the same mistakes – though I don’t doubt I’ll make plenty of new ones!  One of the trainee teachers successfully completed the last of her exams (well done Catherine!!) and became the first licenced UK teacher for PK’s school, though other students were not so successful with their exams.

From my point of view, watching the exams, I am in the lucky position of being able to learn as much from the failures as the successes – possibly even more from the failures. However, it did get me back to thinking about my own fear of failure! As well as realising that I just need to man up about my fears, I did get to thinking about something else, though, and this has cheered me up a lot. You see, one of the things about having a big fear of failure, but yet actually having successfully completed a lot of exams in your life (as I fortunately have) is that you get pretty good at doing exams, and studying for those exams. If there is something I know how to do particularly well (in addition to riding, of course!), it’s how to study!   So perhaps, as I have done with so many exams before, I can turn my fear into something positive.

So, I’ll be taking my notebook full of manuscript notes and writing them up in detail on my computer. I’ll be reading the texts from the Old Masters (taking into account PK’s well made comments during his lectures that one was be mindful of certain difficulties of translation of some of these texts – not all the Old Masters wrote in English, after all!). I’ll be furthering my studies of biomechanics. I’ll also be attending as many other clinics as I can to still keep watching the original group of UK teacher trainers continue their work. Above all, though, I’ll be practicing the list of homework that PK has given me as if PK were still there watching me, to make sure that I come to a full understanding of that work, ready for the next clinic!!

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think”. Socrates.

I think the Holy Grail of Horsemanship might just look a lot like this.
I think the Holy Grail of Horsemanship might just look a lot like this.