Once upon a time the weather was lovely. By this, I mean last weekend, when I was massaging people and horses outdoors (well the people were in a tent) and we all had t-shirts on. This weekend we have had to cancel a clinic due to the hideousness of the wind and rain. Winter is coming, and for those of us who live on the side of a Tor, 1300 feet above sea level, this can be a bit of a challenge horse wise.
However, even if you don’t live in such an extreme landscape with it’s accompanying climate, the onset of bad weather can fill all horse owners with dread. Here we go again; plastic bags in wellies to keep out the wet (oh hang, Small ate my wellies, so I don’t own any); foot abscesses (already got duct tape and pads on one set of feet); wet tack; no daylight; huge haylage bills; and usually, less riding. Blurggh. So, how are we going to keep our spirits up? Here are some ideas...
Spend time with your horse doing nothing! We tend to be so busy and always ‘doing’ (even grooming is usually done in the spirit of a job) that we forget how mellow horses actually are and how much they like to just do nothing together. You could listen to a radio play together or literally just hang the f*** out.
Do some reading about horses! When you can’t ride then you have more time to pour over those books you bought and haven’t opened. I’ve been commissioned to write a book (advance already spent on ponies, no writing done so far...) so am doing a tonne of research, and there is a world of wonderfulness out there to be had. I’ll do another blog about some books you might enjoy at a later date.
Learn about how your horses body works. Spend some time with a book in one hand and your other hand on your horse to get to grips with where those muscles actually are, and what they feel like. Feel up other people’s horses if they’ll let you, a very fit horse will feel very different from a retired horse, a draught horse will have a different tone to his muscles than a TB.
Get your basic handling to the level of art form. Make your leading something people would pay to watch. Make picking up your horse’s feet a thing of wonder. Get totally in tune with your horse’s diagonal pairs in a back up of silk. I’ll be running an on-line course about some of this stuff over the winter so look out for that.
Do something off your horse which will help you and your horse when you get back in the saddle. Join a yoga or Pilates class. Practice some meditation. Get a massage. Go out with your friends and laugh until you cry/wet yourself (depending on age).
Do an online course! I never thought I would get much from virtual learning, but I joined Karen Rolfe’s on-line classroom for a few months and got tonnes from it. There are lots of people sharing incredible information at a not huge prices. We’re in an incredible age of information sharing, lap it up! Go to some demonstrations or watch some masterclasses. Even if it’s not someone you would usually be drawn to, you’ll almost always learn something.
*Sleep. Lie down. Drink wine. Sleep. If you have any other ideas about what we can all do to keep our morale up when the weather is grim and the horses are soggy, please share. I should add, this may be a temporary blip and we’ll have a beautiful autumn and a crisp winter and then slide into a sunny spring. Maybe.
Here are two of my marvellous clients a few weeks ago enjoying a lesson on the moor
Over ten years ago I was fortunate enough to come across Tom and Sarah Widdicombe. It was at a time in my life when I had a horse I couldn’t do much with, and they showed me a way of working with horses that opened my eyes to a whole other world of possibility. They were two of the best horse people I have come across. The subtle art of horsemanship they exposed me to, where feel was developed between you and horse down a simple rope, or every time you placed your hand on your horse (or were near them...) well, my goodness, this was something different.
However, even they had come across a horse that horsemanship alone couldn’t provide the answers for. They had actually bred her, a small, round, black and white cob, called Bullet. They sold Bullet and her life under saddle started really well, but somewhere along the line she became anxious about being ridden, and despite her diminutive stature, she started to scare some people. She had extreme separation anxiety, with the capacity to spray riders off sideways as she span round in ever decreasing circles. It’s surprisingly hard to sit on a short wheel based, highly mobile horse as its legs go ten to the dozen, wizzing round at high speed. I know, because I sat on her during this time, and it was quite a disconcerting experience. She would go behind the bit, tuck her nose in and rush around. You had no way of communicating with her, as if you picked up any contact she just made her neck shorter and shorter. No one had taught her to overflex, but no one knew what to do about it either.
Tom and Sarah really wanted to help the person out who now owned her, so they took her back to see what they could get sorted. They both recounted long, interminable sessions using every cowboy trick they knew to try to get Bullet to relax, and change her ideas about being back up in the field with her friends. Sarah recalls many a sleepless night wondering what on earth they might be able to do. Then one morning she read this in ‘Racinet explains Baucher’ - ‘ The big discovery one makes when one starts studying and applying Baucherist techniques is that once light in hand, that is relaxed and mobile in his lower jaw, a horse becomes disciplined’. At the same time, they had a copy of ‘The Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage’, so armed with these two texts, they headed out to see what they could explain to Bullet through the bit.
The first few attempts were a little challenging for all involved, as Sarah stood in front of Bullet and asked her to open her poll, mobilize her jaw, and stay with the bit (and her hands). To begin with, this seemed like complete insanity to Bullet, but as they progressed it began to have a profound effect on her body and her brain. Much to their amazement, it began to change Bullet’s entire understanding of riding and being with people. When she felt worried they were able to ask her to mobilize her jaw, and this reached right into the inside of the little horse, and she was able to relax and focus on what they were asking her to do. Bullet is the horse that lead us to really investigate Philippe Karl and the school of Légèreté, and ultimately for me to end up training with Mr Karl. Bullet is now 20, and having had several years off, she has now come back into work as my second horse for the course. She is totally marvelous and I am very grateful for the places she has brought us to.
One of the biggest challenges I have when trying to assess horses is that often their behaviour around humans has been shaped to be so negative, that trying to work out what is actually going on for them is really hard.
They have been inadvertently trained to say ‘No’ to everything, either with defensive or aggressive behaviour, or anxiety, or generalised mental and physical bracing. The response they have developed can be influenced by their breeding and natural disposition, but the issues have been created by humans - usually by mistakenly reinforcing the behaviour. This could be as simple as at one stage in his early career around humans a horse tried to shove a human out of the way, and the human allowed themselves to be shoved. Now, the humans behaviour may have been so crappy that the horse was well within his rights to shove him, but whatever, the horse learned humans are to be shoved.
A very common one is humans releasing on braces. We have all done this and continue to do this, as horses function at a level of subtleness that is beyond most of us. Nonetheless we can try our best not to. If our horse is ‘leaning’ on the rein or halter, and we release at this point, even a little bit, as opposed to waiting for him to go soft, then we have taught him to lean.
And what it can build up to is horses biting, and pushing and being highly anxious and physically uptight around humans. And then its my job to try to unpick what might hurt and where, and where they might be struggling with balance, or crookedness, or misunderstandings. And this is really clouded by the horse having learned to say NO in response to humans generally. How can we really read our horse if the details are clouded by an overall picture of anxiety, defensiveness or aggression?
In a functional context if my horse understands that he always goes forward from a very light leg aid, on the day he says NO I can believe that either he hurts, or that he knows the ground in front of us isn’t safe (totally possible where I ride). If on a daily basis he’s happy to stand to have his tack on without being tied up, then if he walks off I know something needs addressing. If he understands that he stands still on long reins to be mounted, then if he starts to shuffle about or move I will immediately know there is a problem of some sort.
So in order for your horse to truly be able to tell you NO (which he absolutely should be able to) you need a baseline of softness and agreement between the two of you. He needs to mostly understand to say Yes in order for him to clearly express the opposite. Which means its down to us to be someone that our horse wants to say yes to.
I have had an extraordinary year - traveling to many interesting places across the globe to teach people and horses. I am at the same time very lucky and also work very hard, I think most of you who work with horses know the deal. The more you practice and the harder you work, the luckier you get…it’s an interesting correlation.
But this aside, the thing which has blown me away again and again, is the incredible women that I have been lucky enough to meet. Now on this front I KNOW I am fortunate, the kind of people who want to learn with me, or who have remained my friends across the years are incredibly lovely humans. Compassionate, kind, desperate to learn - on the side of other people and their horses. These are ladies who celebrate the successes of others, rather than being resentful or bitter. Maybe I’m just seeing a small section of society, but even if I am, these women blow my flipping socks off.
During the course of this year, I have met women who spend their lives trying to clear things up for confused, upset and sometimes very dangerous horses. Women who are not physically strong, but who instead use their brain and hard earned ability to help create better lives for horses. Women who’s integrity is second to none, who are absolutely committed to learning, developing, finding the answers they need. They work in the freezing cold, boiling heat, dust and wind, despite the toll it takes on their bodies. Women who have trained cow horses the like of which I never dreamed I would ride.
I have come across ladies who are working all hours to fund their small, humble horse habit. The general public may believe horses are the luxury of the rich, but I know that not to be true. I see women going without food, new clothes, a social life so that their horse might see the vet, have well balanced feet, receive high quality training. Bonkers? Maybe. But, better bonkers than boring I reckon.
I have met women who have developed low stress ways of working with wild and feral horses so they may receive medical care with minimum impact, and share their unique experience and knowledge (with experts who need this information) for free. I have met teams of women using all of their time and resources to rehome four legged waifs and strays – remaining cheerful and optimistic in the face of sometimes utterly inhumane circumstances.
I have met unassuming women who when prompted reveal they are a leading light in the light in the husky racing world (‘But really, it’s no big deal…). Or, who have imported mules or horses to pursue a life long dream, when time and resources mean this is really an impossibility, but they do it anyway. And tiny women, with huge horses, pulling logs out the woods in the wind and sideways rain (‘Oh, it’s not that hard…). I hear about women riding miles and miles and miles, though extreme terrain with minimal support, because well this short, precious life is meant to be filled with interesting and challenging experiences isn’t it?
There are pockets of women all over the world giving inordinate amounts of their time to support people with mental health issues or learning difficulties, through sharing their love of animals and the natural world. They say it’s their job, but we all know they are not millionaires as a result. I am very fortunate to count as close friends women who are plugging away to change the face of agriculture, education and the welfare of people,animals and the planet, with a shameless lack of ego or need for personal recognition. When actually they should be held up as examples of what is possible in spite of…
And ever single day I meet women who do things their rational brain knows they shouldn’t. Ride young horses with no back up ; put up fences on windswept hillsides with crappy tools and no help; traipse around in the dark and mud to pick up mountains of manure to look after the small plot of land all of their spare cash pays for. Who say, ‘Yeah ok, I’ll have him’ to the horse/dog/child that no one else wants to be responsible for, when they’re really too old, tired, poor, to even consider this option. Even thinking about what some of you do takes my breath away. And weirdly, we still get paid less, recognised less and inappropriately touched on the bottom more. Thank goodness we don’t let that stop us.
Last week I went to train with Philippe Karl, and it was really hard. My horse was excellent, however my brain was fried. It was not what you would call, 'A right laugh'.
It's the first time ever that Des has managed two clinics in a row, (he's usually recovering from split ends or something similar) and now there was the pressure to show progress. However, in the months since the last clinic I had actually scrubbed everything we were working on, and gone right back to square 0.01.
I ditched 4 reins and 2 bits and returned to the snaffle, and had done nothing other than work on getting the foundations as good as I could. I left all lateral work or fancy stuff and worked on walking in straight lines and bending with softness and not much else.
I returned to riding on one rein at a time, with one leg aid at a time, really clearing up seat and weight aids. I plugged away at addressing every brace, resistance or misunderstanding as it showed up. And as Des can move at the speed of light in any given direction at any time, this can be harder than it sounds. I needed Sarah cheering me on over the gate on a number of occasions.
It was, to be honest, a bleeding nightmare. I realised how much my horse had been filling in for me, that I had been fudging things and 'getting by' rather than having him totally and utterly clear about what the aids mean. Each aid, totally isolated from anything else which allowed him to guess or anticipate the meaning.
So, having been through this slightly torturous time, and coming out the other side with a horse that felt softer, happier, and more with me than I have ever experienced I was somewhat hoping we might get to rest on our laurels for a little while once we were back in front of Mr Karl. Clearly, obviously, not.
With this new foundation of basics finally in place we could skip straight to the next library of things I haven't got sorted, or have been avoiding, or hoping would come out in the wash. There is no space for ego if you actually want to iron out your kinks.
My conclusion - if you want to get good at something, it's really, really hard. You have to live largely in a world of discomfort (to ensure your horse doesn't). Bugger.
I think this chap is saying the same thing. But, better.
I have just spent almost a month with Kathleen Lindley Beckham, her husband Glen and her student Katie, working together with a wonderful collection of students and horses. Kathleen and I made contact a few years ago when we clocked that what we were doing with horses was same,same, but different.
I get to ride and work with lots of horses and believe me, I like all horses. They all have something great about them - like people I guess, if you look hard enough. However, it is rare that I get on a horse and enjoy the experience so much that it makes me laugh out loud. Or, it has that other worldly feeling of coming home. Out of the many horses I come into contact with this is so rare that if it happens I tend to do everything I can to buy that horse. I have ridden some very highly schooled horses who have all the 'buttons' available and are super obedient...And it's not been those horses that make my heart sing.
I was fortunate enough to ride Kathleen's two key horses, and work a lot with a young horse on the ground. These horses were such a pleasure that I had to have a word with myself about extracting my arse from saddle. They didn't do the fanciest tricks, they didn't have the most amazing gaits, they didn't even have the most swishy manes. And, they had been trained by someone from a different school to the one I train in, whicusually means I have a bit of a job on... However, riding these horses was easy, they understood what I was asking and could respond to my aids and requests. So, how come?
Well, first of all, there are more similarities than not between the French classical school and those working in the Ray Hunt lineage, so the horses have a similar foundation in place. These horses are more similar to mine than say, most 'dressage' horses in the U.K. They are light to the hand and light to the leg. They understand about lateral flexion, bend and turn, and the rider is easily able to communicate with the front feet and back feet separately. And Kathleen has done a particularly good job of not putting her two riding horses behind the bit (a somewhat common downside to a 'soft feel').
There are also a couple of additional elements which I think made these horses such a joy to work with. They are happy to be asked new questions, and they are confident to ask questions of the human.
Let's start with the first part - these horses are happy to be asked new questions. I was privileged to ride River, a 4 year old I have hankered over ever since I saw pictures of him. However, I know from bitter experience that just because a horse looks good in a photo, it doesn't necessarily make him an interesting date. Kathleen has been working on foundational phases with this horse, and very sensibly has not been hammering him physically.
There were a couple of things I wanted to experiment with, largely about balance and posture. It is very rare that you can sit on a horse and ask them to carry themselves differently and for them not to worry a little or initially resist; even a small amount. Horses usually enjoying being in balance so much, that once they understand it they really go for the new offer, but initially this can be tough when they are used to something different. With River, my first ask received an immediate thoughtful response, without worry or bracing, and then he just went straight into a different way of moving. He is so sure he can find an answer, is used to being ridden 'in release', and is so mentally balanced that being asked to carry his body slightly differently was of no concern for him. Now, had I asked him to accept an ongoing heavy contact, or to carry himself in some physical contortion I suspect he would still try as his initial response, but that way of riding would probably knock the joy out of him pretty quickly. He is a horse who is used to being asked reasonable questions and understanding that when he answers he feels better as a result.
The horse that asked me some questions is Kathleen's hackamore horse, Henry. Henry is older and wiser, and is Kathleen's colleague and partner. He is therefore in a position to ask questions, especially when working with a cow-moving novice like me.
Kathleen is an advocate for low stress stockmanship, so moving cows is largely about doing as little as possible and not adding energy unless absolutely necessary. Henry knows how to move a cow in this way, and showed me how not to get involved when cows suddenly set off bucking and farting, or when some stupid dog (who shall remain nameless) does fly bys in an attempt to draw the cows. However, someone else's horse started to boil over at being around the cows and became a little acrobatic. Henry's energy picked up and his ear started flicking over towards the horse. If Kathleen was riding Henry this would be the point at which they would head over to help the horse and person out. Henry was clearly asking whether we needed to get involved in that situation over there. I picked up a rein to say to him,'Not today' and his energy dropped right back to neutral. This sounds so small, but was a really remarkable experience, and along with a number of things I saw Henry do, set a new benchmark for me as to what a really good working horse can do, without anxiety or stress.
There are many reasons I enjoyed my time in the States so much, but riding Henry and River, and working with the delightful Gus, were certainly highlights. And interestingly, I don't think Kathleen just 'got lucky' with these horses....
Word on the street is that this has been a funny old year, with a huge amount of loss and some rather turbulent events. Brexit and Trump have stirred things up pretty considerably and who knows where that will lead us. The war in Syria is a humanitarian disaster and a media and political playground. With regards to ‘celebrity deaths’, well the toll does seem very high, but that’s probably in part because the heroes of our youth got a bit older. Also, I think we start looking for it – once you start searching out patterns they can be found everywhere really.
In terms of personal turbulence, this has been quite a bit of that, however I bet that would be true for everyone. I think it’s called being alive. It may be possible to make things a little more stable by choosing a life more ordinary, but even then, maybe not. I guess some of the choices I have made lend themselves to a certain level of chaos so I can’t complain about that too much. Of course, I have learned some things throughout 2016. Whether I apply those lessons in 2017, now that’s another thing.
No 1. Don’t expect to know what is around the corner, and certainly don’t get hung up on it. I think this year, probably for the first time ever, I might have managed to ever so occasionally live by this. Not most of the time you understand, but for more sustained periods, I have lost myself in the process and stopped worrying so much about the outcome. If ever there was a profession or hobby to keep throwing this lesson in sharp relief, it’s trying to do anything with horses. Last Christmas (you gave me your…Oh, George) I had two mares, Remy and Jasmina. The golden boy was out of action in a major way having finally succumbed to neurological problems that had been dogging him since I bought him; I was consistently working with Tycoon after many false starts and had backed Garbanzo 5 years after I bought him. Following the death of my Mum I had stopped teaching and was just about getting from day to day. I relied heavily on friends and Herbie (my dalmation) to keep going and most of the time felt like I really wasn’t. A year later Tycoon is dead and Herbie is dead. Remy is at a retirement home as a result of discovering she has impaired vision in both eyes, and Jasmina is currently in the field not being ridden due to a problem with her back. Garbanzo is sold. During the course of the year I totally lost my love of horses and my nerve (the sudden death of your most beloved horse, plus 6 months of trying to manage a semi-blind, dangerously panic struck Lipizzaner can do that to you). Carnage. And yet, I finish this year enjoying horses more than I have in a long time. Des is back under saddle and slowly improving, and I have a new horse called Fuego who is sweet and straightforward. Buzz has joined me as I go around the farm and is proving to be an excellent companion that I hope Herbie would approve of. I am really enjoying teaching again. I did not see any of that coming; the one thing you can count on is change.
No 2. We love to solve problems, so stop wishing they weren’t there. I have enjoyed reading Mark Manson’s, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**K’ this year and a few things have really stuck with me. One being the reminder that humans gain contentment from solving problems, not from not having them in the first place. Where horses are concerned you definitely cannot start at perfect, so you might as well enjoy working on the challenges and problems which present themselves to you. And when you solve one, be ready for the next one which is about to show up.
No 3. It shouldn’t be that hard. This sounds like a contradiction to No 2, but this is specific to working with equines and is actually the nature of the problem you have to solve. If they really can’t handle everyday things like leading in and out, hanging out with their mates, minor changes or some new things in their lives, then there is probably something wrong. A horse should be able to do basic horse stuff without it being traumatic for them. And if you’re working with them and their behaviour is extreme, and you are pretty sure you are teaching things in a way which makes sense and doesn’t provoke panic (so if you’re sticking draw reins on your horse, go back 100 steps) then you should at least consider that they hurt.
No 4. If you feeling out of love with teaching, charge more or learn something new. This was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I was given this year. I was fed up with teaching – both people and horses. My confidence was at rock bottom, and I didn’t know if I had anything to offer anyone which was of value. I didn’t feel in the mind set to charge more (but I will be!) so instead I started two new courses. Learning has re-inspired me, given something new to share and re-affirmed that I was on the right track. I hope I can share this with a few more people in 2017.
No 5. The world is really beautiful. Thank you to the earth for this spring, summer, autumn and winter. And thank you to my 4 legged and 2 legged friends for offering me opportunities to enjoy it in good company.
No 6. Your horse might need something you weren’t planning to give. It is usually hopeless thinking you know what you want ‘to do’ with your horse. Well it is if you care about how they feel about the whole thing. You might get a new horse thinking you will train them to high school (I refer you to Remy) and end up having to learn a whole new chapter in equine anatomy. In fact, it might lead you to starting a course on the very subject. You might want to head out on to the moor for a ride but that day your horse is feeling iffy about mounting so you need to unpick that and give up on other plans. You may be resolute you won’t use pressure, or treats, or -R or whatever, and then along comes a horse that means you have to go back to your drawing board and start again.
N 7. You can’t rely on your teachers for all the answers. I am hugely grateful for having worked with some incredible horse people this year, both teacher and colleagues. I have learned a lot from them and will continue to seek out people who know things I would like to get my hands on. But this is only valuable when it is paired with your own purposeful practice. And this will involve mistakes, and failures and heartache and hard work. Got to suck that shit up.
No 8. It’s OK to love your horses, but try not to take things too personally. Once you start trying to do things to make your horses ‘like you’ inevitably you end up doing stuff that doesn’t feel good to them. Do the best you can to present yourself in a way which makes sense to them and might help them to feel better. But don’t try to bribe or force love out of them.
No 9. Music is still great. Any horse that spends time with me has to spend a lot of time listening to music. I’ve got a song by The Japanese House on repeat at the moment and I think Des hates it, but he likes Europop, so there’s no compromise to be found there.
No 10. People and horses are mostly excellent, and if they’re not, it’s almost always because something buggered them up along the way which they probably didn’t choose. Try to remember that when they’re pissing you off.
Happy 2017 and one thing we can rely on is that tomorrow is another day!
Following on from part 1, in which many miles on the motorway looking for a new horse led me to consider some of the ways in which horses and humans are a little similar - for instance the desire of both species to return to places of peace and safety (mentally and physically). And of course, when left to their own devices horses are somewhat better at this than us, as they don’t muck it up with their mind.
Something else occurred to me whilst sitting in B n B no 14 (I LOVE B n B’s – you get a TV and an indoor shower, and a cat free pillow) which to many of you is no lightbulb moment I’m sure, but here’s my revelation. We have some PRETTY big double standards for horses when compared to those we place on ourselves.
Basically neither horses nor humans want to feel bad. Neither species wants to find themselves in a place which makes them feel uncomfortable. But horses find comfort waaaaayyyyyy more easily than us. As I said in the last blog, people just put a whole load of complex stuff in there which horses are blessed enough not to have. For instance, guilt, or feelings of unworthiness, or concern about the future, or what other people/horses might think of them. They don’t do that shit, I don’t believe anyway. That’s made me laugh, the thought of one horse caring about what another horse thinks about them in the way we do (What will she think of my mane?) – they’re just not that stupid.
However, both horses and humans move through life being endlessly confronted by our possible death or doom. For horses this may involve a carrier bag, for us it usually involves our ego. And that’s where we have expectations for our horses which we may well not reflect on when we look in our own mirror. I may expect my horse to deal with some things which terrify him, but then find any amount of avoidance tactics when it comes to dealing with the things which scare the bejeebers out of me.
For instance, when my horse is really worried about something I will work to help him become braver. To move from tightening and hardening up, to softening and releasing. To let go of his flight or freeze responses and ask him to explore freeing up and confronting what scares him (with me at his side) ‘Look how brave you are! You’re OK! ‘ And often I’m asking my horses to confront and in doing so soften to what he ‘feels’ may be his own death. Really, horses aren’t joking (oh how they love to take the mickey!) when you horse says no I can’t cope, the feeling he experiences relates to his own mortality. Well done, here’s a carrot.
Whether you use pressure and release, feel and release, positive reinforcement, whatever, you are trying to find ways to get your horse to let go of his panic natural instincts and hand over his safety reflexes to you. You made it over the tarpaulin – click and treat. You walked passed the cows (Desmund…) due to a useful feeling of release (or pressure…). Different means and methods of getting your horse to practice his brave. And yet when it comes to oneself – hmm, not so much.
And by this I don’t mean the crazy stuff that we do like driving in cars, or sitting on horses or climbing mountains. All these are activities that require courage but they’re ‘out there’ - you go girl, jump that massive hedge, you crazy thing! That’s scary stuff no doubt, but we often find it easier to tackle that kind of obvious terror. I’m talking about the stuff we really don’t want to confront. The stuff that pushes our buttons and makes us sad, or vulnerable, or anxious or angry (which is usually only another way of showing that we’re sad, or vulnerable or anxious). That stuff, that’s what we avoid, or numb or chuck out and move on from. No way am I dealing with that! But horse, you and I are going to work on why you are so terrified of funny surfaces…
About 2 years ago I almost gave up teaching people and horses altogether - as a result of my total familiarity with ‘I’m not good enough’ and the ease with which that particular button gets pushed. And the abject fear it sends coursing through my body, ‘Someone’s found you out at last!!’ Some of you may also have that unfriendly ghost sitting behind you jeering at your efforts, so I suspect I am not alone.
What happened was this. Someone who’d never met me said something about my lack of ability with horses which tapped straight into the heart of this not-good-enough belief and it went ‘AH HA! I knew I was right!’ and our natural bias to the negative meant that all the people who wanted lessons with me were swept aside by my brains desire to latch on to something which felt really familiar (and therefore safe). ‘Ah hello, old friend – even though this person has never seen you anywhere near a horse- they must be right ! Sink back into the bubble bath of shame. Who did you think you were anyway?’ Much more familiar. Much safer. The pressure to deal with feeling ‘unsafe’ and facing this attack (both internal and external) was almost more than I could bear.
What I actually did for at least a couple of months was keep my head down. Occasionally look at some of the terrible things she was saying about me to remind me to pack it in and began to think about guinea pig racing as an alternate career.
Now Des thought this course of action was most unjust. Something scared the whatnots out of me and sent me running for the hills (and a cold glass of sauvignon blanc) yet when he’s scared about life I seem pretty committed to helping him find ways through it. The injustice!
The easiest, safest course of action that everything in me was screaming to do was just stop teaching, shut up and pretend I never had anything to with horses. She was saying all these things about me to people I knew and people I didn’t. How embarrassing, how correct she must be! I would have happily had the ground swallow me up. My ego, quite literally, feared death. I know to many people this would probably seem like a ridiculously over the top, overly emotional, out of proportion response. I KNOW. My rational brain knows - my emotions not so much. I reckon we all have these internal combustion points that to anyone else look somewhat ridiculous. Remember that carrier bag your horse can’t handle? Maybe cut him some slack.
However I’m still here, teaching, droning on about horses endlessly, so clearly I found a way through this. Just. But it required me to do all of the things I ask my horses to do really regularly – be vulnerable, look at what scared me, find a different response. It was not an easy road. No shit, say my 4 legged comrades.
Sometimes, practicing my brave is riding a young horse out on the moor on a wild weather day. Sometimes it’s really looking at why the hell something seemingly minor has floored me, and then taking a really big breath and trying out a different response. So maybe, I should really give my horses some credit for what they have learned to handle differently.
I have spent most of this year looking for a horse. I have seen a LOT of the M5 and frequented a wide range of B n B’s. My travels have taken in a spread of the UK in a totally disorganised fashion involving repeat 12 hour round trips to places which were really rather close to each other, it turns out. Anywhere above Bristol is a bit of a blur to me, so I haven’t always made sensible travel plans.
Anyhow, I have now seen about 25 horses. As you might imagine, after the litany of horse disasters of recent times I have got a bit picky, but I didn’t imagine it would be this tricky. I have met a lot of lovely horses and a load of really nice people. Most of the horses were great, but just not quite the horse for me. Maybe too small, possibly too green, sometimes not quite sound enough for the very challenging role they will have to play as my main training horse with Philippe Karl. What was heartening was how many people are trying really hard to do the right thing by their horse.
However, one horse was having a terrible time and the human was a key player in the problem, and on my return I said to Sarah, ‘It was like they didn’t even know what a horse was’. And we laughed, smugly. What I meant was, that through their interpretations of the horse’s behaviour and their interaction with that animal, it honestly looked like they had no idea how horses actually feel, think and function. And yet, to all intents and purposes they were a very ‘experienced’ horse person. Practicing one years’ worth of learning for 50 years might be one way of describing it. Sarah reminded me later about Dr Deb Bennet’s definition of what kind of animal a horse is – it’s an animal which makes adjustments. I have searched her forum to clarify this, and it’s not easy to track this down (I did see one post where she also reminds us that a horse is in fact livestock and in that vein we should spend a month calling our horse by their colour rather than their name. I did that with a cat that I had no intention of keeping – Blackie-whitey- and 6 years later the bastard is still here).
However, assuming Sarah’s memory serves her correctly, then it’s an interesting definition. And if it not, then credit goes to S. Widdicombe. The Horse - An animal which makes adjustments. Its behaviour is therefore an indication of its desire to make an adjustment and how large that adjustment needs to be. Adjust to what though? Knowing a little about what Dr Deb teaches, and from my own experiences of working with horses, I would say they are trying to adjust to where they feel safe, and peaceful (mentally and physically, which is kind of the same thing for horses). You can assume therefore that pretty much most of their behaviour is an indication of how much they feel the need to make this adjustment. What do they have to do to get themselves back to a place of peace and safety?
if you put pressure on a horse it will make an adjustment sufficient to find this ‘sweet spot’ again. If the adjustment is not noticeable to an observer and it appears to flow you would have some idea that the horse knows some ‘cues’ so well that he barely has to adjust AND/OR the feel of that person is such that while the horse works with them he is on the whole, peaceful and safe. If the horse makes a large and visible adjustment it might tell you that the horse doesn’t know much about cues (so he can’t yet respond to something small, or is over responding as a result of anxiety, or from having developed a shutting down mechanism which he is suddenly snapped out of), or the person can’t adjust their feel accordingly – they can’t read the horse well.
Compared to us, horses are blooming straightforward. For instance, a horse naps when out hacking solo – this tells us there is something about that situation which doesn’t make him feel safe and peaceful. Maybe the rider is anxious. Maybe he’s not experienced enough to be out there yet. Maybe the rider is giving him confused signals (legs say Go, hands so No) which the horse can’t deal with. Maybe he learned that napping was part of what hacking was about. Maybe his back hurts. Understand the issue, present the horse with a solution which makes him feel peaceful and safe, and job done. That could be returning him to his herd (aaaah, everybody breathe and graze) or it could be understanding what your horse needs from you to be out hacking and feel peaceful and safe (a bit more work to be done there…).
On my million miles of driving I have also thought a lot of about humans and how we work. I am trying to knock on the door of my own personal insanity, and am currently just wiping my feet on the door mat. Whilst driving past Gordano services AGAIN, I wondered whether a human might also be an ‘animal which makes adjustments’. Does a human also want primarily to feel safe and peaceful? I think we do, but our version is a little bit more complex than a horses…
Reuniting a horse’s body with his minds desire to feel safe and peaceful is relatively simple (I am not saying it’s easy.). But us eggs-trondinarily intelligent humans do a magnificent job of making things really, really complicated. For humans, feeling safe and peaceful includes some additional chapters such as ‘familiar’ and ‘certain’. Because we can project into the future in a way I don’t believe horses can, and because we are constantly drawing on our totally flawed memory banks (nothing you remember is true…) being peaceful and safe in the present moment gets a little bit muddled. It often also involves our desire to know we have control over the future (hahahaha) and that we can consolidate the past in a way which makes sense to us.
Humans find it hard to feel ‘content in the moment’ as we fluctuate endlessly between what was and what might be. Horses find it pretty easy to settle on what is, when ‘what is’ makes them feel peaceful. They are just there, in that moment in time. Until they’re not.
One of the main kicks in the teeth for the human animal is that we often confuse ‘familiar’ for ‘safe’. We can end up returning to very toxic behaviours which are shockingly shit for us, because they are ‘familiar’ and our brain mixes that up with ‘safe’. My old, entirely tread-free wellies are comfy so I keep putting them on, even though I keep slipping over in them. I know I need a new pair, but the new pair feel different and odd so I put on the old pair again, and go arse over tit in the mud again. My brain does the same thing to me - I return to a behaviour which essentially up ends me in the mud again and again, but its familiar, so in an unhelpful way I feel safe. Even though I’m not. The flip side being that I may try out something new, which is actually better for me, but because it is unfamiliar it feels bad and unsafe, so I run screaming from it back to the old, comfy, well worn, toxic behaviour. Still with me?
However, the thing which humans also have is the ability to stand back and ‘watch’ our thoughts and behaviours. I’m reckoning horses can’t do that shit. Therefore, troubled as we are by our hugely complicated brains what we can at least start to do, which horses can’t (as far as I know) is notice our ‘thinking’ self and where it takes us. I can notice it in an, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’ manner, with the same compassion I would have for a horse I’m working with. Step One. What do I do which I repeat because it’s familiar, and through familiarity I feel ‘safe’ even though the outcome is not one I desire? Hmm…..
I’m not going to make any promises about what’s going to be in the next chapter of this blog, as the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty… But, I will share one further part of this summer’s endless driving. My vehicle is an Audi of indeterminate age which closely resembles a skip on wheels. However, it is home to a large and battered collection of CD’s which are as valuable to me as pretty much anything I own. My crush for the year is Heloise Lettisier, and without her I may not have survived. Sincerely, cheers for that Christine and the Queens - ‘Narcissus is back’https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=de6YFk_vrJM.
There are two things I shouldn’t do. Well there are loads of things actually, but in relation to this particular topic they are specifically:
1. Endlessly re-watch that bit where Aragorn comes in through the double doors in The Fellowship of the Ring, or where Sherlock crashes through the window and kisses Molly. 2. Spend too much time on the Horse Deals website.
With reference to statement 1 of course I don’t do this, but I have heard there are people who do, so I’m making a rhetorical point for the purpose of this blog. Clearly.
The reason these activities are so dangerous is that they do not paint a picture which comes even close to reality. And yet, we are seduced by them, and the real, horrible downside is that when it comes to actual life, we are disappointed. And that’s not fair on any of us - 2 or 4 legged.
I recently read Alain de Buttoin’s article entitled, ‘Why you didn’t marry the wrong person’ and it made me think enough to buy his book on the same subject. What he is not saying is that regardless of who you get together with you should stay with them. If they’re just really awful, then get out. There are various other really valid reasons why you shouldn’t stay with someone, but I ‘think’ what he is outlining is that on the whole if that person is vaguely alright then probably the thing you need to do is sacrifice is your dream of romance and look at the real, lovely, wonderful human in front of you, with all their flaws, issues and annoying habits and work out how you can accommodate each other. This being based on the assumption that what you gain from sharing the many ups and downs of life with someone is worth far more than any man in a long coat entering a building in a dramatic fashion.
With regards to horses, I know how easy it is to be seduced by the promise of what could be. My friend Sarah and I like nothing more than a bit of horse porn (NOT that kind…) and can while away many an hour looking at what various Iberian studs have for sale, or what is currently on Horse Deals. And literally, they are all perfect. No faults; no vices; good in traffic; good to load; excellent with feet, small children and the elderly. Your grandmother could ride this perfectly schooled, paragon of virtue. PLUS, they are never lame, sick or sorry. I look out at my own diminished herd (one dead, one blind, one sold, one lame from being kicked by the other one who is the triumphant last standing, but green as grass with some physical issues) and swoon at the thought of getting one of these utterly perfect creatures to make my life complete.
As Mark reminds me (usually at a moment when I don’t need to be reminded) there is the dream, and then there is the reality, and you just hope you end up somewhere in-between. This relates to the interesting paradox of doing something like watching Philippe Karl riding Odin. In the moment your jaw is dropping while they float around together, there is nothing you want more than to sit upon your steed and perform a perfect canter pirouette. It is totally and utterly inspiring and reminds you of why you have no money and a wardrobe that would make your local Hospiscare shop blush. Your horse and you are enough - you can conquer the world, your golden hoofbeats can be traced across the clouds.
So, you dash out and get your horse in from the field. They are a bit dirtier than you had imagined. And they appear to have rubbed half their magical mane out. When you go to pick their feet out you notice they have a touch of white line disease and one fetlock feels a bit hot and swollen. When you tack up, your horse isn’t keen on having his bridle on, which is both concerning (why does he hate you?!) and annoying. You ‘think’ the saddle fits, but you worry it might be bridging a little.
Once on board you summon up the spirit of Philippe and Odin, but what actually happens is that your horse spooks at the mounting block (hang on, didn’t I just get on from that?) and then proceeds to lean on the bit halfway down the school while veering crazily to the left. You attempt to bring the essence of lightness into what’s going on between you, while your horse shoots sideways as the cat appears, and then forgets that you ever discussed what a leg cue means. Cue you dismounting and reaching for the G and T.
Because, what the dream never shows you is how much ACTUAL blood, sweat and tears have gone into that end result. While Mr Karl may have started with ‘the end in mind’ (thank you Stephen Covey) he did actually start at the actual very start. Well, he might not have personally scraped the mud off his horse, but you get the idea. A few people have said to me how lucky I am to have Desaforo, my palomino Lusitano. When he deigns to participate in the Legerete training course I know the two of us may look like there’s really rarely an issue. But those of you who know us well have some idea of how far from the truth this is. If there is an accident to have, Des will have it. If there is plant to be allergic to Des will roll in it/eat it/press himself up against it. We spend weeks (I kid you not) trying not to spook at something in the school at home which has, actually, always been there. And that doesn’t even vaguely counter what Des has to say about me (I have seen the manuscript, and let’s just say it’s not going to be a holiday read).
The end is not the means.
Really, really, horribly testing hard work goes into a successful partnership – horse or human. The horse on Horse Deals that is going to make everything possible for you – well maybe, but the likelihood is not. The more realistic outcome is it’s just a horse, trying it’s best in a crazy human world, and it probably has a swollen fetlock too. I am sure that for a short while it would be lovely to sip mead while gazing into Aragorn’s eyes, but he already gives an indication of how annoying he might actually be when his hair goes all wavy and he starts singing that stupid song in Return of the King. I bet, as long as it’s not a total nut job (that's in pain and trying to kill you), the horse you have under your nose is a pretty flipping good one. Try going to actually look at some of the ‘Mother’s dreams’ on Horsedeals and you might be surprised at how totally brilliant the horse in your own stable really is.
The real challenge then, as my friend Kathleen Lindley Beckham says, is to do the work.
This week has not been a brilliant one for the human race. A lot of people have done a lot of horrible things to each other, yet again. The awful massacre in Orlando, the ongoing slaughter of people in Syria, the seemingly never ending plight of victims of money and politics (translated into war) across the globe. The media shared what it chose to share with whatever slant it chose to take.
I think the killing of Jo Cox has shocked us all – someone who wanted to do the right thing by others, who (other than in the eyes of right wing extremists) ‘did no harm’ and actually, through her work with Oxfam and in her role as a Labour MP campaigning for the welfare of refugee families and children, tried very hard to do some good. The man who felt the need to do this must have been very unwell and confused indeed. The same has to be said of the shooter all of those LGBT victims in the states.
Sometimes I find it hard to know why doing anything with horses might be important. My working week is split into two, for half the week I am involved in trying to improve mental health services for children and young people. The other half is working with people and horses. I quite often stand back and wonder which has more value, and whether the horse work is in fact a selfish indulgence.
But, then I think about what it means to be a human and what commitment we have to finding beauty and joy wherever we can bloody well get it. Without that desire to create, to imagine, to do the things that pull at our heart there would be no art, no literature, no music, and what kind of world would that be? I remember once a wise man saying to me that the greatest service you could pay the world is to do what you love as hard as you can and that will permeate to those around you.
In the light of what has happened to Jo Cox and her family I feel a heightened need to do 2 things wherever I can – Act with Kindness and Live Joyfully. For me, living joyfully does involve horses – and I am fortunate enough to be able to make choices in my life which mean that can happen. However, I had noticed something that over time the joy was diminishing and I began to wonder why…
I am not a competitive rider so I am fortunate enough not to have the pressures that places on people and horses. However, I am on a very intense training course which (in my mind) has a lot riding on it (sic). Over the past two years that I have been on this course, I have put all of my available resources and energy into it (which alongside some fairly major personal tragedies has not always been that easy). In doing this I have made myself very poor, very tired and sometimes, very miserable. I bought a new horse who pretty much did for me with her behaviour until we discovered she really couldn’t see. The horse of my heartfires upped and died this spring. And the ongoing battle to keep Des sound (who is determined to find whatever possible ailment, injury or pathology a horse can have) has not been a walk in the park. The past few months have been the closest I have come to jacking in the course and even giving up horses altogether.
I had to stop and look at what was in front of me and re-focus on why I have wanted horses in my life for as long as I can remember. And really, for me, it is about things like freedom, beauty and connection – not about perfection and achievement. Those aren’t my primary motivators, and I have taken a big sigh and admitted it. I know I need to work on those things I’m not so great at (accuracy, accuracy, accuracy) but I also need to keep in the forefront of my mind the stuff I love too.
On Saturday I tacked Des up early in the morning and we went galloping on the moor and practised moving some sheep about. His mane was dirty and half rubbed out, I almost fell off at least twice when he threw in some Des-special super spooks, but it was a totally and utterly joyful blast. This week we will come back into the school and work on circles which are actually circles, but it’s not the be all and end all. If all we end up doing together is galloping across the moor then that’s not such a bad place to find oneself.
If we can’t make sense of what is going on in the world, then we can at least do what we can where we can – whether that is being kind to the person sitting next to you on the bus who looks a bit lost, or allowing yourself to wholeheartedly do the things you love (for some excellent research on how to live a wholehearted life, check out Brene Brown’s TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en ). Living life in kindness and joy might not be a perfect approach to life, but it’s probably not a terrible one either. And for me, that involves 4 legged, long-maned, money gobbling heartbreakers and I’m proud to say that is the truth. I heard Jo Cox’s sisters moving testimony this week in which she said, ‘She was a human being and she was perfect’. And with that I don’t think she meant she was perfect.
Last weekend I was privileged enough to host Karen Musson who came all the way from the US of A to soggy Devon . Well, kind of from the USA, except she’s originally from Cornwall via France and Scotland. Her accent does have a touch of the Dick Van Dyke. Some of you know, I came across Karen via the magic of the internet a few years ago, when I had consigned Tycoon to the role of pasture ornament. If you would like to know more about how she helped change things for me and my little brown horse, it’s pretty much here.
Despite the weather, people travelled from far and wide to learn with Karen and I was fortunate enough to get a bit of time with her the day before, which I was grateful for, as those of you who have organised a clinic will know that sometimes you spend a bit too much time ‘doing’ to sit around watching. Anyhow, I did manage to watch some sessions, and Des and I got to show Karen some of the things we needed some help with. I have then been having a big old thunk as to what the key lessons I have learned might be. These might not be the same ideas anyone else took home with them, or even what Karen hoped to share, but it’s what has stuck with me nonetheless.
• When your horse braces are you responding with your own brace, whether mentally or physically? Or is it even your own brace which provokes the tightness in the horse? If in doubt, slow down and breathe, I mean REALLY slow down – rest that busy mind, breathe all the way down into your diaphragm. This interests me somewhat in terms of human interactions – how often do we meet someone else’s brace with brace of our own? Very rarely does resolution lie at the end of brace on brace...
• Maybe, just maybe, horses don’t need pushing and pulling about. How often, every single day, do you pull on his head, just a little? Or push his hindquarters out the way? And how does those little tugs and shoves go into his muscle memory of how to ‘be’ when around a person. What Karen is clear about is that there is always going to be pressure of some sort in the life of a horse (or a human) but if they come to expect pressure to always be your first connection, then what does this do to their mind and body in relation to you? I was recently leading my horse and a clients horse together and they came to rush past me. I stopped my feet and my horse stopped his. The other gelding stopped his feet too, but combined that with a lifting of his head and tensioning of his neck (quite dramatically) as he clearly expected pressure from the rope on his head would accompany this. I figure wherever possible I don’t want my horse practicing tightening his neck and dropping his withers, so if there are ways I can get my horse to manage his feet and body, sometimes at speed, without tightening up muscles, then all the better.
• It is interesting to experiment with managing the space around a horse rather than directing everything ‘at’ the him personally. If you want your horse to move off a space direct him away from that space, rather than AT him. Horses like being given a break from being the centre of attention anyway, so any opportunity you can find to enable them to move without your constant pressuring intent can help them relax. So I have found at any rate.
• Is your touch resting on your horses’s hair or is it reaching right into him? This is where it can get a bit esoteric, but I think you all know what I’m talking about. Whenever you see someone who so easily helps a horse feel better, it is less often about the technique they use and more about the way that person is connecting to that horse down the rein, through a rope, or on their back. Clearly, Philippe Karl has more practical answers than most in terms of helping horses move better and therefore feel better , but there is no doubt that when he comes into contact with a horse there is something that comes from him which goes right into the middle of the horse and helps the horse to feel better. That’s not about technique .
• Let go of the concept of failure. If you are coming with a thought of, ‘The horse will be right or the horse will be wrong’ (also meaning that you will be right or wrong...) then everyone can get a bit tweaky. How about viewing each session as one big experiment? If your feel is always attempting to fit what the horse needs then it’s pretty tough for either of you to be right or wrong, you just keeping working on what feels better.
• Your horse probably needs more time than you ever give him. Most of us are on such a pressing time schedule (she says, looking at her watch every 2 words ...) that we rarely give our horses the thinking, processing, soaking time that they need. We overlay ask with ask with ask. We change their balance, speed, focus so quickly and rarely give them the time to actually assimilate what we are expecting them to understand. They are miracle workers really.
• When your horse gets worried is your intervention actually just a further source of discomfort ? How often do we lay pressure onto anxiety which doesn’t actually lead to the horse feeling really better? Can food treats also become a source of pressure for horses? Can we find ways to de-escalate, and help horses come back into their bodies and focus on you without escalating pressure or marking the moments of ‘correct’ (which is usually far outweighed by all the time of ‘not correct’).
This doesn’t even touch the sides really, but blogs can easily be too long and I think all of us had to go and have a bit of a lie down and a think after this clinic. What Karen isn’t saying is that you should never use pressure. That is unrealistic and unhelpful. But she is trying to encourage a move away from using ‘escalating pressure’, which the horse begins to anticipate. Can we tap into the instinctive horse and harness that life without creating worry?
My concern (which I discussed with Karen) is that when people first start to think about ways to develop feel and offer release rather than increase pressure they can become ineffective. Horses could lose clarity from their person, and horses are pretty into things being clear. That’s why judiciously used pressure and release can get an awful lot of stuff going on with a horse. But therein lies the danger of attempting anything really – the only way to get good is to practice and experiment and that can entail some wobbly roads to Rome. Horses are our canvas and very gracious about it they are too. I have seen many unclear, confused, unhappy horses trained with either +R or -R (or usually a muddly mix of both) so that risk isn’t enough to putting me off trying my darndest to keep in mind these key lessons and to weave them in as much as I can.
I have found it hard to know how to write about losing Tycoon, my 9 year old PRE. I couldn’t say anything to anyone for quite a while as the pain in my chest was too great. But the death of what was, let’s face it, my favourite horse (don’t tell!), has changed things in ways I didn’t expect. The obvious bit is the huge hole he has left. Every day I miss seeing him come hurtling across the field trying to direct what every else is doing (it was ALL Tycoon’s business). My shoulder feels lost without his chin resting on it. I still can’t believe I won’t ever look down and see his great big neck in front of me and the tufty brown bits sticking out of his ears. That’s the thing with loss, it takes a really bloody long time to sink in. Like, a long time.
However, the absolutely ridiculous nature of his death has given me a different perspective on life for which oddly I am grateful. I know you’re not supposed to say that when you lose a loved one, but Tycoon doesn’t mind I suspect. I know that the same is true from losing close members of my family and that’s not a conversation I have either. Of course, I would trade in everything I have, know or have learned to have them back, but the world doesn’t deal in trade offs, so you’d better work with what is actually laid out in front of you.
I have already written a lot about the lessons in horsemanship I learned from Tycoon, so I won’t go over that again. The brief version is, I bought him to learn high school on, I ended up learning about leading. Tycoon had a humdinger of an accident before I got him which left a huge and never healing scar on his side. I always suspected he might not make old bones as his health was often compromised, and his training schedule was always erratic as sometimes he just couldn’t handle working. He was given honorary ,‘You can just hang out’ status early on, and I committed to dragging him with me wherever I went whether he was a riding horse or not. He was SUCH a lovely creature to just spent time with that he had a life long pass to dossing about if he wanted. And then every now and again he would be O.K for riding and off we’d go again for a bit. I loved him as a friend more than any horse I have known.
This is how he died. I took my first holiday for 3 years. Life in my family had been been, well, blurrggghh. Serious horrible illnesses, care homes, complicated never ending paperwork, and deaths of people I loved which I was honoured to be a part of, but which left me staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night for months. No real enjoyment for a very, very long time. At the same time, my colleague and mental health practitioner, Desaforo (grubby palomino Lusitano) was diagnosed with some serious physical issues and was off work for months. I bought what I hoped was going to be a replacement for him, Remy, who turned out to be pretty much the most emotionally, financially and practically disastrous horse I have ever bought (and I’ve had a few stinkers...).
Just before I left on the much longed for holiday I started riding Tycoon again and it was great. We were getting on really well and I said to Sarah, ‘I’m feeling really optimistic about this horse!’. ‘Careful...’ she replied.
Day 3 of a holiday I wasn’t really enjoying as it turned out I had taken myself with me (bummer), I got a phone call from my wonderful ex, Adam, who loved Tycoon as much as I did, telling me Tycoon really wasn’t well. I have had a few of these kind of phone calls and they never get any easier. My first reaction is usually to get livid. Clearly the person on the other end of the phone is wrong, there has to be a mistake and if they’d just look again, they’d see that. Then my vet called and using his kind voice (unusual) confirmed that if I wanted to see Tycoon I should really try to come home right now.
My lovely friend Janet, stepped in straight away and organised flights home for me the next morning, but at 3am Adam called to say Tycoon had just died. I flew home between two strangers, and then got a packed train back to Devon, issuing forth an unbroken stream of snot and tears. Clearly no one looked at me or asked what was wrong as British people know that the best thing to do with a person in distress is ignore them.
Tycoon had got tetanus. He was vaccinated against it, and no horse in this valley has had tetanus for as long as anyone can remember, but he wasn’t going to be beaten by those kind of odds, no way! A tiny minority of horses who are vaccinated can still get it, and he did. I looked at the universe through stink eyes for several weeks. O.K you bastard, so you pile hideous illnesses on my family and pick them off one by one and then you do the same with my horses?? QUIT IT. At the time Tycoon died a friend of mine said that all of it was perfect. The shit as well as the beauty. At the time I wanted to punch her – what did she mean it was all perfect?? What on earth about Tycoon dying could be perfect? But as the weeks have gone on I think I have begun to understand a little of what she means. If there is no Machiavellian plan levelled against me (and my rational brain believes that to be true)...then it’s all just ‘stuff’. Some of it makes you very sad, some of it makes you very happy, but it’s just stuff. That’s all. And I made a decision that I was going to enjoy the good stuff wherever I could blooming well find it. I am trying to look upon each day as a point of interest – what ‘stuff’ am I going to enjoy today, what am I going to find challenging and what is going to make me look at things differently? I have momentarily (I am sure it will sneak back in again...) stopped believing that sheer determination and hard work will put me in control. Vaccinations couldn’t save Tycoon, and To Do lists can’t save me. I am going to keep trying to do the things I want to do, of course, but I am going to stop gritting my teeth and holding my breath while I do it. I am enjoying a short hiatus from thinking I need to put my back into everything and am bimbling through what happens each day and sleeping well inbetween for the first time in years.
With a little help from a friend I have also been working on putting guilt to one side. And with that I found a retirement home for Remy. Since she had arrived she had taken up 80% of my horse time and I was exhausted, skint and miserable. She had cost my thousands and I had sat on her 3 times. I try my best by horses but the death of Tycoon pulled me up short – I also want to enjoy them. Some people love rescuing horses and not riding them and that is absolutely, totally fine with me and what a brilliant thing they do. But it’s not what I want to do. I have served my time rehabbing horses and looking after other people’s waifs and strays and I’m done with it. With the help of some friends again (look how many friends have stepped in to help, what a lucky girl I am) a home which can cater for Remy’s needs has been found. I have no savings left, but I know the right decision was made for us both
Another friend of mine had some serious difficulties in her early life and ended up in rehab for a year. She said that year of being pressed to really, really look at who she was and what she believed about herself and the world was totally life changing. What a shame that we so rarely get a chance to really do that kind of internal unpicking unless something really traumatic happens. Of course I wish that Tycoon wasn’t dead, with all my heart. But I am as grateful to him in death as I was in life in how he has yet again shifted the view through the kaleidoscope to something new and interesting. Trot on little brown legs, see you on the other side.
Des, feeling well. Believes he is King of the world.
When delivering training about mental health, I ask participants to consider what it is to be ‘mentally healthy’ compared to being ‘mentally unhealthy’ . What is a base line of ‘normal’ for any individual? For some people, being very quiet is their ‘normal’, and that’s fine. Whereas for someone else - who is usually very gregarious and outspoken - suddenly becoming withdrawn might be an indicator that they’re struggling. We also talk about the impact of certain traits on your life. Being someone who worries about things might actually help you to get stuff done. But if you worry so much that you can’t leave the house, then it’s probably something you need some support with.
Emotions are a really healthy part of being a human. They help to keep us safe and make sense of the world. Even very extreme emotions can be totally normal in context. Feeling very sad, hopeless, unmotivated and alone are all normal elements of grieving, for instance. Experiencing physical and mental anxiety before doing something like a presentation or taking part in a sporting event is healthy and necessary . It’s not a mental health problem to feel these things; it’s a normal and totally healthy part of being alive.
So, how does this relate to our horses? Well, to assess what might be ‘normal’ for a horse we have to understand what kind of animal a horse is. And then we need to understand a bit about the breed or type of horse we have. And then we need to know what the baseline for our individual horse is, underneath the overlay of what humans have put in there (that can be the tricky bit).
Let’s start with what kind of animal a horse is. Most of us know they are prey animals. This means they feel safety in numbers, and there will be certain triggers for their flight mechanisms. They would like to move to a distance where they can easily assess a possible threat and will look for signals from key members of their herd as to how they should respond. However, we also know that prey animals really want to conserve energy. They can’t afford to live in a heightened state of anxiety all the time, as they need to spend the vast majority of the day grazing with their heads down. So, being anxious all the time about everything is not useful for horses , they need to prioritise.
Clearly you have to recognise what ‘kind’ of horse you have, but at the same time not stereotype based on this. How many of us have seen someone/been someone who has come unstuck buying a cob, believing it will incredibly laid back because ‘it’s a cob’, only to discover they have a power house of a steam train under saddle? But you can make some best guesses based on the breed of horse you have. I know Iberians have ‘Show off’ built into their DNA, for instance. And then you need time to recognise how your horse behaves when they are healthy and content. And you also need to try to unpick what is learned behaviour from their time with humans. Is your horse quiet because he is that kind of guy? Is he quiet because he is in pain? Is he quiet because people have shut him down through their interactions with him?
Let me use Des as an example. The first thing I know about him is that he is a horse, so I can make some assumptions about him based on that - I am aware we must be careful with assumptions, but I can at least assume that he doesn’t have his own bank account (I need to remind him of that) and that he is unlikely to be ‘planning’ his next move. I can also understand a bit about his behaviour based on his history. He grew up in Portugal and as a stallion he spent several of his formative years living 23 hrs a day in a stable, where there was no mud and little potential for accidents (as a note, he hates being in the stable now). He had handling and training which taught him a variety of different things about people and riding. He travelled 6 days across the continent to get here. He was gelded relatively late (aged 5). Therefore, the Sherlocks amongst you can probably deduce some things about him based on that information alone...
But, the thing which clearly teaches me the most is spending time with him, developing a relationship with him and getting a baseline of who he is on a day to day basis. I know that he is a curious, cocky, energetic, sometimes pushy, sometimes bracy individual (a mix of nature and nurture). I know that when he tries to bite me he is usually expressing his frustration or his anxiety, or his annoyance at my poor timing. I also now know that when he is very quiet and needy that he really isn’t feeling well and I need to get my vet in for his weekly visit (Ha ha ha, not a joke...). Des is not a brave soldier.
So then, to Remy. I have now had Remy for 6 months and in that time it has been something of a detective story. Remy is pretty much the most anxious horse I have ever owned, and her behaviour when she arrived here was not something I, or the other horses in the herd, had really experienced before. Her anxiety was turned up to 11 ALL the time. Her previous owner had warned me she would take time to settle, but the level of frantic panic was not something I expected to go on and on the way it did. In the 2 months I have been working with my young (almost unhandled) PRE filly, we have outstripped the progress with Remy in almost every way. In fact, I have been using the youngster to help Remy out.
I have worked through a number of possibilities. She had teeth issues so I dealt with them , a high worm burden (even though I knew she had been wormed) and responded positively to gastric ulcer treatments. But I knew this was a well cared for horse, so I also worked very, very hard to try to find a way through her anxiety via my interactions with her, as those of you have read my blogs will know. So why was she still running me over in blind panic in situations she experienced every day (like walking down the lane to the field)? She still wouldn’t stay in the barn to eat with the other horses, and after 6 months this seemed unusual. And I began to notice a pattern. She was much, much better to lead at night. She was quiet and calm in the dark indoor school. Her anxiety was at its greatest in places with changes of light or in narrow spaces. Oh, and she almost walked into the wall every time she came out of the stable.
Vet visit # 305 = She can’t really see. She has cataracts in both eyes and a lot of floaters in her left. With the way the cataracts are placed, she is likely to find seeing things behind her very hard and is going to be easily affected by changes of light. I asked my vet if I should ride her and he said it depended how much I valued my life.
What made me keep pushing for further investigations with this horse? Well, I don’t think horses (or humans) are designed to be on red alert all the time. And her kind, gentle, sensitive demeanour didn’t tally with the horse who would almost flatten me coming from the dark barn into the daylight every day. It would have been easy to label her as a ‘spooky’ horse and try to train it out of her (in fact, I have tried that!), but having 4 other young, sharp, athletic horses who were not finding life so very difficult made me think, there is something else here...
Horses need to be cautious. They ‘need’ to be spooky. They need to look at stuff, and check things out and look to their herd (are you a key member?) to help them make a decision about whether something is safe or not. But, I don’t believe it is ‘normal’ for horses to be anxious for the majority of their lives. To function well as a horse, they should mostly be o.k. and save their ‘Run Awaaaaaayyyyyyyy’ energy for the things which really matter. They should be able to find solace with other horses. They should be able to eat and maintain their weight. If their behaviour changes dramatically and they become difficult to handle and they are finding it hard to chill the **** out doing their normal day to day stuff, then you need to stop and ask some questions. Unfortunately, this may mean for us, yet again, that our own plans are put on hold. Your horses’ behaviour is all he has as a means of communicating with you ‘Not Normal’, so you’d better listen up. Gutting, I know.
Kathleen Lindley Beckham and I learning to play nicely.
Us and Them
Within the small corner of horse riding which could be described as ‘not mainstream’ there are some heated battles raging. You might call it classical dressage or classical equitation , but that in itself is liable to open up a massive can of worms and this blog is not about the definition of classical. This is about infighting and bullying and ‘us vs them’ among a group of people who are all essentially on the same side.
I just don’t understand it. There are so many terrible things going on in the horse world which we should be putting our energy into railing against. There are horses being ridden beyond the point of exhaustion for endurance sports. There are dressage horses being trained and kept in a way which has nothing to do with respect for the horse and everything to do with money and power. There are people and horses living in parts of the world with no access to veterinary care or medical care, or food or shelter. There are horses in America being shipped to Mexico in horrific conditions to be horribly slaughtered.
And then there are a whole bunch of us who are trying to do the best by our horses, who, ostensibly, are not working with them for prestige, or rosettes, or power. There are a large swathe of people trying to train their horses in a way which makes the horse feel better and which brings out the best in them. On the whole, we are not relying on restraining gadgets or large amounts of force. In the main we are trying to keep our horses in ways which are as beneficial as possible for them within the constraints of a human environment. Collectively we could have a huge amount of sway in terms of improving things for horses in the modern world. And yet, there seems to be so little solidarity that any power or influence is lost. In-fighting divides us and keeps our eyes and influence away from the real issues.
I recently witnessed an on-line debate comparing the way some people were sitting on their horses vs. the way some other people were sitting on their horses. Both sets of people are clearly trying to do the best thing by their horses. They are trying to look after their horse’s minds and bodies. They are not using pain inflicting devices. They are giving horses time to develop. However, they do sit differently on their horses, that is clear and you either like it or you don’t I guess. But, honestly, some of the comments would make you think that the devil incarnate was riding. While other comments were just horrible childish, playground taunts, ‘Well, she just said that because I said that’...I honestly could not believe it.
Why does this happen? I understand that as humans we have a real desire to belong, hence the appeal of street gangs and the Brownies. I was also reminded by Louise Thayer’s excellent blog that many of us have not entirely managed to shed our ‘baby behaviour’ - the behaviours that we used as an infant which helped us get attention to survive and with which we learned how to interact with others. Some of those behaviours, for instance bullying to ensure your own status and mitigate your own securities, or behaving in unhelpful ways in response to your need to be liked (Oh, hello old friend!) are actually not that useful or necessary for adults. And I wonder if baby behaviour is actually what we see when people tear strips off others who are doing nothing more than being a little different in their approach. Does someone doing something differently from you mean you might not ‘be right’ and this is unbearable? Does that threaten the validity of your approach and poke some of your personal demons into action? Why aren’t our shared principles and beliefs enough for us to all hold hands and agree that we aren’t actually the enemy?
And here is the thing which it has taken me a long time to get my head around. Some of this is really just down to personal taste, and my personal taste being different from your personal taste doesn’t make either of us terrible people. It just makes us different. When I watch Philippe Karl riding a horse it makes my heart sing - it’s as simple as that. There is something about the blend of lightness and balance and expression in his horses which I want. For whatever reason it floats my boat. My choosing to train with him is no reflection on anyone else’s ability or goodness/badness as a human. In the same way that fancying Eddie Vedder over Antony Keidis was just a matter of taste, it really wasn’t worth falling out over as neither of them were selling arms or torturing small children as far as I am aware.
There are plenty of other wonderful, amazing trainers and riders out there. There are a couple of Portuguese blokes doing some pretty amazing things on Lusitanos that I enjoy watching videos of. There are some well known American clinicians who have their horses moving in a way which looks pretty lovely to me. Just because Mr Karl’s style appeals to me a bit more, that doesn’t mean that I don’t rate those guys. Within these schools of riding and training we are talking about nuances of difference – the balance is a little different, the contact isn’t quite the same, the way they train a particular movement has different ingredients. In the grander scheme of things they are all doing some pretty lovely stuff with horses and why would anyone waste their precious, short lives being vile to each other about these small (but oh so important! ) differences when there are horses breaking both their front legs half way round an endurance race?
I try my best to do the right things by my horses and the people I teach. I am not an expert in everything by any, any stretch of the imagination. I do some things better than some other people. I do not do some things as well as some other people. As long as those people aren’t being abusive to their horses, then if they do things differently from me (which they almost certainly will be) then what a rich tapestry together we could weave, if only we could stop calling each other horrible names and spitting across the classroom at each other. If someone can teach you about the seat, and someone else can help you with your horse’s crookedness issues, and someone else can help you deal with your horse’s anxiety and you like the sum of those parts then all the better (as long as they don’t conflict or confuse your horse...). I know humans will always love to pick holes in each other. I also know that we do learn by constructively regarding ‘difference’ and deciding what we like and what we don’t like. I do like the principles of Legerete better than most other classical schools. But that doesn’t mean that I find it necessary to be vile to people who are also training with the horse’s welfare in mind, even if it looks and feels a bit different from what I am doing. I would rather save my anger and outrage for people who are putting acid and chains on horses legs so that they will fling them higher. I want to have interesting , challenging, technical debates with people who are ‘on the same side as me’, but I do not want to be involved in name calling and back stabbing. What a waste of energy and the potential we have to bring about change.
To begin to side with each other, in all the richness of our difference we need to put aside our own insecurities, our desire to be ‘right’, our need to be liked (which might mean we try to side with a bully rather than challenge them), our need to be always in control, or pass personal judgement when we do not know that person or horse, or their situation. Maybe it’s time to extend our approach to horsemanship to humans...
I was talking with my friend recently about what horse she might like to buy. I am always having conversations like this, but it is usually me that ends up buying another horse...However, on this occasion we stuck to topic and I asked her what she really wanted to do with her next horse. I meant - do you want a horse to hack out, one to tart up to go to shows, one to jump jumps with, one who you might really enjoy schooling? It’s important to consider this stuff when planning what horse to buy next. This is what I try to do before buying yet another horse with a nice mane. Anyway, what she said was, ‘Oh I don’t want to do anything fancy really or win any competitions, I just want a really nice, soft, willing horse, one that’s easy to handle and ride’. Hmm, unlucky. What you want is about YOU, and you can’t get that on HorseDeals.
I know you can start with a horse that stacks the odds in your favour. Some breeds and some individuals are more predisposed to being cool about life and that does help with developing some nice stuff. Some horses are naturally more mellow and inclined to want to work with a person. Horses that are very spooky and anxious can make things tougher, but equally, if you get things right and can tap into this sensitivity that can be a real joy. Horses that are too laid back and don’t enjoy putting out any energy can be as big a challenge.
It is relatively easy to do ‘fancy’ stuff on a horse that is talented, or through the use of intense pressure and gadgets. It is very hard to do that stuff with a horse without force, whilst keeping him turned loose mentally and physically. That requires a lot of VERY hard work on the part of the person. And a lot of that hard work probably wasn’t much fun. I bet that person spent many an evening with their head in their hands wondering what on earth to do to help this horse stay cool while continuing their training.
It is actually very hard to have a horse that you can hack out, by himself, who is totally responsive to your aids, and cool and content about being out in the world with you (without the need for draw reins, martingales, strong bits or kicking and pulling). In my entire horse career I have had 2 horses that I would say were truly confident about being out in the open countryside just with me, and who were just as responsive and easy to ride as they are in the school or in equine company. I haven’t logged the hours I took to get to this point with them, as life is short and all that.
I currently am lucky enough to have two young Iberians to work with. They are not related as far as I know, but they are very similar. They are both naturally brave and curious, they think humans are pretty cool, are highly responsive and ‘care’ about what is going on between them and a person. They are both a delight. However, I am very aware of what a responsibility this is and how easily I could make some big mistakes that could take this stuff out of these horses. With horses who care this much, you had better care too. About all the small stuff – you know, how your hand feels on their side, what is going on with their feet when you’re moving around them, how they are responding when you place the feedbucket in their stable. It all matters.
With both these youngsters (and young horses everywhere) an array of possible paths lie in front of them which will be shaped by the humans they come into contact with. In future years the horse that others will see will only be described as ‘soft and willing’ if certain humans worked hard to develop and maintain this.
I recently came across a great blog by Mark Manson entitled, ‘ The Most Important Question of Your Life’ http://markmanson.net/question. What he says is that it’s all very well dreaming about where you finally want to get to, but you really need to consider whether you can take all the blood, sweat and tears that you will need to put in along the way.
Let me tell you about my fantasy (no not that one...) I want to train and ride my horses to high school and keep all that softness and willingness in there. I want to prance and dance and have my horses flip their manes while they passage around with my friends on their equally highly trained horses. I also want to hack out across Dartmoor, have summer evening rides to the pub and hang out with my relaxed horses while we sip a pint (my horses like booze too). What Mark Manson recommends is that we need to stop spending hours dreaming about those bits and start really considering what it is going to take to make that happen. The end result is easy to picture, but do you really, really, REALLY want to take the steps along the path to get there?
Let’s take my friends dream of a soft willing horse. She doesn’t care so much about the passaging or sideways stuff, but she probably would like to hack to the pub on her horse and have that be a pleasure. To get to that point there is a huge amount of work that she is going to have to do which may not always be ‘fun’. Aside from the day to day slog of heaving vast amounts of manure around in the rain and mud, there are going to be a long line of challenges which she is going to have to meet and respond to. Some days she is likely to wish that she didn’t know there was such a thing as a soft and willing horse and could just be happy with a shut down obedient one.
She could probably buy a horse who would transport her to the pub, but in my experience it is rare to get a horse who will act as a taxi that is also very tuned in to the person, responsive to light aids and a ‘joy’ to ride. She could buy a horse who is very responsive naturally, but these horses usually need quite a lot of direction and support from their rider. Either way, she is probably going to have some work to do. If she really wants a horse who is going to be all those things she has outlined then that means that every interaction she has with that horse has to matter. Leading him needs to count; picking up his feet needs to be important; putting on the bridle or headcollar needs to feel good to you both. And you haven’t even put your foot in the stirrup yet. Let’s just say, this way can sometimes feel like a pain in the proverbial.
In addition, you need to care about his feet, his body, his diet and his saddle. These things are all likely to bring you to tears on more than one occasion (per day). Then, before you even slap a saddle on his back you had better assess whether he is strong and flexible enough to at least carry you at a basic level. I would want to be pretty sure that my horse understood what the bit means and feels ok about it before I head off down the road. Oh, and we haven’t even started to consider whether your own body is in a fit state to be on a horse. How tight are you? How is your balance? How easy do you find it to do one thing with your hands (independently of each other) while you manage your seat and legs? And, probably the biggest challenge – what is going on in your own crazy bonce? Do you need to crack some of your own demons before you start beating your horse over the head with them?
All of this could stop you in your tracks and prevent you from riding or working with horses ever again. That’s not what I am suggesting. I want to spend as much time in the saddle as I can before I drop off this mortal coil. What I am saying is that you can’t start at the end. And all those billions of tiny steps which you will need to take to get you to that final fantasy may sometimes test you more than you think you can bear (which is why you need to keep the dream in mind too). So I am with Mark Manson on this one – if ‘all’ you want is a soft, willing horse, stop pouring over HorseQuest and have a big long think about whether you really want that enough to go through what lies ahead of you. For some of us, this has stopped being an option as I think it has become what is known as an addiction. Could be worse I guess ??????
About a decade ago I started to get panic attacks. If you have ever had them you will know what an utterly ridiculous thing they are – your brain convinces you that you are going to die despite the lack of lions or marauding hordes. A seemingly small incident trips you into full panic mode, your breathing goes wild, your heartbeat through the roof and you honestly believe you are going to die. What a laugh, thanks brain. Thankfully, I met a remarkable therapist who flipped some switch in my mind tank which literally stopped my panic attacks in their tracks. Hallelujah. My brain found a new way to respond and I could resume normal service.
As some of you may know, a couple of months ago I bought myself a Lipizzaner mare that I planned to slip seamlessly into my herd as my second in line steed to train with Philippe Karl. However, the move, her breeding, the change in circumstances and re-introduction to work (she had spent 3 years not working , living with her small herd in a field) blew her Hungarian brain and for the first few weeks she was permanently having a panic attack.
I want to talk a bit about what I have been doing to help Remy with her anxiety, but I need to explain that in the initial days my motivation was not entirely selfless. I also wanted to stay alive and in one piece. Crazy, I know. So, although I employed approaches which I hoped would ultimately help her feel better, I pretty much just did what I needed to do to keep me safe. Which in turn meant I might be alive long enough to be able to help her feel safe. The number one thing we worked on was DO NOT RUN ME OVER. I did this in any way I could, everywhere I needed to and it involved me carrying a tea towel on a stick. It also meant that sometimes the 400 yard walk to the field took 45 mins as I repeated this again and again – Do Not Run Me Over. Every single time she decided to shoot past or through me, or carried on walking blindly into me as she peered at whatever she was worried about, then I tried my best to explain that she needed to pay attention to where I was and what my feet were doing.
This was emotionally and physically draining work, but I didn’t have much choice. And what I really, really hoped would happen is that Remy would begin to recognise that I was not punishing, that my intention for us both was good and that I was consistent. And that in time, she may begin to see consistency as reliability. And that reliability was a really useful thing for a horse who was worried about life. If she didn’t come to realise those things, at least I wouldn’t get stood upon. I am not often proud of myself but I am quite impressed with my tenacity. This became my moto – when Remy gets anxious DO SOMETHING. You might get it wrong, you might be unsure what to do, you might realise afterwards that you should have done something different, but don’t leave her alone with her anxiety. In early sessions with her this could mean ‘doing’ something every half a stride when leading her in. I wanted to show her there was an alternative to anxiety and that I might have some part to play in this. I didn’t want to leave her practicing being anxious as she is clearly a past master in that.
Let me give you an example. In the evenings I would lead Remy out of the field to eat her dinner in the adjoining paddock. She was so worried that even this was a trial for her – she would snatch a mouthful of food and then stare out into the distance- rigid with anxiety. Every single time she did this, I would say something to her, usually down the lead rope. I would pick up what is often described as a ‘feel’( which I guess we all have our own version of), and attempt to show her that I had noticed her anxiety and was presenting an alternative. To begin with I would meet a concrete horse at the end of the line. Eventually she would return mentally, relax and begin eating. And then a bird would cheep and we would go through the whole thing again. What I was attempting to show her was that she didn’t need to be responsible for worrying about everything all the time and I needed to give her more experiences of relaxing than panicking. The odds were somewhat stacked against me as her brain took the super highway to anxiety before you could blink. However, over the weeks, the time lag between Remy beginning to worry and responding to me began to get smaller. When I have not known what else to do, I have hung on to this theme – when Remy is anxious I will try to show her an alternative . I don’t always know how and sometimes I try things which at best don’t work and sometimes make things worse. Some days I have wondered if anyone would notice if I turned a bay Lipizanner out with the local Dartmoor pony herd. On other days, I have been blown away by her ability to learn something, or handle something which would previously have sent her spinning. When she is feeling o.k. she is one of the sweetest horses I have ever met.
I was beginning to worry that I was trying too many different approaches. Sometimes it seems better to blend with what she was offering and then attach an aid to it, on other days actively breaking her chain of thought and asking her to pay attention to me was more effective. Some days being structured and working on ‘stuff’ really helps, on other days being more freeform is more her bag. Sometimes being very firm helps, sometimes being as mellow as possible gets to the nub of it. I was beginning to wonder if I should just stick to one approach and apply it every time. Then, while flipping through Bill Dorrance’s book I came across this typically impenetrable and utterly lovely passage:
“There are many different ways to present feel to a horse so you’re continually going to be searching and adjusting. By that, I mean just changing what you present to him as the circumstances change, and as the horse’s movements and (facial) expressions change. You’d be doing this all the time that you’re working with him and be all the time real aware. ....But, by putting in that last part there about all the time being ready to change what you do, we’re not saying that being consistent with a horse isn’t real important too. It is real important to that horse’s foundation that a person be consistent.” Be always ready to change and always totally consistent. Thanks Bill, What could be more straightforward? The riddle and the temptation is found in this. It’s what keeps drawing me back to working with a horse like Remy. Your foundations need to be utterly consistent, your presentation perpetually adaptable. How many lifetimes do we get again?
Since I have shared some of the issues she Remy thrown up, a number of people have said to me ,‘She’ll be alright when she trusts you’. I have thought long and hard about what this might mean to a horse. How does a person prove their trustworthiness to a large prey animal? At what point would we say that a horse shows they trust a human?
I do have to remind myself that horses are not humans. It is easy to forget it, as the horses I hang out are so familiar and so able to communicate their wants and needs to me, that I can easily anthropomorphosise. I do get occassional reminders of quite how differently they see the world though. For instance, the herd Remy is in know her and she is a part of their dynamic. Then one day, when it was really raining and she was cold I put a rug on her and they attacked and chased her like she was a new horse all over again. How could they not recognize Remy with a rug on? I recognize my friends when they have a hat and a new coat on. Even with sunglasses. There are clearly some things which are very different for horses than they might be for us. Don’t assume that you know how horses see the world, as it is probably far more different than we will ever realize.
One way in which a person might prove their trustworthiness to me, as a human, would be that they have congruence – for instance, their behavior matches their words. The majority of the time, they do what they say they will. And through their words and behaviours I come to believe that they essentially want the best for themselves AND for me and don’t have an agenda which is about undermining others. If we were to try to extrapolate any of this to the equine relationship we would have to take out most of the language element and pretty much just rely on behaviour, and how that might show a horse that we are something they can trust. Humans might also be get on a bit better if they assessed the behavior of others and ignored their words – it might change who we voted in for instance...
When I see Remy with the herd now her behaviour indicates to me that she ‘trusts’ them. She is not anxious when she is with them. When something happens the herd assess the situation and very rarely choose to do anything which is really high energy. Human concepts of ‘getting one over’ on each other don’t exist here, and ‘being nice’ to each other is also not high on the agenda. Remy is told by the lead mare where to be and what to do and Remy appears to be safe in the knowledge that someone else has it covered.
Now, I am not a horse, so I can’t recreate herd behaviour. When the more hideous horsemanship trainers resort to grim bullying it is often justified by replicating the physical element of the way horses act together (based largely on what is seen in resource limited domesticated herds) to dominate and subdue. So, what can I learn from horses which I can usefully replicate, which might help Remy to ‘trust’ me? Here are some of my best guesses.
I can be consistent. That is actually much, much harder work than we might imagine, and can involve sacrificing what we set out intending to do, in order to give the horse the consistency it needs. If I want a horse to learn something which is important for it to exist in a human world, then I have to be utterly consistent in the way I teach it. For example, I want to be able to mount my horse safely from any hedge, rock or mounting block in any situation. And, I want my horse to be able to stand still on a long rein in any situation. Greedy, huh? I want to teach my horse to stand still for me to mount and wait EVERYWHERE and ANYWHERE. The onus is then on me to be utterly consistent.
When Des first arrived from Portugal standing still on a long rein was an utterly unfamiliar concept to him and I spent 3 weeks, daily (I ain’t jokin’) working on this before he finally realised what I meant. These felt like long, dizzying weeks - Lusitanos are excellent at spinning, and it takes a strong stomach and a certain doggedness to stick it out to the point where the horse realizes that it ALWAYS ends in them standing still on a long rein. This behavior will show up again when Des has been out of work for a while or something very exciting happens, like he goes out for a ride with a mare. And then I have to go through the whole thing again. I don’t use force or pain, it is just a matter of persistence and always committing to seeing it through. In the early days it meant I had to forsake some of the things I actually wanted to do with Des as it just would not have been fair on him. How could Des ‘trust’ my behaviour if on some days I couldn’t be bothered to deal with this and just allowed him to roar off, shaking his mane?
I can be clear. I can try very hard to work out how to explain what I want as quickly as possible in a way which makes sense to the horse. One of the biggest problems I see for the horses of people I teach is a lack of clarity (which is consistency’s bed mate), and I know I am far more likely to struggle with this with my own horses and hover in what Sarah would call a ‘grey area’. A lot of horses are so generous, and have become so used to the muddled signals of humans that they fill in some blanks for us. Despite conflicting, vague, inconsistent aids, a lot of horses have a punt at responding with their best guess. However, there are many horses given the label of dangerous or difficult, who are just trying to express that they have no idea what we want. Do you really know what you want your horse to understand and do you have a clear idea of how you are going to show them that? Whether that be raising the base of their neck or working with you to get around a gate – are you banking on your horse working it out, or do you have a clear means of explaining?
I can try my best to not put my horse into situations they can’t handle. And if I do inadvertently do this, I will try my best to ask them to deal with it in a way that they can handle. I may get this wrong, as I can only learn what works with different horses through trial and error, so the important thing is that I learn from my mistakes and adapt.
In our outdoor school there is a gate that has the wrong feng shui for horses – it is dark, surrounded by trees and occasionally things go past which cannot quite be seen. It worries some horses and not others – Garbie and Tycoon don’t give it a second glance, but Des and Remy are both not sure it might not be harbouring a horse eating terror. On the days when Des tries to avoid it, I know that he is well schooled enough, experienced enough and knows me well enough that I will recognize it , but ask him to carry on working past it, on the line that I ask, at the speed that I ask. We may have to shoulder fore past it, but I don’t concede much more than that as I know he can handle that. However, at the stage Remy is at, I have to be a lot more creative. In time, I want her to work in the school, anywhere, at any speed. But at the moment, asking her to halt within 100 yards of the gate is not within the realms of what she can handle. One day I did try to insist she worked near the gate, and even halt near it, and it blew her mind beyond being able to do anything sensible with her for the rest of the day. So, at the moment I might do work which is more challenging away from the gate and make being ‘nearer’ the gate an easy place to be. Or, I might show her ‘If you’re near the gate you can move your feet and trot, but it has to be on the line I would like and a speed of trot which is consistent the whole way around the circle.’ If anyone feels this is very easy work, please feel free to come to spend a day with Remy.
I notice when my horse is worried and DO something about it. I think this is a big one for horses, and our response must be appropriate for each horse, on each different day, and it is not always easy to do. If Remy is in a high state of anxiety I want her to learn to trust that I won’t just ignore this and crack on and ride, that I will do something about it. Being in a high state of anxiety is not a normal state for a horse, and I want to show her, in time, that I have this thing covered and that she doesn’t need to worry. I want her to come to trust that when she is worried she can refer to me. THIS is a whole book in itself but I will have a minor go at discussing it in my next blog.
I am beginning to see signs that Remy thinks I might be worth considering. We went through a stage where she was ‘obedient’ but still anxious . Recently, there have been some signs that she is doing what I ask (massive stuff like, wait with me before going through a gate, or walk past that thing which you would like to run past) and is considering that I might be reasonable, and someone she can trust. If such a concept exists in the horse mind, which to be honest, I have absolutely no idea about. If I am someone she can find peace with, I think that might be a whole lot more useful concept for us both to work towards.
We need to talk about Remy Part 2 For those of you who read part 1, you may recall that Remy exploded into my life, through no fault of her own (she didn’t choose to move to Dartmoor did she?) at a time when the bottom had also fallen out of my world. I had certain plans for her which she knew nothing about, and cared about even less. So, it turned out I had to change my ideas about what I wanted to work on, to deal with what was important to Remy.
Having said that for the first few weeks that she was here, I don’t think Remy had any idea of what was important to her. She would wait at the edge of the field staring at the horizon, away from all of the other horses, and when I brought her in she would wait at the edge of the next boundary she came into contact with and stare into space there. There was something somewhere which would fill the hole in her and she spent every day looking for it. I knew her only hope was to find ‘it’ with the horses she now lived with, and with me. I was more optimistic about the horse bit than the me bit to be honest.
I couldn’t spend too much time naval gazing though, as every time I came into contact with Remy she was throwing up things which were either dangerous, or so far away from what I wanted that I had to act.
Day 1 – Remy gets off the lorry after a very long journey so I turn her out with one other horse. As I go to take her head collar off she rips her head away and charges off. I put this down to too many hours travelling and first day anxiety. However, the same thing happens in the stable the next morning , the moment I start to undo the buckle she pulls her head up and away whilst her feet start to leave the scene, even within this confined space.
I guess this might be considered a relatively minor thing and in grander scheme of things why worry too much? Maybe with a different horse I might have worked on this in the fullness of time or figured it would come out in the wash. However, it was clearly a dangerous manoeuvre with such an agile, highly anxious animal, and I sensed that I needed to get some small things worked on as soon as possible as there were some bigger things looming... My friend Kathleen Lindley Beckham said something along the lines of the putting on and taking off of halters as the start and end of your conversation with your horse each day. It would be nice if it was a ‘Hi there’ or a ‘Thanks for that’ from you both, rather than a mindless act on the part of the human and a ‘screw you’ on the part of the horse. I pay a lot of attention to these kind of small acts of contact with my horses, which is why I get so twitchy about other people handling them.
Therefore, if this was the start then I had better start here. When I took Remy back to the field (which is a blog all of its own...) and went to take the headcollar off I wanted to explain a few critical things. The most important at this moment being, ‘Wait’. Remy is a horse after my own heart – always one step ahead of herself. She and I are both excellent at having a forward lean through life. What’s next? I’m not in this moment I’m in the next, so get on with it! For me to take her headcollar off we both had to WAIT. Be present in this. This was also great opportunity for me to show her that there is a feeling in my hands and coming from the inside of me which means something, and which could actually help her feel better. I hoped that in time she would being to understand that our contact could result in her softening and relaxing – I could be part of the solution.
However, we were not at that stage. The first attempts were just mechanical. Mike Schaffer has an excellent description of this learning process in his book ‘Riding in the Moment’. He is describing training your dressage horse, and how your aids begin as ‘mechanical’ then move to ‘cognitive’ and finally become ‘connected’. We want to end up with a ‘connected’ feel between us and the horse, but we have to sometimes begin with something purely ‘mechanical’ (physically showing the horse what we want) and then move to something ‘cognitive’ (the horse understands your aids) before you can get to the stage where you work together based on connection and feel. So, long before I worry about half passes or flying changes, or even sitting on my horse, I want to be able to put the headcollar on and off without being knocked flying or having mud kicked into my face and ultimately, I would like it to be a really nice ‘connected’ beginning and end to our time together.
My first attempts are ENTIRELY mechanical. When Remy feels the buckle start to come undone on the headcollar and flings her head up I don’t undo it and hang on. In giraffe mode (which those of you who know her will recognise as her number one skill) she starts moving her feet. I don’t undo the buckle and I hang on. This is not easy, up a steep hill, with a rigid Lipizzaner whose head is now about 10 foot above the ground. Tomorrow, I think, I will work on this somewhere more sensible.... but sometimes you just are where you are and have to do your best to deal with what you’ve got.
This is a job of patience and persistence rather than physical strength. I am not pulling her head down, any ‘pull’ from me results in an even bigger pull back from her. I am simply blocking her attempts to throw her head into the air and using movement to ask her to unlock her neck. I don’t even touch the buckle again before she has stopped twirling round in a circle. My only commitment is to getting some semblance of something a little bit better. To begin with, if we can get still feet and a lowered head I will have to take that. We are so far away from the ideal I have to give her some chance of success and can’t worry about the subtleties just yet. 20 minutes later (this is probably an under estimation) she finally works out what the job is, and I take the headcollar off. I go to lie down in a darkened room.
The next day we go through the whole thing again in the different context of the stable. This is actually harder for her as she feels more confined and threatens to go up on her back legs (she is excellent at performing the most perfectly balanced levades, should she feel the need) so I have to find a compromise where she might get some idea of what we need to do without blowing her top. This simple thing, to Remy, is an infringement of her ability to do what she wants when she wants (she has spent 3 years doing pretty much entirely her own thing in the field, so I do understand that this is a bit of a shock to the system...). She has an idea about how this should work and changing that while she is so panicked is both a nightmare and totally necessary.
In the end, I just work through it everywhere and every time. In the school, in the field, in the stable. Some days we are back at square one, if something terrible happens like a bird flies out of a tree or other horses are doing something interesting. It seems like it is never going to get better until I realise that I have forgotten all about it, and that taking off Remy’s headcollar is as sweet and easy as taking off it off Tycoon. Well, maybe not quite as he is the king of things like that, but it’s pretty nice. She even waits with me l after I have taken the headcollar off, standing with donkey ears for a scratch and a conversation about how marvellous she is, before ambling off to see her new equine friends. Please don’t think that everything else has gone as well as this, I’m starting with the high point. I’m banking on the acorns and oak tree theory.
Here is Remy - ready for action, as ever, at an given moments notice. Note the forward lean. With bonus granite poisoning in one leg...
As some of you may know, my last few months have not exactly gone according to plan. Who would have thought I wasn’t in charge?
A summary of recent times: THE VERY day we return from Philippe Karl’s instructor training course in May the golden horse injures himself in the field. Again. He is handsome and talented, but without a doubt the most accident prone horse I have ever know. This time he really hurts himself and ends up having several months off and a whole load of veterinary treatment. He is not yet mended.
Therefore, plan no 32.b – buy another horse. I have been glancing at the advert of Remy for months. However, I did not need another Lipizzaner. The last one broke my heart and my bank balance. I certainly do not need another one from Hungary. And what on earth would possess me to buy a mare? But, still, I look at the advert. And then it seems I do actually need another horse if I want to continue training with PK. Well, of course I don’t need one, but now there is a reason. What I actually should buy is an up and running, sensible of mind, strong of body, easy to work with horse who has seen the world, is fairly advanced in their work and just needs ‘tweaking’ according the principles of Legerete. That’s what I should do.
I drive a long way to see Remy. She had been out of work for some considerable time (3 years hanging out with her mates in the field, only really coming out with an equine friend to have her feet done) and as her lovely owner describes some of Remy’s foibles, we walk over to see her. She is both odd looking and to my mind, fabulously beautiful. She has no mane to speak of, an enlarged oesophagus, and a back which could be described as verging on sway. But, she is also regal and glorious. When we do some very basic lunging there is something very familiar about her. Plus, she is as light on her feet as a cat and seems to have replaced trotting with floating.
She has not been ridden for 3 years (although we do ride her when I meet her and she doesn’t put a fairy hoof wrong) and since she arrived from Hungary 6 years ago she has only lived here with her herd and her human. She is currently secure and happy. I don’t hear some of the stories the owner tells me about her somewhat dramatic reactions to life. I buy her.
Remy arrives 4 weeks before I am supposed to go off training with Mr Karl. My plan is to work with her in hand for 2 weeks, ride her for 2 weeks and then take her to meet the Frenchman. Remy’s plan on arrival is to stay alive, at whatever cost. And then my Mum, who has been very ill with Alzheimer’s for a very long time , for whom I am responsible and who I love, and who I have imagined would live for many years to come, dies. Time stops. Now both Remy and I are working on surviving. None of us go to train with the Frenchman.
I don’t know if horses experience grief. I am sure scientists can tell us exactly which emotions they experience and we know they don’t process thoughts in the same way that we do. But what happened to Remy had clearly turned her world upside down and she didn’t know how to proceed. She could barely breathe and was panicked, furious and unsafe to be around. I know how that feels.
I did not enjoy the first few weeks I spent with her. It seemed every single thing we did together was traumatic , but I was the one who had put her in this situation, so I needed to be the responsible adult. I dearly wanted someone else to step in, but when I looked around there was only Herbie.
I am not someone who is big on black and white ‘Do this horse’ horsemanship. I like things to be nice and soft and based on mutual understanding. My boys and I have been together quite a long time and we know how to be with each other. People tell me how lucky I am to have them, and I often think that myself. It is easy to forget quite how much hard work we have put in to achieve this equilibrium. Remy has been a family sized reminder of this. If I am ever in a position where someone says to me, ‘If only we all had a horse as easy as Remy’ (which someone said recently about Des, little knowing...) I will either laugh and laugh and laugh, or be so delighted I will only be able to agree.
My brilliant plan was to offer Remy a ‘feel’ which was so lovely and inviting that she wouldn’t be able to resist it and the two of us would blend in mutual understanding. Well, I’m not that naive really, but I certainly hadn’t banked on having to spend most of the first few weeks working on ‘just don’t bloody run me over’, carrying a tea towel on a stick to try to keep her from flattening me, and wearing a hat when I lead her in from the field. We practically had to have a man with a red flag walking in front of us so that we didn’t take out innocent bystanders on route to the stables .
I have experienced grief and loss on a number of occasions now and I can see that people often do not know how to respond. Some either avoid you altogether, many say things like ,‘Let me know if there is anything I can do to help’. I do know how well meant this is, but it is a semi useless thing to say to a person who is grieving, as it relies on the person having a) the wherewithal to be able to articulate what they need in terms of help and b) it puts the ball back in their court to ask. What they actually need is for other people to just ‘do stuff’ – take it upon themselves to have a go at helping.
I dearly wanted to say to Remy, ‘Let me know if I can do anything to help’ and leave her in the field. But I had put her in this position, and now she had nothing to rely on and did not have enough in place to be able to manage herself in the way a more experienced horse might. She did not make friends with the other horses. It seemed that her level of anxiety was so great that even they didn’t want to hang out with her. She spent her time at the edge of the field pacing up and down, peering at the horizon in this odd other worldy way that she has. My day job was helping people with challenging horses, but now I had one at home who was a bigger challenge than any I had faced in a long time.
Therefore, it was up to me to explain the basic rules. I use the word rules purposefully. These needed to be absolutely black and white, ‘This is how it works and it never changes’ standards for us both. My first priority was to make her safe for people to be around so we could take down the black and yellow hazard tape, and my second priority was to give her something that she could understand and rely on with the hope that in time, she might start to have something she could understand and feel better about. In the same way that I needed people to tell me how to live my life in those first few days after loss – put your clothes on, go to work, eat, don’t go to work etc. Sometimes you need someone to tell you what to do, as you just can’t figure it out for yourself.
I gave Remy two or three things which were basic rules and for the first few weeks we didn’t do anything else. Do this one thing in whatever situation we are in. I know it is keeping us safe and in time it will help you to feel better. For a while I had to tell myself it would work, as Remy and I were both somewhat sceptical.
It has been an exhausting, physically and emotionally, and a massive wake up call for me. And actually probably, perfectly timed in terms of giving me something to pour myself into which isn’t about death certificates and funeral arrangements and packing up my Mum’s clothes for the very last time.
Next time. Part 2 – What I have actually been doing with Remy and how she seems to feel about it. She is still here, I am still here, and she now trots over to meet me in the field, so there is hope...