Changes on the blog

Some of you may have realised that I’ve been struggling to write recently, which is a strange thing for someone who has a lot of opinions!  I’ve thought long and hard about why I’m struggling and what to do, because there are exciting things coming which I’d like to both share and save for posterity, it’s just that excitement is less forthcoming than it was.

I thought back to why I started blogging, and remembered that initially it was to keep my family informed of my whereabouts.  This was a little more relevant when I was spending four nights here, two nights there, but not so critical now that I’m remaining in one place!  My other problem is that I keep seeing all of the things in my life which I can’t blog about for confidentiality or not-wanting-to-lose-my-job reasons, and I keep seeing a limited pool of what I can share.

So the compromise that I’ll try is to blog weekly, instead of twice per week.  Hopefully, this means I’ll find the time to write a really decent post each week, and won’t be scratching around for topics!  The new world of Kicking On starts here, and I’ll be coming at you on Wednesdays (because who doesn’t need a mid-week distraction?).

Stick with me, and hopefully I’ll be able to continue to share the fun parts as and when they come along!

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Finding his feet

Prince doesn’t know how many feet he has.  As an inexperienced riding horse, and one who has done a lot of Parelli playing from the ground, but not a lot of real schooling work, he often fails to pick his feet up, particularly at the trot.  As I don’t wish to be put on the floor, I decided this should be something we work on pretty soon.  I’m not planning on competing or doing any dressage with him, but he needs to be able to make his way in any direction I ask him to go without stumbling or tripping.  We know it isn’t a soundness issue, or something which relates to the way his tack fits, it’s definitely a case of not always thinking about where he puts his feet, and not being in self-carriage.

So out came the trotting poles, I sent Prince on a circle and… he flew over them.  I thought it might be beginner’s luck, so I sent him again, and witnessed another great performance.  I decided I’d need evidence in case nobody believed me, so I did a juggling act with a 22-foot line and my phone (and probably over-used my tongue as a result, I sound like I’m nagging in this video!), and asked Prince to approach the poles once more.

As you can see, he does a reasonable job!  The right rein isn’t so fantastic, with him missing the stride into them and clouting the first two as a result, but he made a real effort, so I was proud of him.

Here Prince is two weeks ago figuring out how to pick his feet up:

A week later, with an eye on the fact that our first playday is now less than a month away, I decided it was high time that Prince and I checked out the ten acre field.  The horses live there all winter, but none of them have been there for a couple of months, as they’ve moved into their summer paddocks.  I knew Prince would want the chance to check for dragons before any obstacles are set up or other horses arrive, so I tacked him up on the yard, and with the safety of two companions alongside us, we went to the ten acre for a play.

Sure enough, Prince wasn’t all that relaxed initially – up on his toes as he was in a ten acre field full of tall grass, but he soon started blowing and snorting (in the good way!) once I got him trotting and thinking.  Once he’d figured out that there was probably nothing nearby which would attack him, I mounted up and we had a mini hack around the field.  I half wanted to ride him back down the lane to the yard, but the person assisting me wasn’t all that confident, so I decided to leave things on a good note and walk him home.  Another reasonably successful session for the books.

Our final workout recently came earlier this week: it was almost the hottest day of 2015 so far, and I didn’t have Prince’s saddle at the yard, so riding wasn’t an option, but I wanted him a little tired so that he was well-behaved for the podiatrist’s impending visit.  I didn’t try to achieve anything clever, just gave Prince some miles in his legs, working on some transitions with him out on the line: upwards and downwards, between walk, trot and canter.  It’s just nice, I thought, that he now does what I ask, when I ask for it.  He finally pretty much trusts me and sees me as a partner and leader, rather than a stranger.

At the end of the session, the podiatrist had arrived but was halfway through doing another horse.  Prince was sweaty, so needed a hose down before being seen, but I had a fair bit of time on my hands, so I took him for a walk to the top of the paddock to cool him off and give him the chance to stand in the shade.  Our neighbours were burning something next door, and as the smoke drifted through the trees, it was hit by the bright sunlight from overhead, creating the kind of light you typically see in heavily-edited or brilliantly-lit photoshoots, or even in CGI-filled movies.  I put Prince in position, crouched down and shot away, producing some pictures I’m pretty proud of – you can check them out below.

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I’m a little behind where I’d like to be, but overall in a good horsey place at the moment.  Hope you’re all enjoying the summer too!

Sunny Sussex

It’s been three years since I’ve seen a British summer, and I’ve noticed myself lately driving around as I go about my business, as if seeing the countryside and weather for the first time.  A change really is as good as a rest, apparently.

I grew up in a small village, and as a child I found it boring.  As a horsey kid, it shouldn’t have been that way, it should’ve been wonderful.  But my loan pony didn’t live within walking or cycling distance (if he had, I suspect I’d very rarely have been at home), and none of my school friends lived in our village.  The day I passed my driving test was when I won my freedom, and from that point I stopped caring so much about being cut off from other people.

That cut off feeling has returned somewhat during recent years: I sold my car when I moved to London just over four years ago, and promptly used the takings to pay my rent when I quit my job a couple of weeks later.  Some very big mistakes were made that year, ones which I’m still feeling the repercussions of!  So two years ago, when I dropped everything, moved my belongings home and ran away to join the circus, there was no money to have my own car and certainly no money for one.

Upon my return in autumn, I was able to borrow my Mum’s car occasionally, but it was just a means of getting around – my surroundings don’t look very inspiring in winter, unless it snows or there’s a heavy frost.  I spent two winters surrounded by brown and grey, with the odd hint of blue, and two summers in a completely different world, creating a new temporary home for the bulk of my trips, then taking in a huge variety of places on my travels.  I’ve seen red cliffs and black sand, several different types of turtle, a gorgeous pink sunset and some concrete jungles.  But none of it looks like home.

The countryside has bloomed from grey to green, driving along the roads feels like a sweeping rollercoaster of leaves and grasses, with trees reaching out across the lanes, rather than just nakedly poking out of the ground.  The countryside really is rolling around here, and I often feel myself sitting taller in a vain attempt to see over the hedges into fields beyond.  This technique works when you’re on a horse, not so much in a car.

I’ve been to some stunning cities, and there are some great ones near me.  But nothing compares to the emergence of my local summer from the curtain of rain, wind and grey skies of winter.  I swam through our clay-based soil throughout the winter, it’s fantastic to be able to drive with the windows down, sunglasses on and fully-bloomed countryside around me, the comforting hug of home re-born, both in real life and my memories.

Buck Brannaman demonstration review

Back in January, when I was deliberating over where to spend 2015, some news came my way which immediately added an item to the “Pro UK” list: Buck Brannaman would be coming to the UK to give his first ever clinic here in June.  I mourned for the fact that I wouldn’t be able to participate as a rider (Prince and I aren’t ready… and when I first heard about Buck’s visit, only one clinic had been announced, and it was too far away for me to borrow Prince and get him there – notice that the cost didn’t put me off, I’d sever a limb to ride at this man’s clinic), but I knew I would be able to at least go along and watch.  And, last Saturday, having decided to remain in the UK and following the scheduling of an event nearer to my home, I went to watch an evening demonstration which had been added to Buck’s three-day clinic with US Olympic showjumper Melanie Smith Taylor.

Part of me would have loved to have spectated at a day of the clinic itself, but not only was I worried about not getting the same out of watching other people ride as I would from participating, but the cost was also what I considered to be over the odds.

Back when my wildest dreams caused me to dare to enquire about rider places, I’d discovered that, unlike his normal clinics, Buck’s second UK clinic would be delivered in conjunction with a lady called Melanie Smith Taylor.  I’d never heard of her (any of my US readers know more about her?  She gave a brief and appropriate introduction before doing her demo, but I’m not sure how well-known she is), but the format sounded interesting: the students would be split in half, spending one half of the day with Buck, the other with Melanie, working on the basis of learning horsemanship skills and putting them into practice.  The cost of being a participant didn’t shock me, and given that it included stabling for three nights, I also thought it was in the ballpark of average for a well-renowned trainer who was travelling from the US – £750 per person.

Even when I checked Buck’s website and compared the UK price to the US one ($700, which is about £450), I didn’t balk.  As a retired event manager, I mentally balanced the books, factoring in fees for flights and accommodation, which Buck doesn’t normally have to pay (anyone who’s watched his movie knows he spends most of his time on the road, towing his horses around and sleeping in his caravan or in the homes of people who host his clinics).  The US clinics are also set up a little differently, with clinics normally being hosted on farms owned by friends of Buck, meaning little or no venue costs (in the UK, they were held at two equestrian centres).  The crunch came for me when I saw the spectator costs: £45 per day for the Liverpool clinic, £50 per day for the Guildford one.  Unreal, I thought, given that nothing special is included in this price.  A copy of Buck’s book?  No.  A DVD?  Definitely not.  A tea or coffee?  Not even.  The cost of spectating in the US?  $30 per day (approximately £20).

I’m aware that we mere spectators are piggybacking on the learning of those riding in the clinic, but it feels like, as they are getting the most out of it and are paying for the privilege, that they should also be covering the bulk of the costs.  Spectator fees – as they are in the US – should be a nominal bonus for hosts/organisers, rather than a nice fat profit margin.  Guildford earned themselves some extra money by charging £32 per ticket for the demonstration (£35 on the door).  I considered this a more reasonable fee, but it was almost a full house, and the show was directly for our benefit, rather than us essentially watching a group of other people have a riding lesson.

There are some fantastic equestrian events in the UK and Europe, and we are very lucky that we are visited by many people, have brilliant facilities and host lots of events in a small distance, which the US doesn’t benefit from.  But I do feel that we are hit in the pocket – something that I’ve pointed out previously, and something which I still object to.  Organisers: please don’t insult us.  If we want our sport to be innovative and accessible, we need to talk about prices.  I’ll let you lick and chew on that one, and get back to the original point.

Having seen Monty Roberts do a demo last year, I was even more intrigued to see Buck.  I missed the Parellis doing their first UK demo in years back in March (guess what put me off attending?  Yep, that’d be the £100 price tag on the ticket), and I’d have loved to have compared it to horsemanship’s biggest marketing machine, but I am sadly unable to.  I knew Buck would be a very different experience: he’s far less commercial than Monty and the Parellis, and keeps things rather simpler and less flashy.

True to form, having watched two horses be warmed up from the ground and saddle when we arrived, Buck appeared in the arena at the appointed start time, settled himself down into a chair and gave his demonstration with very little fanfare.  Whether or not he had begun to take on students was something I had been wondering (although regarded as a contemporary of Pat Parelli and Mark Rashid, I suspect Buck is younger than both of them, and all three are younger than Monty Roberts) – Roberts and Parelli have run training schemes and essentially franchised out their programmes for a long time, but Buck and Rashid remain more independent.  It’s nice to know that Buck has taken on a few students quietly – one of them rode under his instruction for the demo, and what happened was very little.

Buck opened by stating that during his 30+ years as a clinician, the issue he’s seen every single time is herd-bound horses; that is, those who are difficult to separate from their friends for whatever reason, even for a matter of minutes.  He puts the humans at fault here, for making allowances and persistently giving the fussy horses what they want, and proceeded to show an exercise he uses to separate the horse from their “sweetie pie”.

The demonstration horse wasn’t on the clinic, but had kicked up a fuss when other horses on the yard had been prepared to take to the clinic, so the owner had been allowed to bring him along for the demo.  So: not a horse Buck had worked with previously, and not one he had promised to fix for the purpose of the show, but one he would work with.  It was completely different to watching Monty Roberts and Kelly Marks take the reins of a willing owner’s horse and show us how it’s done.  Buck and his student worked the horse steadily, playing a game known as a passenger ride, whereby the rider is aiming to get the horse to a certain point in the arena, but without directing him.  All the rider would do would be to ask the horse to keep moving if he stopped, or to stop or slow down if he was pleased with where the horse had gone.  The idea was to make it uncomfortable for the horse to be where he wanted, and comfortable for him to be where the rider wanted – implementing two horsemanship ideals I’ve heard before: make your idea the horse’s idea; make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.

The process took about two hours (Pat Parelli has a similar theory, one which Prince and I have tested, that something never takes longer than two days!) – there were ups and downs, moments where Buck went full-on riding instructor and shouted at his student, and interesting anecdotes.  Buck took the opportunity at one moment to point out that the horse had regressed a little, and reassured the audience that this is okay, it’s part of learning for the horse.  Sometimes, confidence wavers and they are unsure, but persistence and consistency are the key to success, and sure enough, the horse came through the regression and went on to succeed.  Many of the audience gasped when Buck got tough on his student, but I didn’t find his shouting overly harsh – it’s an exercise they’ve clearly done before, the instruction had already been issued calmly, and I’ve heard instructors blow up worse!  In fact, I’m sure Buck himself has been shouted at far louder than he shouted at his student.

Interestingly, Buck quickly made a damning comment about lungeing – something that Monty Roberts had also done – which made me smile: it’s funny to see horsemen with quite different approaches be the same at their core, sharing fundamental values and seeing certain things in the same way.  One of my favourite quotes of the night was one which clearly wasn’t contrived, it came about when the horse began to show some independence: “To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a horse think, and someone allowing a horse to think.”

Unlike at Monty’s demo, there was no rush to achieve.  There was an aim, sure, but there was a point at which it felt time really would run out, and I knew that Buck wasn’t going to push the horse, but would instead settle for less.  Fortunately, the horse leapt on and progressed (and the session was allowed to run over), meaning the goal was reached.  Buck reiterated that consistency would be key, and that a few habits needed to be trained out of the horse in order to prevent the herd-bound behaviour from returning, and to stop the gelding from failing to think for himself.  There was no panic, no force, and no gimmicks, just a simple lesson taught in a straightforward way.

The idea of attending a three-day clinic as a rider intimidates me – I’m not enough of a horsewoman, the horse I have to ride would be nowhere near ready (even if I were allowed to borrow him!), and I worry that it would be a huge amount to take in.  But even if I thought at the beginning that I were the worst rider and horseperson present, I’d still give a lot in order to take up the opportunity: it’d be worth the sacrifice in my own pride in order to improve, and that £750 of knowledge would stay with me forever.

For now, I’ll settle for ordering myself a new book come payday, and keep dreaming of the day I get to tick riding at a clinic off my bucket list.

Wordless Wednesday: equine therapy

Following my previous explanation of equine assisted learning, something great popped up on one of my Google Alerts.  The below infographic is a fantastic demonstration of what equine therapy is and what it can be used for.  The organisation I volunteer with doesn’t currently offer riding as part of any therapy, but as it grows, it is something which is in the plan, if appropriate for a given participant.

So if you’re still uncertain, take a look at this infographic.  Please feel free to share and let me know what you think!

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Open for business

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me!  I haven’t had time to write a full blog post today, so I thought I’d give you a peek at the events I helped put on last week.

The Equine Partners open days were a great success – lots of people came to visit us, there was a huge amount of cake consumed, and our visitors were very generous with their donations in return for said cake.  It’s now onward and upwards to make the most of the summer, getting lots of sessions in and continuing the good work that we do…

Here’s our yard looking busier than it ever has before!  We normally only see one family at a time (all images are clickable to enlarge)

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Kira made some new friends!  I promise she didn’t eat anyone…

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Prince and I were teaching a student and ended up doing a demo I was very proud of!  He tried really hard and gave me some great things

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I did some demo sessions as well, here’s Kira doing some teaching about obstacles and communication

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And finally, we took the opportunity to have a photo shoot – here’s Prince and me posing shamelessly

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Hope to be back on track next week!

Product review – Glamourati horse glitter kit

My reviews have been getting great feedback, and some exciting search engine results, so I’m pleased to present the latest product I’ve been privileged to test: Glamourati horse glitter kits!  Here’s the upfront disclaimer: I approached Glamourati in the run up to the Equine Partners open days, asking whether they’d be willing to donate anything to our cause, in return for a review and some cross-promotion.  I was delighted when they kindly sent me a glitter kit (and a custom stencil is also en-route!) – this is the first time I’ve accepted a product for free in return for a review, but all opinions are my own honest findings, so read on to get the details.

I was hoping to get my hands on a glitter kit for three reasons: firstly, as I think it’s a great way of attracting attention for a brand if you’re taking your horse out and about (which we do, occasionally, for play days or promotional events); secondly, I knew it’d be something some of our visiting kids would love to use, as grooming horses is a big part of what they do – most of them love plaiting and bathing, so I thought glitter would also be popular; thirdly… well, I’m a girl who loves a bit of sparkle, so I’ll be honest and state that I wanted the chance to bedazzle a horse too!

The glitter kit I received contains three pots of Stardust glitter (pink, gold and silver), three sponges (one for each glitter pot), an instruction card, a bottle of Glamourati’s Shortstay adhesive, and two packs of stencils.  All of Glamourati’s products have been safety tested for use on horses, and the glitters themselves are high-grade with no sharp edges or spurs.

The instructions were nice and clear, so with my wonderful assistant and photographer (my sister), and my semi-reluctant guinea pig/model (Prince), I set to work…

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step one: groom your model!

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step two: place stencil on horse

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step three: apply glitter to horse’s hair

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more glueing… and a slightly-unimpressed Prince

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step four: glitter time!

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Prince was very patient as I experimented

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step five: the stars are revealed!

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the stencil post-use. If you peel off carefully and re-apply the backing, it’s possible to re-use

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a treat for the model!

The benefit of Glamourati’s stencils versus traditional quartermarking stencils, is that they’re adhesive – they stick to your horse whilst you glitter him or her up, meaning you’re not trying to use hands/arms/elbows/other people in order to hold the stencil on.  As you can see from the pictures, I did undertake my test on a lovely sunny day, but I know that these stencils would stick comfortably to your horse in a gale-force wind.  I peeled it off Prince carefully, so as not to hurt or startle him, and so that I could hopefully re-use the stencil, and it worked a treat.

My suggestion to those wanting to use these products with children, as I do, is that an adult/responsible person is the one holding the glue brush – it’s got a consistency similar to nail polish, so it’s very runny and would be easy to overdo it.  I’ve got no concerns about it getting on skin (it’s water-based, so is very easy to clean up), but you wouldn’t want to waste it, or get it on areas outside of the stencil.  Children would have no problem dabbing the glitter on – I worked with the idea that you can always add more, so I went quite carefully at first before I got the hang of it and figured out how much was needed.

The adhesive stencil allowed for a very crisp and accurate finish, giving an impressive design.  If I’d had time, I would have done more stars all over Prince, but I wanted to reward him for his modelling efforts and ask him to stand still only for the minimum time required (I did make good use of a bucket of hay whilst bedazzling him!).

I’ll definitely be getting more Glamourati products in future, as I loved using them and think they look fantastic (I’m now desperate to go to a fancy dress competition!).  Our kids will enjoy the process too, and it’ll help those who want to do something creative but aren’t sure where to start, as well as developing fine motor skills and a bit of good old-fashioned self-control!

As a bonus, here’s a video I took of Prince using his favourite toy – Prince loves having his ankles scratched and will walk up to you and dangle a leg if he wants to be itched!  If no willing humans or ponies are available, he’ll make good use of this stump instead:

A big thank you to Glamourati for supporting Equine Partners CIC by sending us a kit – much enjoyment provided for adults and kids alike, though the jury’s out on what our gelding thinks of having a sparkly bum!

If you’ve been inspired to bedazzle your horse or pony, I’d love to see the results!  Let me know in the comments or, better still, tweet me a photo via @_kickingon

Giving and getting

“We want to make sure that you’re getting what you want out if this,” Fran said to me back in January.  It wasn’t a conversation I was expecting, but one which one of the Directors of the charity I volunteer with broached on a windy morning, forcing me to stop and think.  I hadn’t considered what I wanted, beyond the chance to spend time with horses over the winter.  But at that point, it was becoming clear that I might be sticking around for longer, so it made sense that we consider the future.

Let’s take a few steps back, now.  I’ve always been a Girl Who Likes Things: I enjoy spending money; I like trying new food (preferably accompanied by good wine in a comfortable setting where I pay for the privilege of someone else cooking AND clearing up); I take pleasure in going shopping, whether it’s to find the perfect dress, shoes, handbag or pair of jeans; when I go on holiday, I’m happy to pay more in order to stay somewhere nice with good facilities and a breathtaking view.  Essentially, I’m materialistic.  And until even as little as a year ago, that meant (in my terms) that my time was worth money.  Because money buys Things, and Things are what I like.  Plus, I reasoned, I have talent and skills, those are worth paying for, right?

I even went as far as to tell friends and family that I would never work for free.  I didn’t mind working for low wages (if you want to get rich, you do not work at summer camps), but I did need to be paid.

I’m not sure I could tell you exactly what changed, so I think I’ll call it kismet.  It’s probably a combination of things: I found something I deemed “worth it”; I had time on my hands; I had another job which did pay me; I needed what was on offer… I moved the goalposts.  I volunteered.

I didn’t actively expect to “get” anything, partly because I already was: when I first went to see Fran and Jo upon my return to the UK last autumn, they invited me to ride one of their horses for them.  He needed work, I could (and wanted to) ride, it made sense to them.  For me it meant that I didn’t have to pay in order to do something I enjoy doing (my other option at the time would’ve been to go back to the local riding school and pay for lessons on their horses again, given that I don’t have my own horse).  I already thought I was winning.  In fact, the more I showed up, I knew I was winning, because they allowed me to assist on therapy sessions, something that I knew I wanted to ultimately do as my job, and an area in which I needed experience.  I didn’t think I needed any more.

But they wanted to give me more, and they wanted me to tell them what more was.  They wanted to make sure that I was developing, and that was purely out of the kindness of their hearts.  The way they saw it, I was giving them my time and some physical labour, and that meant I was due something in return.  I love this attitude, not because I stand to gain something concrete from it, but because it matches my own – that anyone who is even a millimetre ahead should be supporting those behind them.  Because that’s how we stabilise the future.  We shouldn’t be job-blocking or holding others back or – worst of all – de-motivating them; we should be encouraging and nurturing.

I’ve written before about how I’ve been inspired by some great managers (who sometimes work for not-so-great organisations), those who I thought managed talent well, and who helped the business they work for achieve its goals, but without ignoring the individuals who are there making it happen.  Because it’s not always about what the organisation needs: whether someone is turning up paid or unpaid, we all have different motivations, but as long as you tap into those drivers, you can help a team function effectively even though they ultimately want different things.

I genuinely believe that by protecting the good habits instilled in me by the managers I worked for when I was younger, I will hopefully be able to perpetuate them, and make the working world a better place.  This post may seem a little out of the blue: in fact, it was inspired by a discussion during #CharityHour, whereby a few of us became involved in a debate regarding support or help given to volunteers looking to advance their careers.  On one side was somebody who essentially said, “ain’t nobody got time for that”, and on the other side was me.  The other side said, “but we can’t have volunteers taking up the charity’s resources,” following which I exploded with apoplexy, because volunteers are a resource of any charity and, in fact, they are more than a resource, they are an asset and assets, as any businessperson will tell you, must be protected.

The other side reared up at my suggestion that volunteers at the very least be promised a reference, stating that they had known organisations whereby one person were responsible for hundreds of volunteers.  My response was that the responsibility should then be divided – provide training, I said, make sure people can do this; our saying within the horsemanship community is, “find a way or make one”.  Anything is possible (insert more cat-skinning related clichés here).  The sticking point for many – and I have worked for at least two enormous companies who have this rule – is good old arse-covering: in the UK, it is illegal to give a negative reference for an employee or volunteer.  As a referee, you have three choices – give a positive reference, a neutral reference, or decline (and the final option tells the person requesting one that, if you could, you’d be giving a bad one).

So big companies permit only neutral references – the standard is that you will confirm dates of employment and sickness record, but won’t comment on an individual’s performance.  Johnny who turns up early for every shift, stays late and is your top seller whose jokes, patter and warmth your customers adore gets the same reference as Bob, who shows up five minutes late, nips out for cigarettes every hour, looks unkempt and is borderline rude.  In my mind, to go the extra mile for Johnny – who has gone several hundred extra miles for you – is not hard.  To provide training and regulation for those who will be giving references (to ensure that your arse is covered) is also not hard.  To give you another equestrian analogy (because they work, as horses are mirrors): “Never knock the curiosity out of a young horse” – Tom Dorrance.  We remember those who snub us on our slow and steady climb.  We mirror their habits.  Let’s breed positive qualities.

I am hopeful that, one day, I will create my ideal world: the one where I get to do a job that I adore (full-time, paid), and develop those around me in a way I would like to see things progress.  I once heard a riding instructor say that they are delighted when their students enter the same classes as them at competitions and beat them, because that’s how it should be – the next generation should ultimately improve on the previous one.  It’s called progress, and without it, nothing changes.  But without a little help – a leg up, a “thank you”, and an opportunity – it can’t happen.  I want to see positive strides, but they can’t happen without my support, so I will give anything that I am able to, whenever I am able to give it.

The week the wheels came off… and went back on

I’m beginning to settle into my new working/horsey balance pattern.  There’s still going to be some adjusting along the way, but last week saw a bit of a golden opportunity: I would spend both Monday and Saturday at the yard, and I should’ve had enough time to work with and ride Prince on both days.  Should being the operative word.

As it happened, time wasn’t the issue: we spent most of Monday entertaining some guests – employees of the local council who make lots of referrals to us, and came to have a kind of experience day.  We showed them directly what the kids they refer to us get to do, by running some sessions for them.  There were also cookies and cups of tea and lots of questions, all of which was good practice for the coming week (our open days are finally happening!) as we had to be “on” all the time, fielding questions about what we do, how we do it and the impact it has.

Once the goodbyes had been said and the morning declared a success, it was time for Prince to do some real work (having spent an hour conning a group of people into picking him the juiciest grass from the other side of the fence and hand-feeding it to him).  By this point, there was a sideways wind and he wasn’t really in the mood to work, having been in the company for a very extroverted group all morning.  Nor was I, if I’m honest, with a couple of distractions playing on my mind.  But I set to it anyway, grooming him and tacking up to ride.

I realised not long into our ground work session that riding wasn’t a good idea.  Prince gave me a lot of attitude, wasn’t really concentrating and didn’t seem capable of achieving much.  So I got to a place where we’d done something good, then gave up for the day.  I was pretty despondent – handling my emotions is something I’m not great at, especially when I’ve got a goal which I don’t think is going to be reached.  As the play day gets closer, I’ve had far less saddle time than I’d like (I know that’s always the way, but I haven’t really ridden at all, rather than it being a case of getting only three hours of riding a week when my ideal would be six or eight).  When I went home on Monday, I felt pretty hopeless.

I had four days away to try and get myself together, but although Saturday dawned sunny and warm, I still wasn’t feeling any more positive.  But my day started with a surprise: I had to move Bella, alpha mare of the little herd, to another paddock.  Over the winter, she was easy to handle (because she was cold and knew that humans = helpers); throughout the spring, she has become progressively awkward to catch, as her owner’s pregnancy has advanced and she’s not receiving the attention that she thinks she should be.  As an extroverted horse, she’s basically a bit bored, so I played the catching game with her.

Bella and I did a dance around the field, but it wasn’t Bella leading me in a game of chase, it was me saying, “okay, let’s play”.  I had to go a little carefully, as she’s (we suspect) torn a muscle in a hind leg and has limited her mobility a little at the moment, but there was more than enough movement for a quick game.  As we made our way across the paddock, we reached Prince’s favourite spot – small tree stump, which Prince itches on but all of the horses can use as a podium.  Bella was on one side of it, I was on the other, so I backed away and beckoned her towards me.  It’s plenty small enough for her to step over, and she had the option to go safely around either side of it… but she chose to step up onto it with her front feet.  I almost fell over in shock.  I’ve done no real liberty work on my horsemanship journey so far, and here I was with an injured alpha mare offering me a big touchdown.  I stood and gawped for a few seconds, praising Bella verbally, before gently stepping into her space and scratching her neck as she stood on the log.  There was just enough time for me to step back and snap a couple of quick pictures before she got down, stood quietly behind the log and waited whilst I went and haltered her.

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One satisfied horse gave me a confidence boost, and when it came time to work with Prince a couple of hours later, the weather was calm and sunny, I was in a good mood and we were ready to go.  I plaited him up again (my skills in that area are definitely improving!) and away we went.  I played a quick variety of games, trying to get him focused, particularly on picking his front feet up and being aware of where they are – he trips a bit at the moment, even though he’s sound and his tack fits, it seems to be a concentration issue, so I tried my best to get him switched on.

Happy that he was ready to go, I swapped his halter for a bridle and hopped on.  My previous ride a few weeks earlier had involved him expressing some quite serious opinions on going round corners (we were only able to do so sideways at a walk – not ideal), but I focused on where we were at and moved off.  He was a bit wobbly in that he finds maintaining straightness hard (which is due to all sorts of things: not being ride-fit, being inexperienced under saddle, and being ridden in a different paddock to where he normally is), because again, it involves concentrating, but I decided to forgive him the wonky lines and focus on just getting forwards – we have the rest of our lives to ride spirit level lines if we want to, I just wanted to get closer to a point where we might be able to leave the yard and go on a hack one day!

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from the way this was captured, in my head this looks like we’re doing a piaffe… maybe one day!

Having walked around for a while, checking steering and brakes, I nudged Prince into a trot and found him much more willing than before.  I continued to focus on transitions, forwards and gentle steering and, eventually, we cornered at a trot!  See below for triumphant video:

Please excuse my hideously out of practice riding, and Prince’s aforementioned wobbly form.  It’s a work in progress, but that’s now the key word: progress was again made.  I’ve got everything crossed that I’ll ride at the play day in a month, but I’m trying not to hold my breath…

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look at his beautiful swishy feathers!

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and we can do backup too!

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Oh, and the other thing?  I realised whilst I was riding that when I checked my Timehop app on Saturday morning, a photo had appeared from a year ago of me riding another 15hh black horse… on a different continent, in a different type of saddle and of a completely different build, but either way – two years, two 15hh Black Beauties.  It’s funny how life works out!

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on the left: Murray in the US, 2014; on the right: Prince in the UK, 2015. Spot the difference!

Reasons to stay alive – book review

This could be a very short blog post, because my thoughts on this book are simple: it’s excellent.  Published a mere three months ago, the buzz about this book turned into a roar very quickly.  The internet collectively cried, “Someone described how I really feel,” and how.  The author, Matt Haig, suffered a breakdown in his early 20s, eventually turning to reading and writing in order to overcome his new state of mind (I’m not convinced that depression is something which we can “cure”).  Initially, Haig published a handful of fiction books, some of which received a good deal of positive attention.  It is Reasons, however, which has catapulted him to a different level.

As someone interested in learning more about depression, I was looking for an autobiographical account of it, and there are many currently available.  However, my reading habits over the last few years could probably best be described as erratic: when I left young adult fiction behind, I wasn’t sure where to go with proper, grown up books, so my tendency is to buy something which sounds exciting, but this hasn’t been all that effective.  I’ve got more books than I’d like to think about sat around having lost me after about 40 pages – if I don’t finish a book within 48 hours of picking it up, odds on I won’t go back to it.  So when selecting my book from this category, I took the recommendation of a few friends who raved about it before purchasing.

I was pleasantly surprised: it’s an incredibly clever book, as no chapter is more than about eight pages long.  It’s a book written by a depression-sufferer for fellow sufferers, contained within manageable chunks in an engaging style.  There are lows – of course – and there is hope.  There is practical advice (in a gentle way, a “this worked for me, you could try it, I have no proof, but you could also leave it and try your own thing” style), and there are true accounts of the author’s experiences.  It is a brave person who opens their brain like this, showing the world what it’s really like: that it’s a mess in there, and you have no idea how to untangle it.  Not only do you not have the practical resources, but you also don’t have the energy, because whatever has short-circuited in your brain is demanding all of your body’s physical energy in order to try and fix that problem before you can address the emotional ones.

It’s a book everyone should read, whether you are depressed, have been depressed, or know someone who is (or may be – statistically, given the amount of people we all connect with, you either currently know someone who is suffering in silence, or will know someone in the future who faces this problem), you should read this book.  Because there is help for supporters too, it is useful to see this perspective, as it is something many people are not able to articulate.

One of my favourite lines came about half way through the book, and it’s worth noting even if we’re not discussing mental health issues: “Normal is subjective.  There are seven billion versions of normal on this planet.”  If we all began by taking a minute to let that sink in, the world would already be a more comfortable place.  Take 48 hours to consume this book, and things could improve enormously.