Micromanaging

When was the last time you got on a horse and simply asked for forwards?  No direction, no goal, other than that your horse must keep moving?  Probably back when you were a beginner rider, unaware that you could also be in charge of speed, direction and way of going.  As more experienced riders, whether we get on to actively school our horses in an arena, participate in a competition or head out on a ride purely for pleasure, we’re doing something.  I learned this earlier in the summer when I did a passenger ride on Prince.

To help improve Prince’s confidence (in himself and me!), our instructor had me ask just for forwards – no other commands, Prince was to choose the direction he went in, I was to just sit and, if necessary, put my leg on.  I quickly learned that not only is this harder than it sounds, but that as a rider I communicate without thinking in a variety of ways.  I found it easy to not put any pressure on the reins, and to not direct Prince with my legs, but keeping my balance still and not using my head and shoulders to influence his choice of direction was very difficult.  This also made it quite hard sometimes to stay on and in balance with the horse!

I fixed my eyes on a point just in front of his poll, and Prince decided to turn in small circles initially, which soon made me dizzy!  The solution to get out of this without telling him where to go?  Ask him to go faster – small circles are impossible at speed.  What sounded like a fun experience quickly turned into an exercise of great concentration, and proved the fact that riders do not just sit there!  Rather than thinking about where I wanted Prince to go next, I had to think about where he might take me and how quickly, so that I could stay balanced and not get in his way.

I repeated this exercise and the next one when I next rode, and this time it was the other exercise which got me thinking.  The next step on from being a passenger was that we followed the rail.  I was told to stay as close to the arena fence as physically possible without kneecapping myself, and that I was to imagine Prince’s two tracks to be a green zone.  Anything to the inside of those two tracks (if Prince tried to move on three tracks, or flexed too far to the inside) was considered the red zone, and I was to correct his position.

Again, I learned how much I fiddle and nag as a rider – when Prince was doing the right thing, I was to leave him alone, but I found this very difficult.  I was paying close attention to his shoulders and how he was moving generally, and constantly felt myself twitching to try and tweak and correct where there weren’t really corrections to be made.  Because he was, after all, in the green zone, moving forwards.  But there I was, trying to get a little more movement this way or that, so I was fighting all the time to stay still.

What I learned from these exercises is that less is more, and the less you do, the less you need to do, as you and the horse become more attuned to each other.  Micromanaging your horse creates a need for him to be micromanaged, whereas if you leave him alone, teach him to do his job and then trust him to do it, you create a more sensitive horse and a more compassionate rider.  While I’m not resolving to sit and do nothing – because I do have responsibilities as a rider – I will try to do less.

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Dear Santa

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Please and thank you.

If anyone else would like to own this fabulous creation, you can buy it here.  This fantastic retailer (I ordered this item at 1007 on Thursday, it arrived via standard mail – free delivery – at 1041 on Friday) are also registered with EasyFundraising, so your purchase can raise a free-to-you donation for a charity who are registered with them (I highly recommend Equine Partners CIC, but feel free to make your own choice).

End of PSA.

Certified

A month after completing my EAGALA part one and two courses, I am finally ready to recount the experience.  There was a huge amount to take in, both in terms of how to practice equine assisted activities (EAA – other terms commonly used are equine assisted psychotherapy/learning [EAP/EAL], but I’ll stick with the broader term here), and about myself as a person, so it’s taken me a while to unpackage it all and begin to properly process it.  The experience was completely transformative, and unlike anything I’ve been through before, so it’s been a bit of a shock to the system!

I’d had the courses booked since April, thanks to funding through the charity I volunteer with, and in the build up, all I felt was excitement.  This is a little unusual for me, because although most people who know me would define me as an extrovert, I’m not all that confident among a large number of strangers, and I hate networking with a passion.  I think the excitement came for two reasons – I was going to be meeting “my” people, others who wanted to practice EAA, so we’d have that in common; I would be able to enjoy an entire week of what I really wanted to do, rather than a day squidged between the standard runs of my day job, which I’m not relishing.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, and although I felt naive for walking in with my eyes shut to what might happen, it probably meant that I experienced things in the truest sense.  You can qualify for EAGALA certification as either a mental health specialist or an equine specialist – due to my lack of mental health or counselling qualifications, I come under the latter, which is fine – and their model states that each session must be conducted with a mental health and an equine practitioner present.  The training is in the model, not the skills themselves (there’s nothing about caring for horses or horsemanship, for example, as well as there being nothing on how to be a counsellor), so practitioners from both parts of the team attended both courses.

The training is designed to be experiential, but there were some dissatisfied people during the first course – as experienced mental health practitioners who have undertaken a lot of training previously, they found the experiential element to be lacking and thought that the course was more about observing.  I was glad that I volunteered to be part of a dummy group, as I got more of an experience in the first course than some people did, and I was surprised that I didn’t react all that much (there was a point during the activity where I felt triggered, but I was able to deal with the feeling and move on at that point).

Part two was where I came unstuck!  I felt a real low, that I was being judged by some of the other participants as not being good enough (there was some good learning about self-awareness and taking things personally!), and I found it a very draining emotional experience.  There was one incident in particular which I felt we really weren’t given an opportunity to process, and one of the big takeaways for me was how important it is to get on with and trust the team you choose to work with.

But I worked my way through the entire course.  I went alone, I left having made some fantastic new friends.  I learned a huge amount, both about myself and what it is to be a practitioner and how to practice.  EAGALA’s recommendation is that you attend part one individually, but that you attend part two as part of your treatment team, and having seen what the activities are like, I’m keen to do so.  My co-facilitators are hoping to go next year, and I’d like to repeat part two with them: it’s a chance for us to practice in a “safe” environment both in terms of the “clients” (pretend ones!) and being supervised by the course facilitators and our peers.  We might even get experimental with our ideas and try a few new things out!  Either way, I think it’d be a fantastic experience and one which would boost my confidence further and see me take another leap in terms of my skills.

Back at home, I’ve already seen a huge positive difference in my skills as a facilitator – I’m using “clean language” skills I learned on the course, making more astute and informed observations, and picking up on what our clients and team need.  It’s helped to galvanise the team and bring a sense of unity.  And some of the positive impacts have extended into my non-EAGALA life.  The biggest difference has been to my confidence as a facilitator – thanks to the certificate and my team, I now believe that I really can do this, and that over time I’ll only get better.  I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the journey brings, particularly when I’m able to make the leap to practicing full time.  For now, I look forward to my days off with a new assurance that I can, do and will continue to make a difference.

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Wordless Wednesday: it’s here

Yes, I’m still processing this, but receiving confirmation that I passed my courses and am now a certified professional has helped.  Opening this envelope was a very proud moment.

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The perfect fit

I’ve been having a problem shared by many women: none of my bras are fitting correctly.  It’s been a shamefully long time since I’ve invested a decent amount of time and money into this crucial piece of daily kit, so I set out on the quest which is only rivalled by the search for the perfect pair of jeans.  I ultimately visited three shops, here’s the tale of my labours…

Bra stop the first: Marks and Spencer
I entered a local branch of Britain’s stalwart retailer on a rainy Sunday with an action plan.  As a reasonably clued-up girl, I had made a guess as to how my size has changed, and went on what turned out to be a disappointing hunt.  I’ve worn a 36D for a long time (before you all have an attack of the vapours, I haven’t worn this size because I like it – I’ve had it checked regularly, and have genuinely felt comfortable in it until recently), but was curious about the fact that I may finally fit into a 34, which I knew would probably mean going up a cup size (given that I’ve changed shape, but not deflated, as it were).

I hunted around the (horribly-merchandised) lingerie department and quickly figured out that M&S design bras in two categories: pretty, but for those who only need to support the weight of two peas on their chest; ugly, and in suitable sizes to conveniently double as headgear.  I should have given up at this point, but I knew I owed my bust a favour, so I sighed and gritted my teeth.  I fished through for a selection of bras in a variety of sizes (because, hey, my guess may have been wrong) and headed for the fitting room.

I hovered awkwardly in the doorway for a moment whilst the woman behind the desk at the back of the corridor busied herself with something else, before she – without even looking up – told me to just go in, that they don’t help with fit any more.  I almost fell over in shock, and again very nearly dropped the mic (bras) and walked away.  Instead, I saw myself to a fitting room, closed the door and organised myself.

Then, dearest retailer, I was confronted by something I really didn’t expect to see: I had selected some bras which are sold in pairs, and it wasn’t until I got to the fitting room that I noticed they were tagged together.  Like this:

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I twizzled everything around to figure out the mechanics: should I try them on like this?  I quickly realised this was physically impossible.  Should I ring the bell provided for assistance?  I soon decided none would be forthcoming, given the frosty reception I had previously received.  I chose to break the rules and snapped the plastic.  Something not all people can do.  I tried every bra I had selected on.  Some – in the size I had guessed – were a reasonable fit.  They were comfortable, even.  They weren’t the type of bras you’d see strut down a runway, or in a fashion spread, but I was also going for day-to-day practicality rather than sexbomb on this occasion, so I was willing to ignore that fact.

What I wasn’t willing to ignore was the complete lack of customer service I was receiving from a high street retailer.  And shops wonder why the internet is winning!  I got dressed, having completed my research, hung the bras up on the rail by the fitting room entrance and walked away, vowing never to darken the door of Marks and Spencer for so much as a pair of socks ever again (which is a shame, because their thermal socks helped me survive last winter and their socks with the fluffy padded ankles and toes get me through the rest of the year).

Customer service: -5/5
Fit: 3/5
Value for money: 1/5 (due to poor service)

Bra stop the second: Leia
Unfortunately, the town I was in that fateful Sunday has very few decent options when it comes to bras (as demonstrated by the above!) so I had to persist with my old no-longer-faithfuls for another week, before I had the opportunity to seek out another shopping experience.  I decided that department stores weren’t the way to go – I needed real help from experts in order to feel satisfied and shell out for some decent goods.

Having prepared myself via means of caffeination, I headed to a shop I hadn’t tried before.  Oh happy day, I did not have to ask for help, assistance was volunteered by a member of staff (remember, I work in retail, I am admittedly a picky customer).  She whizzed me straight to the fitting room, asked what I was looking for, what size I was wearing and took a look at me.  She agreed that I needed a smaller band size, but her guess was that I’d require a 34F, not an E.  I was shocked, but decided that it wouldn’t hurt to try.

I was presented with a bra which matched my brief, tried it on and…well, hello glass slipper!  The bra fitted perfectly.  The sales assistant returned to check the fit for me, made sure I was properly in the bra and comfortable, then asked if I needed anything else.  I was slightly reeling from the experience of suddenly jumping two cup sizes, so I decided that I needed to go and take stock of my underwear drawer before making too many purchases.

Having bought the bra I tried on, I went to another shop for different items…and swiftly returned to Leia, having realised that my underwear drawer would require a total overhaul.  I tried on a different bra (as I had additional requirements!) and again, a sales assistant helped me to fit it and made sure it was the right one.

Sadly, the “fun” and “glamorous” end of the shop’s range wasn’t really pushing my buttons this time, so I stuck with a nude t-shirt bra (to add to the black t-shirt bra I’d previously purchased) and was on my way.  But I’ll be keeping an eye on what they have in stock, and was quick to recommend the store to a friend who is a similar size to me…

Customer service: 5/5
Fit: 6/5
Value for money: 4/5

Bra stop the third: Victoria’s Secret
VS cops a LOT of flak on both sides of the pond, but I’ve had some great experiences in there.  First pro of VS: it’s fun – it’s not short on colour, sparkle, glamour and atmosphere.  Yes, it’s like shopping in a nightclub (though without the sticky floor and dry ice), it’s very very dark.  But it’s well-staffed and, although the merchandising could be better, once you know what you’re doing, it’s straightforward (just frustrating that they rarely have all colourways in stock in all sizes).

Having been re-sized, I knew the VS range wasn’t going to fit me very well any more (they generally only stock to a D cup, with some ranges going to DD or DDD), but I was desperate for something fun, so thought I’d try a few bras on.  I repeated my M&S smash and grab, not being too fussy about colour at first, I was just trying for fit.  As I knew the cups would likely be too small, I avoided anything with too much padding or push up (which made me a little sad – I’ve had some great push ups from VS, even though it’s not something I really need) and headed for the fitting room.

The fitting room was well-staffed, I was shown to a room and left in peace, with the offer of help if I needed it.  I worked my way through my selection, trying the different styles.  Unsurprisingly, two of the five gave me some definite “four boob” (where there’s too much breast for the cup and you spill over the tops), but some of the roomier styles weren’t as bad as they might have been.  It was tempting to go back up to a 36 and see what happened, but I decided not to tease myself, and returned to the shop floor armed with my findings to have another look.

I returned to the fitting room, figured out which of my choices felt best and decided to get the opinion of the sales assistant, partly to see whether they confirmed what I knew or tried something else!  The girl who helped agreed with my assessment (and commented that she liked the colour of the one I’d chosen).  It’s tough – the cynic in me thinks she was upselling, as I know the bra could’ve fitted a touch better, but when all you’re dealing with is the range you have available…was she in a position to know any better?  Possibly not.

Customer service: 3/5 (this would actually be a 4/5 for the store staff, but see below for what drags the company as a whole down)
Fit: 1/5 (sad but true)
Value for money: -1/5 (VS, who are you trying to kid with your “charge the same number in Sterling as you do in Dollars” strategy?)

I wanted to go through the good points first, but now it’s time to throw some constructive criticism at VS – I would really love the people in charge to listen to this, because I think this store is good, but it could be so much better (and, get this, more profitable) if those in charge listened.

  1. We do not feel like Xtina in Burlesque in your dressing rooms, we feel like we forgot to pay our electricity bill and it’s December. We want to see ourselves in your products, so that we know what we look like!  We cannot do that when we feel like we’re wearing filter category four sunglasses.  Yes, you have a brand; no, we don’t actually want to get dressed in the dark
  2. Repeat after me: big breasts deserve pretty bras. More cup and back sizes = more customers = more sales.  If you even think about charging more for sizes above a 34C, we will turn tail and run, and we will take the lovely A and B cup ladies with us because, guess what?  Stores like Leia stock everything from a AA to a…well, I don’t know, but I definitely heard mention of K cups when I was in there.  Leave the chicken fillet-filled B cups for your Christmas meat market show and give the high street the E+ cups it needs
  3. Linked to the above: cut it out with the security tag obsession. I admitted that your bras don’t fit me all that well, but the tags hinder things even further.  I was thisclose to asking your lovely staff to take them off, but I honestly thought they’d say no, so didn’t bother.  This too, will be making you lose sales (see a pattern, here?)
  4. This is the most important point, so please listen carefully: IT IS 2015. Stop insulting the UK and crippling your staff by failing to allow them to order stock in, and not allowing us to shop online (in fact, not even having your range online in UK prices is a heinous crime too).  Get yourselves a UK distribution centre STAT.  How you’ve survived this long with a placeholder website is beyond me.  Why you aren’t keeping your costs low and your profits high by offering online shopping is also mind-bogglingly stupid.  The UK loves VS, as do all of the tourists who visit us.  You’re an aspirational, cool, sexy brand with masses of appeal.  And you’re sticking a machine gun to your foot on a daily basis

Marks and Spencer, this advice is for you:

  1. Hire a new Head of Lingerie who has run a successful store before. Give your staff products they can be proud of and the confidence to fit and sell them.  Jump on the VS bandwagon and take the advice I have given them (well, you already have a website, so you’re ahead there.  One less thing to do).  Alternatively:
  2. Stop selling bras. I mean it when I say I’m not buying another sock from you.  I will find fluffy socks somewhere else.  And no-VPL pants (because, damn, they are good, but I will hunt down some other ones now).  Admittedly, I may continue to buy the odd bottle of Prosecco or a sandwich.  But you really can forget the rest, unless you seriously change.  My experience was utterly diabolical and, like many British women, I have been buying your bras since I first needed one

After two arduous shopping trips and one long blog post, I feel relieved.  Anyone care to share their own experiences?  If there’s anything else you’d like to know, please go ahead and ask – as you can probably now tell, this is a topic I’m not shy about!

Finishing touches

With half an eye on the future, and potentially wanting to do some cross country riding again one day, I got a new jockey skull earlier this year.  Safety regulations currently state that riders are not allowed to wear helmets with fixed peaks when riding cross country (seems sensible to me), meaning my existing helmet wouldn’t be deemed roadworthy for that activity.

Although I don’t typically ride around looking at myself (I hate arena mirrors!), I’m quite vain when it comes to helmets, and fully believe that safety can also be stylish!  So I’ve been hunting high and low for the perfect cover for my skull cap.  When I was a child, I always wanted a traditional “proper” velvet hunting-style cap, so I wore my skull helmet with a black velvet cover on it and pretended I was a show jumping hero.  I kind of wanted a silk as a child too, but could never settle on a colour which I liked and matched myself and my trusty steed, so I stuck with the velvet.

I’m still in the position where I don’t have a horse of my own.  Prince’s halter is red, and he’s got a Western saddle which has a green pad with it (pretty mismatched, I know!).  We’ve pretty much settled on blue as the charity’s colours, and the bridle I bought a few years ago has blue crystals and a bit of blue leather piping (it’s mostly black leather), which made me think that blue could be the way forwards.  But I of course wanted a particular blue…

I trawled the trade stands at Hickstead, but could only find what I termed as “boring” blue silks (the very darkest navy, with the alternative being a Team GB one, though I haven’t earned the right in my eyes to even wear a replica one of those!), or ones which were a mixture of colours.  I’ve got a think about wearing too many colours: unless it’s a patterned fabric, you won’t see me wearing more than three colours at once and, in fact, I’ll normally wear a mix of two colours with perhaps different shades of each.  I don’t want to look like a children’s TV presenter!

I rejected everything I saw, and could feel my sister getting bored by my browsing, “In this day and age,” she moaned, “there must be somewhere you can get glittery ones.  That’s right up your street.”  My eyes lit up and my heart leapt at the thought.  My sister quickly regretted opening her mouth.

Sure enough, when we returned home, the internet quickly delivered.  But, again, I was dissatisfied.  Everything I found wasn’t quite right.  Until I found CustomXC, fiddled with their design tool and came out with my ultimate hat silk ordered.  It arrived whilst I was away, and upon my return I wriggled it onto my skull cap.  It’s just what I wanted, and I’m already dreaming of ordering a base layer and a soft shell jacket to complete the look, and give me all of the glittery matchy-matchy equipment I could dream of for my next trip thundering through a field of fences.  Whether I’m aboard Prince or another horse, I know I’ll be pleased with my look.

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I haven’t forgotten my promise to blog about my exploits on my recent equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) training course, it’s just not ready yet!  The EAGALA training was fantastic, but finished less than a week ago and was pretty intense.  I’m still processing the experience, and will bring you a full update on it ASAP.  Stay tuned…

Shopping and a show

For the first time in a very long time (so long that I can’t bear to work it out), I went to the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead.  When I was little and we first moved to Sussex, our parents took their horse-mad girls for the day out a few years in a row – we had moved to an area which involved an international showjumping venue being on our doorstep, and I’m very lucky that our parents took advantage and, in addition to ferrying us to and from the stables year-round so that we could ride, they also endured blazing sun and sideways summer rain so that we could fill our boots with live, professional action once a year.  If medals were handed out for parenting…

Hickstead has hosted two international showjumping meetings since the dawn of time: the Royal International Horse Show (RIHS) and the Derby.  Traditionally, the Derby was held in August, and RIHS in July, until about 15 years ago when the Derby got unceremoniously shunted to August thanks to broadcasting conflicts.  The Hickstead Derby is infamous – to me, it’s the summer version of Olympia’s Puissance.  As a child, I dreamed of sliding down the Derby bank atop a powerful horse, landing perfectly, seeing the ideal stride and sailing over the impossibly-close fence at the bottom, then completing a dream-like run through the venue’s other permanent bogey fence, Devil’s Dyke.  Of course, the reality is that I have neither the guts nor talent, but I did walk the course as a child, completely in awe of the fences.

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The Derby Bank – this is the “easy” side. It’s enormous. Perhaps one day I’ll do a post telling the full story!

So the Derby is The One.  It is on my doorstep.  And I was working on the day it was held this year.  So I settled for using one of my days off to attend the RIHS instead.  I missed my favourite day of this show, the one which hosts what used to be called the Eventing Grand Prix (a class which was invented during my childhood and had its glory days then).  Instead, I attended on a day when the Nations Cup class was being held.

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we were treated to this band too! Believe it or not, they played Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

My sister and I went together, both armed with shopping lists (hers in preparation for her upcoming year-long trip to New Zealand; mine in anticipation of a British winter spent facilitating equine learning sessions and running my seasonal version of Prince’s Boot Camp), food and a thirst for horse power.  The event manager in me is proud of the changes which have occurred at Hickstead since I last attended (it WAS this century, but only just!): a new grandstand has gone up this year (but, in kind of a cute way, the old covered one still stands… with rows and rows of plastic chairs painstakingly lined up and cable-tied together for the occasion) – there are lots of fancy bars now, plus another entrance has been created to ease queuing congestion.  The catering offerings have also joined the 21st Century, with options far beyond the standard horse show burger bar – there are fashionable food trucks offering cuisines from far-flung places such as Thailand, Mexico… and Greece and Italy (wood-fired pizzas they are, though).

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Hickstead’s quaint seating

Hickstead’s enormous shopping village defies the recession, and I certainly contributed to the economic upswing – I have prepared myself for our infamous weather by purchasing not one but two coats!  One of them makes me feel like a proper horse person – it’s a long windbreaker-style, and has more leg straps than horses’ rugs do.  Hopefully it’ll do the trick!  I also gained some much-needed new breeches, and a book I’ve been after for a while (no spoilers in case I decide to do a review).  Oh and I replaced Prince’s feed bowl, because he stood in his and destroyed it.  If that horse wore shoes he’d be truly dangerous.

It sadly wasn’t Team GB’s day at the Nation’s Cup (proving my theory that, unless the Olympics are on, we can only be good at one sport on any given day, and Friday 31 July belonged to the England cricket team) – they came sixth out of eight teams.  Ben Maher’s round was superb, the Italians had an even worse day than we did, and Switzerland only sent three riders in for the first round because they were all Just That Good.

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Ben Maher jumping for Team GB

It was great to be back among my people, it’s a very long time since I’ve been at a competitive horsey event (er, that’d be the Paralympics!), and the weather was kind.  Fingers crossed I can make a return to the Derby next year.  May be time to start looking at booking a day off work…

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apologies if you bought this saddle – I may have drooled on it

Learning together

I had a few firsts in one hit a couple of weeks ago, when our Parelli professional came to visit for a day of lessons.  I haven’t had a lesson with a Parelli instructor before, everything I’ve learned coming from friends, DVDs and the Internet.  It’s also the first time I’ve had a two-hour lesson, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a lesson on “my” horse, rather than a riding school one (in my pre-teen years, I had regular lessons on my loaned pony, or one of the other ponies at the small livery yard we were based at, but the majority of my life has involved riding school ponies and horses).

I spent a few weeks changing my mind about my goal for the lesson, and ultimately reacted to what happened the day previously during the play day, plus what Prince gave me on the day.  Fortunately, he co-operated beautifully and demonstrated a few small issues I’d been struggling to crack, which was very kind of him!  I find that horses often behave well when an instructor is looking, so I was pleased that he obliged in Tracey’s presence, allowing her to see and understand what was happening, and offer a solution.  Becky, 1; Prince, 0.

It was quite a long wait until my lesson – the day was split so that the first two hours were for Prince and his owner to have a lesson along with one of our friends and her young horse.  As Jo is now heavily pregnant, her lesson was split into two hour-long slots with lunch in the middle, and my lesson (with another of our volunteers) was last.  Due to the weather not being brilliant, I unfortunately didn’t get to watch the other lessons quite as intently as I’d have liked, but I also wasn’t too disappointed, as what the others ended up working on turned out to be quite far removed from my own subject matter!

When it was my turn, I had Prince plaited up and ready to go, and we began warming up on the ground.  I’d already given our instructor, Tracey, a quick brief on the issues I was having, and she’d seen Prince perform the day before, so we both knew what we were in for.  I told her that he’d been demonstrating some anxiety about working under saddle recently, and that my biggest struggle when riding is that I can’t get consistency when asking him to move forwards – he’ll do two, three or even four strides of any given gait, then seem to forget what he’s doing or lose confidence and stop or try to turn around.  In addition to all of that, he’s resisting my hand on the ground, tensing through his poll and setting his head against me, which makes everything harder!  Ultimate relaxation is what we want, so we decided we’d see what happened.

Tracey was happy with my usual warm up plan, so I proceeded with my ground work much as normal.  She prescribed a course of “Touch It”, asking me to dot my tack around the paddock and incorporate having Prince touch each item as part of my warm up.  This worked nicely, getting him more relaxed and intrigued by the experience, rather than putting on his, “oh no, here comes the saddle” face.

When it came to my circling game, Prince duly set his poll and began his favourite game of deciding to change the rein all by himself.  Tracey laughed, because Prince was being cheeky, and gave me an idea I kicked myself for not coming up with: make the wrong thing hard.  She said that if Prince wants to go the other way, he can, but he must do so at the next gait up (he normally decides when trotting that he’s had enough of one rein, so if he changes the rein without me asking, I’m to tell him that he can go the other way, but at a canter).  The premise is that the right thing is easy, and that now he’s doing it out of cheekiness rather than lack of confidence, it’s time for me to be more prescriptive and a bit more demanding of him.  So I sent him cantering off, slowed him down again, switched him back to the other rein and let him think about it.  He’s learning that my way is the easy way and his way is the hard way!

I tacked him up, ran through my pre-flight checks and again hit a bump in the road which I was glad Tracey witnessed: when asking Prince to flex laterally from the ground whilst tacked up, he either does it instantly or again sets his poll and jaw – you can see it in the muscles!  I got praise from Tracey for a really nice bit of lateral flexion, but when I released the pressure and asked again, he set his head.  At that point, her advice was not to wait all day – I was to up the phases, and if he really wasn’t listening, ask him to yield his hindquarters too, in order to get him to turn his head.  Once again, making the wrong thing hard.  Another great piece of advice.

Once I mounted up, the real work inevitably began!  Something which I was pleased would be relevant to where Prince and I are at was to undertake a “passenger ride” – the rider puts their reins down and simply asks the horse to keep moving, it’s the horse’s choice where you go.  The aim is to get the horse thinking forwards, rather than waiting for every direction from the rider.  The most difficult thing as an experienced rider is to avoid influencing the horse with shifts in weight, and looking where you’re probably going.  I made the mistake of fixing my gaze on Prince’s poll – I soon got dizzy and learned to look through his ears without directing him.

Prince turned in tight circles at a brisk trot, so I did have to encourage him away from that pattern and ask him for a wider direction.  Then he trotted up and down the fence, trying to be near the spectators, who made it an uncomfortable place for him to be.  Then the most interesting thing happened – he made himself a one-horse demolition derby: there were lots of jump blocks and poles in the middle of the arena, and he went crashing through all of them, trying to ask if I wanted him to somehow attempt the obstacles.  Again, we spent too long here without him getting the point, so I eventually asked him to move away and carry on.  He finally put himself on some larger circles, and I took up the reins to move on to my next exercise.

Tracey asked me to have Prince follow the rail.  I was told that for him to be on two tracks, with his nose in the middle of his chest was the “green zone”, and if his nose wandered or any of his legs dipped inwards, he was in the red zone and I had to correct him, asking him to continue travelling forwards close to the rail.  Off we went at a walk, me correcting his nose occasionally.  Once he appeared relaxed, we moved up to a trot, and after a couple of laps, he blew out, relaxing properly.  At that point, I stopped and praised him, earning me praise from Tracey too.

I changed the rein and repeated the exercise in the opposite direction.  Prince took longer to blow out this time, but once he did, I stopped and praised him again, and that’s where the lesson ended.  The prescription is lots more following of the rail to build his confidence and keep him moving forwards.

As we chatted at the end of the lesson, I admitted to Tracey that with the way Prince behaved in the warm up, setting his jaw and turning around and generally being a pain in the backside, I wouldn’t have got into the saddle if she hadn’t been there – he’s been behaving like this on and off, and has probably learned that this behaviour means I won’t ride.  I never feel that he’s dangerous, but the brief that I’ve always been given by his owner is to put the relationship first, and I still find it hard to judge where the line should be drawn.

Tracey was very positive and encouraging, saying that she thought I was doing a great job and that I’ve done him no harm, that things are happening with him, but he’s a horse who takes a long time to warm up to you.  Her final takeaway for me was to tell me to believe in myself more!  I didn’t realise until she said it how little I do believe, how I keep saying that I’m still new at this stuff and my experience with “young” (Prince is 11, but in ridden terms, he’s only about five) horses is non-existent.  But the reality is that I’ve come a long way, and Prince is progressing (I think I’m learning more than he is at the moment!).

It was a fantastic lesson, and I’m hoping to book a follow-up for the end of the summer.  As we don’t have an arena, I can’t ride over the winter, so it’ll be back to ground work, and limited work at that, as I only have a very small indoor space to work in (I can only have Prince on a 12-foot line, and trot work is minimal due to the surface), so in my next lesson I would like to ride, to see where we’ve got to, but I will also be asking for some ground work ideas for the winter, to keep us entertained!  I can’t quite believe that the summer is disappearing so quickly, but I’m fairly pleased with how it’s going, and am glad to have had this particular experience.

Adopting

There’s an increasing Americanisation of the UK, with us taking on many of their “holiday” traditions these days (that can stop, by the way – we don’t need Halloween or Black Friday, thanks), but I’m trying to bring something else into commonplace.  My favourite American custom is that of encouraging people to have a nice day, rather than just saying goodbye.

As a long-serving (suffering?) service industry professional, I’ve seen retail and food outlets adopt what many super-reserved Brits regard as being an over-the-top friendliness.  To greet customers or be the ones to initiate conversation is seen here as a combination of nosy and pushy salesperson-type behaviour.  When Starbucks began asking customers for their name when ordering drinks, they were met with stern opposition (and not just from the mocking Twitterati, who take delight in exposing spelling mistakes) at this supposed over-familiarity (side note: take it from a former-barista, this policy is saving lives – nothing more frustrating than the umpteenth customer asking if the stone-cold latte on the end of the bar is theirs, and then proceeding to take the extra hot triple decaf wet soya latte which clearly isn’t theirs instead).  No, the American custom I’m on a mission to expand within the UK is that of encouraging people to have a nice day.

Rather than leaving my customer sign off as, “thank you, goodbye”, I try my best to encourage people to have a good day.  It often surprises them.  They tend to say, “thank you” or at the very least smile in response.  It visibly lifts them.  And occasionally, I get the biggest win of all: they return the phrase.  Sometimes, it’s an unconscious, “you too”, but on other occasions it’s clearly heartfelt.  And that makes me smile, put my shoulders back, and glide back into the retail fray with a better attitude.

I don’t save lives, I sell merchandise.  I’m not a member of the emergency services who works unsociable hours, I work in a shop and often work unsociable hours (we won’t discuss my rota for December here, in case some kind of miracle occurs and I escape it, but let’s just say it’s far from good).  I’m no hero, and I can be on the receiving end of some abuse.  So when people are nice, or grateful, and happy, it’s noticed.

I do it as a customer too – partly because I know what it’s like to be the poor person behind the counter who has rotting milk in their hair, or the one on the till whose feet hurt and has been wearing an enforced smile for several hours, and faces a stock take once the shutters come down – and I feel sad when it isn’t a part of that worker’s culture, when it’s me who delivers that line to them (always, always earnestly), who has to try and make them feel better.

But it’s worth it if I change one person’s outlook.  And it’s definitely worth it when one of my customers smiles and tells me to have a great day.  Because now, I just might.

Horse play

Back in the spring, when it was still raining buckets and summer seemed a distant dream, we decided that in addition to the open days, we’d run two play days at the stables.  These kind of events are pretty unique to the natural community, and definitely sound strange when I explain them to non-horse people, but to others they hopefully make a little more sense!

Essentially, they’re like playdates, but without babies and toddlers (children are welcome!) and with horses.  A host will volunteer themselves, round up their toys, create an obstacle course, perhaps throw in a small jumping arena, prepare a few cakes and invite humans and horses over to play.  As with all things natural horsemanship, the only limit is your imagination.  There may be friendly competitive elements, and people and horses of all abilities are welcome.  It’s a chance to meet like-minded people, get new ideas and hang out with some horses.

When we set the dates, Jo decided that she wanted me to feel comfortable to ride Prince if I wanted to.  I had 11 weeks to get ready, at which point I’d sat on him once.  It seemed a tall order.

Once I started working again, the time flew by and the date had suddenly arrived.  I’d ridden Prince only a handful of times with varying degrees of success.  I wasn’t too bothered, as the day after the play day, we had an instructor scheduled to come over and help us out with some lessons (brilliantly, she also came to the play day, off-duty and accompanied by her own green horse, which was great to watch).  So I walked into the play day with little expectation from Prince.  In fact, I thought I’d spend most of the day working or stewarding, rather than playing.

We helped our visitors to settle in, showed them around and left them to play, assisting when they wanted the clear round course changed or offering a score when they wanted to be judged on their abilities with the obstacle course.  We’d managed to come up with some inventive things: we’d built a small ball/sand pit for the horses to explore, created a “log walk” (designed to mimic the conditions you might meet out on a forest trail) and rigged up one of my favourite holiday souvenirs (a sheep bell from Greece) for people to park their horse next to and ring.  It’s all about figuring out what you and your horse can do, whether you do it online, at liberty or ridden.

Having watched our visitors get going, I was starting to itch for a play, so I retrieved Prince.  We got off to a terrible start: I had to walk him through the “warm up” field where some obstacles were laid out, and he took particular exception to an umbrella.  I honestly didn’t think I’d get him past it at first, and once I did, my game plan changed.  I spent some time grooming Prince and plaiting him up (even though I had no intention of riding) before taking him back to avenge the ghost that was the umbrella.

Some snorting ensued, and I almost had a 15hh, 550kg cob jump on top of me (not cool, I told him, as I promptly sent him back out into his own space, to prevent myself from being crushed).  It was Prince’s first experience of a play day too, and I was glad it was on his home turf, though it meant that home had changed significantly with the addition of lots of obstacles and some strange horses.  Fortunately, with a few clever games played, he settled quickly and soon touched the umbrella with his nose!  After he marched confidently through our “car wash” obstacle (which he’s seen and completed before – it’s a plastic frame with strips of fine plastic hanging from it which were blowing in the breeze), I knew he was ready to take on the new obstacles, so off we went to play.

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sand pit: no drama

Prince began to really impress me by staying relaxed and connected – nothing fazed him.  He happily tackled the sand pit (we think most of the horses were fooled into thinking that the balls were apples), successfully negotiated the log walk, weaved in and out of the straw bale squeeze with me stood on top of one (he wiggled all around in every direction I requested), and rang the bell using his nose!

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chilling in the hay

As we were working our way around, my brain was ticking over, and I wondered what would happen if I changed the game slightly… I tacked him up.  We tackled the obstacles from the ground: complete relaxation, no change in approach, no big deal for Prince.  So I fetched my helmet and climbed on.

Under saddle, I met more resistance, but only with open spaces.  If Prince had an obstacle in front of him, we were absolutely fine, and he did me proud.  Walking to and from the arena was different – all jolty stop-start gaits that I’ve experienced my last few rides, and I was glad our instructor was there to see what I meant!

The final challenge I gave Prince was a bit of a laugh – we tackled the clear round.  All of it was small enough to step over, or hop from a standstill.  I wasn’t expecting even a trot out of him, and sure enough he demolished most of it.  However, I did manage to get a trot going at one point, and the little horse surprised me yet again by rewarding me with two proper jumps!  Our friends who were watching cheered as if we’d slid down the Derby Bank and successfully cleared the rails at the bottom, and I suspect the grin on my face told the same story.  Prince and I received a rosette for our efforts, my first since I was a teenager!

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winning!

The day was an enormous boost to my confidence in terms of my relationship with Prince and what we might achieve.  No, we still haven’t been out on a hack (a lack of companion is partly what’s slowing us down there), but he remained calm and did everything I asked of him last weekend.  I really couldn’t have asked for more.  It felt like the holy grail of my horse saying, “the answer is ‘yes’, what was the question?”.

Six weeks until the next play day, and this time, I’ve got aspirations for an actual clear round…