The art of giving (when the recipient is too young to know that they’re getting)

If your life is anything like mine, it currently feels like there is at least one friend/acquaintance announcing a pregnancy or birth every week!  This can mean that a bit of shopping is in order.  I blogged previously on how I think you can ensure you buy a great gift, but there are still times when you could be quite stuck.  Babies are a prime example, particularly newborns, and if the parents do not know whether they’re gaining a son or a daughter.  Unsurprisingly, I still have some advice, most of which was passed on from my mother.  Here are the basics:

  • Clothes are good gifts, but there are still some bad ideas. Avoid buying any clothes with integrated hands and feet – extremities grow fastest, so a baby can irritatingly outgrow the mittens/socks which are sewn into a body suit before their body does!  The item is then sadly wasted (unless the parents don’t mind cutting the hands and feet of the outfit off)
  • Even if you know the gender, buy neutral colours and patterns – you may not know the parents’ exact taste plus, sonographers can get the baby’s gender wrong
  • Never buy clothes in “newborn” size, even if the baby is premature – they will fit for approximately five minutes and, again, be a waste of money. If you want to really impress them (this is my favourite trick), buy clothes the baby can wear in six or nine months time.  You have to think about this carefully, because you’ll have to make sure you think ahead and buy something seasonally appropriate (there’s an art to this!  If you’re shopping in November or December, there will be a lot of cold weather clothes, but when a December newborn is six months old, they won’t need a puffy coat!), but your gift will be mightily appreciated: EVERYONE buys for newborns or up to three months old.  Parents are overwhelmed with new babygros and tiny clothes, then suddenly end up with a limited wardrobe a few months later.  Extra bonus – if you buy for when the baby’s older, there’s a better chance of you getting to see him or her in your outfit
  • No baby can have too many socks. They fall off constantly, get eaten by washing machines and generally go missing.  Socks are a great padding gift, they’re cheap and will be appreciated.  Scout around and you can even get more exciting baby socks – I hit a triple whammy when my cousin’s daughter was born, as I found a three-pack which had a pair that looked like ballet shoes (my cousin loves ballet and her daughter was the first girl born into the family in 25 years), plus a pair which had “born in 2013” on them
  • Think about how you purchase your own clothes – it’s rare that we buy one item which is only ever suitable for wearing as part of one outfit. Buy neutral layers so that parents can again get a good amount of wear out of it, and potentially mix and match your items with others (when my cousin’s daughter recently turned two, I picked two dresses, and a cardigan which matches both… and is in a neutral colour which will work nicely with other things in her wardrobe)
  • It can be quite difficult to find nice clothes for baby boys, but the range on the UK high street is improving. You don’t have to spend a fortune: I’ve previously found some really nice, well-wearing items in places like Asda and Tesco, but my favourite place to shop for baby and toddler clothes as gifts is definitely H&M – they usually have a fantastic variety and are very reasonably-priced

Having said all of that… parents tend to receive lots of clothes.  And some people don’t like buying clothes (you’re strange, by the way).  So here my tips for non-clothing items:

  • Never, ever buy a soft toy. Again, parents are overwhelmed with these.  Unless you are an aunt/uncle/grandparent/godparent, step away from the stuffed animals.  Now!
  • As with general adult gifts, ask if there’s anything you can get for the parents. Do they have a registry?  Is there anything they’ve been struggling to get?  See if you can help them out.  They may want sheets for the cot, or a nice blanket, or even have set up a savings account for their baby
  • Mum’s favourite thing to buy is cutlery, she’s particularly keen on this as a christening gift. It’s a nice present, a child’s first set of “proper” silverware – my sister and I still have ours, and buying a nice miniature set that they can have for special occasions when the adults of the house bust out their own nice set is a good chance for the child to feel involved
  • Hand down something you love – one of our family friends had a great knack for picking fantastic young adult books (she gave me Harry Potter before it became famous – yes, those days existed! – and introduced me to another young adult author whose work I fell in love with and also became very popular), and that has inspired some choices in me. Particularly if a child’s parents are bookworms, I like passing on a novel for them to ultimately read together.  I tend to pick my favourite child-centered classics, such as Black Beauty, The Secret Garden or The Wizard of Oz – leave things like Pride and Prejudice for them to hate when they get to school!
  • Remember the parents – even if it’s something you think is small by comparison, it’s a nice thought. Whether it’s a bottle of wine, box of chocolates or a promise of a night of babysitting, something for them to try and enjoy is a nice touch

Hopefully that’s given you some ideas!  I’ve already found the main gift for my closest friend who’s due next… but I need to wait until she gives birth and knows the gender of her baby before hitting the online checkout.

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Elephants and mice

Since beginning my adventures as a would-be equine learning facilitator, the lesson I’ve found that we teach most frequently is the difference between introverts and extroverts.  It feels strange to say it, because once people learn this lesson, they tend to wonder why they missed it previously, but sometimes you can’t see the elephant in the room for looking.  Even I didn’t realise some of the most important factors before I began using ponies to demonstrate these facts, but here’s the thing…

Broadly speaking, a person is either introverted or extroverted (a little more on that next week, if you’ve got the interest following this post!).  To stereotype, this means that introverts prefer their own company, whereas extroverts need other people like we all need oxygen.  That’s probably where the understanding ends for most people.  We tend to think, “oh, so-and-so just isn’t a people person, I’ll go and talk to someone else”, but the problem is that avoidance isn’t always an option.  Sometimes, there isn’t the practical chance to allow the introverts to decompress immediately, because we all have lives to lead!  But therein lies the second problem: only seeing one solution to it.

Fortunately, horses are a great physical demonstration of differences in processing and different methods of problem-solving.  Many horsey people will quickly label certain equines as “stubborn” or “lazy”, much as we do with particular people we find difficult to cope with… have you ever considered that it could just be because you haven’t stopped to try and understand that person?

Introverts have a tendency to require a greater deal of processing time than extroverts.  Even when faced with seemingly simple questions such as, “what would you like to drink?”, an introvert may seem completely lost.  There are at least two ways to handle this particular situation: ask them the above question and leave them to think about it, or give them a short list of choices from which they may make a selection.  If there are two (if not more!) clear options to such a straightforward question, how many other methods of getting through could there be when the situation is more complicated?

It’s also not critical to always be subtle when handling an introvert in this manner – sometimes it’s a bonus if you clearly demonstrate that you are intentionally giving them time and space to think.  You can even set a parameter, something like, “I need this information by the end of the day”.  Though, let’s not get into the can of worms that is why you’d need such a quick turnaround, that’s a whole other level of poor management!

The bottom line is this: know where you identify within these categories, and learn where the people you deal with – whether they’re family, friends or colleagues – fit.  Then consider how you communicate with those people, and wait to see the positive change as a result.  You might suddenly spot a lot of elephants.

The art of giving

I’m one of those horribly shallow people who loves to shop.  Full on, Confessions of a shopaholic-style, get a thrill out of a great purchase kind of person.  I don’t know why.  It’s an expensive habit, and try as I might, I can’t shake it.  However, it does come with positives, one of which being that I give great gifts.  Because I enjoy shopping, I don’t mind if I do it all day in pursuit of the perfect item.  I don’t normally have to, as I know my territory and am usually pretty quick, but it also means that I don’t mind if persistence is required.

When a link appeared on my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, claiming to offer advice on how to be the best gift-giver ever, I was excited, and clicked through expecting to be nodding along.  I was disappointed.  The first piece of advice?  “Search for their Amazon wishlist”.  I found this incredibly uninspiring advice, and the article only got worse (looking them up on Pinterest?  Spare me).  So I decided to share my own secrets…

  1. There’s no harm in asking: Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries aren’t surprise occasions – everyone knows when their own is, and those of us with close family and friends are probably prepared to be asked what we’d like, or if there’s anything we need. So ask!  Recruit other family members, significant others or close friends in your quest if necessary, but you can still surprise the recipient despite asking if they have anything specific in mind.  I encourage my recipients to think big, too – I think some of the best gifts are things which the recipient wouldn’t buy for themselves
  2. Pay attention: if you’re buying for someone you see regularly and/or know well, you probably won’t have to ask. Whether they mean to or not, many people drop hints (some of us are less subtle than others!).  For example – I know which brands my close friends like, so if I know they’re in need of new clothes, I’ll consider buying them a voucher… but I’m aware that my friends have a selection of regular haunts which ebbs and flows.  Try to spot which brand they’re currently coveting in order to make sure they can get the best from their gift
  3. Bigger does not equal better: the best gift doesn’t have to be expensive, and the perfect item doesn’t have to be the most expensive of its kind. What counts is that you do your best with your budget and the recipient’s interests in mind.  It’s great to have lots of money lavished on us… if we’re into that sort of thing and if the occasion demands.  But if what the person really and truly wants is socks… well, there’s honestly no need to spend £20 on a pair of the regular variety.  That said…
  4. Remember the occasion: you are buying someone a present – unless they’ve asked you to shop in Poundland, you’re better to stretch yourself a little and spoil your recipient. If champagne and chocolates are what they want, avoid the petrol station and set aside 20 minutes to visit a larger supermarket at the very least, in order to choose from a better selection.  Remember – something they wouldn’t necessarily purchase for themselves.  But again…
  5. It really is the thought that counts: some people think it’s cheesy (remember these people, they’re the ones you unfortunately need to actually buy for), but make your own-style vouchers are underrated. Especially for occasions such as Father’s Day, Mother’s Day or to congratulate new parents, these can be great.  Things like “one Sunday roast (including free clearing up service)” or “I will empty the ironing basket (and by ‘empty’ I mean ‘iron every single item for you’)” can be great signs of how much you appreciate a person.  Some can involve spending a little money (such as “I will take you out for dinner when that restaurant you’re interested in opens”), but sometimes, experiences are better than “things”
  6. You don’t get a second chance…: before you wrap the gift (or pay someone else to), make sure any incriminating evidence is destroyed – inspect the item(s) carefully for price labels (this doesn’t necessarily mean cutting the tags off – items from higher-end brands will often have the price on a perforated tab, so that you can leave the tags on in case of the need for returns). This is especially important if the items have been purchased as part of a deal – nobody wants to open a gift and find BOGOF stickers, or a huge “special offer” label.  When purchasing items, check the shop’s return policy if you have any niggling doubts.  Keep the receipt, and ask for a gift receipt if possible (these normally have the price concealed) in order to make for easy exchanges if necessary.  Finally, make sure the gift is presented nicely – choose an appropriate packaging method (paper, box or bag) for the item(s), and one which suits the style of the recipient (few adults want to rip kiddie paper off a gift!).  Personalise if you can, such as writing a card to go with a voucher, or hand-writing a card to go with flowers if you purchase in person.  Show the recipient that you’ve considered every detail, rather than got bored or tired and given up.  You like them enough to buy them a gift, so remind them how special you think they are

I say all of this as someone who likes to please, and knows a few people who don’t want for anything.  People who are selfless, generous and kind, the ones who deserve spoiling.  Go forth and revel in making those people smile!  I’d love to know how you get on.

Phase four

“It’s okay,” they said, “we understand that sometimes you have to go to phase four.”  Prince and I got a workout in last week, and I had some questions.  Namely: “has it got to the point where he’s now taking the mickey out of me?” and “am I reading this correctly?” (the answer to both was yes).

The session led me to notice a few things: Prince has got to the stage where he’s confident enough to push me – he learns quicker than I do, and figured out that if he does a certain thing, I interpret it in a certain way and go easy on him.  So that has to stop, and the new habits start this week – he’s become bolder, so I have to change my behaviour too.  I’m guilty of being told something and holding onto that knowledge, rather than watching things change and coming up with a new strategy.  I also need to try more things: I sort of learned this a few weeks ago when it became apparent that we were both a bit bored, but it’s also the case with developing our language, the way we communicate with each other.  I have my own natural gestures and body language, but sometimes he doesn’t get it.  So it’s time to invent more words.

The good news is that he’s become much more connected to me, and that’s partly down to the fact that he has to be, because I’m mixing it up more.  We most commonly play the circling game, because it’s what he needs to improve his confidence (and, these days, take responsibility for himself), but I’ve recently added a lot more yo-yo… as the send part of circling game is the same as the beginning of a yo-yo game, he has to pay more attention, rather than assuming I’m going to put him on a circle.  Last week, it got to the point where I was using tiny gestures to get what I wanted, and had his ear the entire time.  He looked more genuinely curious and engaged, which was a relief to me – I don’t think he considers me to be a fun partner most of the time, so it’s nice to see those moments.

And all of this got me thinking about what it’s like to work with someone else’s horse.  It’s not the first time I’ve done it, through one scenario or another, but I don’t consider myself qualified to really do so.  I don’t, after all, have any equestrian qualifications to my name, all I have is the fact that I can (mostly) stay on a horse.  That said, there’s a difference between being a paid professional and being a friend who helps out or is offered the gift of free rides.  I’ve always fallen into the latter category – I’ve never undertaken or sought paid roles in terms of exercising or training horses, so does that mean I am entitled to feel less duty-bound?  I don’t think it does.

Any horse person will tell you that horses are precious.  We spend a lot of time and money on them, they are meant to bring us happiness and fulfilment.  Handing over your horse’s lead rope or reins to someone else is like asking someone to help you raise your children – it takes a phenomenal amount of trust and there can be a lot of pressure to do things exactly as the owner would like to do it themselves, and not to outdo the owner.

My first experience with riding someone else’s horse came when I was about 14: the owner had recently had a baby and kept her horse at home.  Her friend, who lived along the same rode had bought a pony for her own daughter, who was only little and so the pony needed more exercise – enter my sister to hack out the pony, and me to ride the horse.  My sister and I hacked out together regularly for a summer, with the two women riding out occasionally on weekdays when both had horses available.  When I arrived to hack out one morning, the mare’s owner commented that she’d hopped on for a toddle out with her friend that week to find her horse really striding out and marching along, when the mare was normally a little lazy and she and her friend usually just ambled around the lanes a bit aimlessly.

“Sorry,” I winced, “force of habit, I like whatever I’m riding to be doing something, and working actively even if we are hacking.”

“Oh no, it’s absolutely fine,” the owner replied.  “I’d like her to be back in proper work, so thank you for getting her going, it was just a shock!”

I hadn’t realised I’d been quite so forceful with the horse, and I’d certainly never asked her to do anything she was incapable of.  But it was a lesson in the fact that I was perhaps more capable than I knew, and that I had to remember I wasn’t riding my own horse…

These days, I definitely worry about getting it wrong with someone else’s horse.  Which is funny, because it’s actually quite hard to do given that I’m mostly supervised and very well-supported.  But I’m acutely aware that it’s not my horse, and how much he means to the people who are responsible for him.  Getting to do the work that I do and aiming for the goal we have in mind is fantastic experience for me, and it all means that I don’t feel the need to be rushing out and buying a horse of my own – I’m in a very fortunate position that I have a horse who I’m not responsible for financially or on a day to day basis, but who I have access to and permission to work with.  And yet something still holds me back.  Would I still have these insecurities with my own horse?  Probably.  But if I got something wrong with my own, I think there’d be less guilt – I’d feel bad for the horse that I messed up, but I’d know that it just meant it were my responsibility to correct whatever I’d done, no matter how big or small.  When someone else is involved, it’s another person to have been let down.  And that’s another lesson to learn.

Riders, owners, trainers: how do you cope with both responsibility and relinquishing it?  Do you prefer to work in collaboration with the owner/rider or work alone in order to get things ready for them?

Turning ten

When you grow up as a typical “girly girl” who appreciates the shiny things in life and have a magazine journalist for an auntie, it’s sort of inevitable that you’ll inhale glossy publications alongside your daily dose of oxygen.  I’m choosy about my literature these days, but there was no way I was leaving one of my favourites on the newsstand last month when I saw that it was said publication’s tenth anniversary edition.

As I flipped through my copy of Grazia once I got home, the articles got me thinking – something I suspect Jane Bruton and her team will be proud of – about how, in a way, I too am 10 this year.  I turn 28 this week, which means I am 10 years an adult.  If I’m honest, I wasn’t part of Grazia’s true demographic when it launched, but I read it anyway, as there was occasionally a beauty product featured which I could afford.  The greater relevance I saw of this magazine 10 years ago was that it was an insight and guide to the life I would soon be living – would, not might, because I was certain that I’d be a high-flying career girl before I was 30 – and so I’d better know what I should be doing.

Grazia is still one-of-a-kind, a lone weekly glossy among the gossip magazines on the same cycle.  When it launched, the strapline was “a lot can happen in a week”, and now here I am, reading the tenth anniversary issue and being reminded that an awful lot can happen in a decade.  When I flicked through the first edition of Grazia, aged 18, I still harboured dreams of being a journalist: I’d applied to journalism degrees – and got rejected by the universities – and had no backup plan.  I sat my A levels that summer with no idea what would happen afterwards, other than that I was booked in to hospital to have surgery on my back, and that I had no true idea of how long it would be until I felt “normal” again (answer: approximately nine weeks, which is when I first swung myself back into a horse’s saddle – don’t try that at home unless your surgeon gives you permission, kids).

And change absolutely became the theme of my decade: every time I thought I had things figured out, organised and handled, life would shift again.  Sometimes, that meant sending out yet another job application, or looking for a new place to live.  On other occasions, it was about handing my notice in and booking a flight in order to start the next stage of my life.  And most of the time, I felt like I was failing: people are very conscious of what they don’t have, and we live in an age where we constantly compare ourselves to others.  When people around me, from cousins to colleagues, were busy doing very grown up things like settling down and buying homes and climbing the career ladder, I was, at best, going sideways, and horrifyingly occasionally going backwards.  I felt like a bit of a loser in the game that is life.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.  Twice, I’d sat down and mapped it all out, putting together my grand plan of how I’d take on the world and win.  In the earlier one, I was at the very least married and a home-owner by now, and I was definitely winning in the career stakes.  It’s taken me a long time to learn that goals are fine, and even achievable, but big grand plans to conquer the world and having your life mapped out year by year?  Not so realistic.  And although it’s happened to us in different ways, I’m not the only person I know who’s come to this realisation.

Friends of mine have said premature goodbyes to family members, or seen their own lives overtaken by illness.  Others have supported partners through redundancy or grief.  Some have picked up and moved to the other side of the world, thriving in their new surroundings.  And others have stuck to the traditional dream and plan of buying a home, getting married and, no doubt filling their lives with children.  I don’t have any of the traditional elements of an adult life – my first career is behind me and my second is only now starting to take shape; I haven’t even started saving for a home of my own, nevermind actually picking up the keys to it; wedding and baby plans also aren’t on the horizon (though that I’m more than happy with) – but thankfully, I also haven’t experienced the reality of other adult issues.

When I thought about what I haven’t done in order to craft this post and report on my first decade as an adult, I began to feel pretty despondent, like I didn’t have much to show for myself.  So I started to think about what I have done, rather than what I haven’t done, aided in part by a friend’s theory that our five years post-university are the times when we go through the greatest personal change, or rather, they’re our actual growing up years.  A bit like the common wisdom that you truly learn to drive after passing your driving test.

If my baby adult decade were put together in a highlights package, what would they look like?  I had the driving thing nailed already, but in terms of everything else…

  • I got my degree. It felt like a minor miracle (especially having almost fallen asleep whilst standing up when waiting for my dissertation to be bound – don’t try and write it in four days)
  • I went on holiday by myself. There were strangers when I got there, almost all of whom weren’t alone – my first lesson in adventure and being bold
  • I worked, and climbed, and fell… and got back up again. Essentially, I persevered.  Until I felt I could no longer…
  • …and then I came up with yet another plan. Except, with the realisation that the previous plans hadn’t worked, I settled on an idea and allowed it to flourish
  • I lived and worked in another country. I made friends there.  I explored, on a shoestring and by the seat of my pants sometimes.  Which means I observed my comfort zone a few times (from a cosy distance)

I don’t have a house, husband or horse (still.  Guess which one of those annoys me the most?), but I do have stories to tell and lessons learned, the biggest one being that if a lot can happen in a week, good luck on guessing what can happen in a decade.  I’m making no bets on the next ten years, and I’m making the shortest plan I’ve ever had: I’m dedicating my time to being happy.  Because I’m not interested in just ticking boxes any more.

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the degree: graduating in 2010

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the career: I’ve never forgiven that stranger in the background for mugging. Or myself for not learning sooner that day five of an event requires more makeup than I was wearing

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the adventure: South Africa and going it alone…until I got hold of a horse

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the unknown: living and working somewhere different. With different people. And doing something different

 

 

 

 

All angles

In my attempt to make a decision on how to spend my year, I’ve had heart to hearts with friends, made a pros and cons matrix (a list would be far too simplistic), drunk a lot of wine and noted the things I’d like to achieve in either situation (improvements I could make, procedures I could implement, and fun things I could do).

It got to the point that I’d agonised so much that I just wanted it all to be over, and one of my closest friends demanded that I just pick, because the whole thing was clearly making me uncomfortable.  I’d lost count by this point of the amount of people who told me to flip a coin or pick one option out of a hat, and that my reaction to that game of chance would tell me how I really felt.  Unfortunately, my brain is not so easily fooled – there really is nothing in it when it comes to this contest.  I’ve got two great options to choose from, both beneficial to my future, both things I’ll enjoy doing, and both opportunities which of course have down sides.

And then I received a truly great piece of advice.  “Which one frightens you most?” a friend asked.  I answered quickly.  “That’s your answer,” she smiled.

She had a point.  We finished our cups of tea, trudged through a muddy field and returned with two horses to work, and I mulled it over some more.

As I played with the horse, a lightbulb flickered into life.  I was wrong about which choice really scared me.  It wasn’t that the answer I’d given was wrong, just that it, in reality, is mildly less scary than the other choice.  I figured out that I was scared of both, for different reasons (of course).

And again, the waters were muddied…

Double dose

As I’m still waiting to get a start date for my new job, I’m trying to make the most of my empty days in other ways.  Fortunately, horses always need looking after, so I made two trips to the yard last week instead of my usual one.

Tuesdays are the charity’s “development day” – a day earmarked for the horses to have some “fun” work, and to have any necessary maintenance such as visits from the vet or podiatrist.  I really like this concept – it’s a lofty ideal for many bigger businesses, but my friends are in a position where they’re starting fairly small, and I think that as they’ve started the habit now, it should be something they can maintain.  The horses do also get a full day off – absolutely nothing is demanded of them on Sundays, when they are fed and cuddled and left to their own devices.

So Tuesdays have been my regular day for getting to know Prince and putting him through his paces.  Last week, we worked in the barn for the first time.  There’s no arena at the yard, and for most of the year working in the field is fine (in fact, it’s good for the horses and humans, as it gets both used to focusing on work rather than the footing), but due to the recent wet weather, we’ve now reached the point where it’s really not fun to slop around in the field trying to achieve something.  Fortunately, there’s a small barn which was formerly just used for storage, but has a beautifully thick straw carpet, and houses all sorts of equine toys and obstacles.

Prince worked well in the barn, though we both got in a slight muddle when I tried something new and we weren’t too sure how to accomplish it.  This happens quite often when I try to take a new step, and it’s just a case of going away, thinking about it again and trying something different.  I think it’s that I need to break it down a little more, but it could’ve also been down to our mood or the environment being new.

I went back on Thursday, which is a session day for the charity.  Those aren’t something I can discuss – therapy is different to teaching people to ride, and whereas I don’t mind writing vague posts about things I’ve done or learned whilst teaching, it’s not appropriate when it comes to therapy.  I will say, though, that it’s a great thing to be a part of.  Watching the clients and horses work together is very rewarding, and it’s an exciting part of my future.

I’m not qualified to properly assist, but I can fetch horses and move equipment around.  One of my main jobs last week was to entertain the pony who wasn’t working – the little mare was restless in her role of being present but not receiving any attention, so I took her out of her pen and had a little play with her.  I’ve worked with her on line before, and she’s great fun because she’s very energetic and expressive.  I moved her around for a while, giving her a few things to think about before putting her back to give us both a break and me a chance to continue watching the ongoing session.

As I had one eye on the session, I kept the other on the resting pony, and was a little alarmed when she seemed to flop onto the straw!  I was concerned that she might not be feeling great, although I hadn’t over-exerted her, and it was clear that she wasn’t having a roll.  Fortunately, she just went to sleep.  In fact, it was a very deep sleep!  I was quite flattered, not only that I’d managed to exhaust her so completely, but also that she felt comfortable enough with her friend working nearby and four people in the barn with her that she was able to lie down and sleep – a very vulnerable position for a prey animal.  And best of all, she was no longer trying to clamber over the fence and disrupt the session.

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Prince came in for a play between sessions.  His owner hadn’t seen me with him before, so it was interesting for her to watch us.  She commented on how well our relationship seems to be coming along, which was nice.  The weather constantly changing and occasionally howling outside proved to be a slight distraction for Prince, and keeping his focus was the usual challenge.  It’s very important to him that he feels safe, and when you put new things in front of him, he still doesn’t always remain calm, so that’s a big thing to work on as we continue to progress.  But it’s great for me not to have to be hauling my feet out of the mud every time I want to take a step!

Although work is necessary and I’m looking forward to starting my new job (hopefully soon!), it will be a shame to potentially lose the horse time I’ve been fitting in.  But the days are getting longer again, and hopefully the fields will get drier and therefore slotting horses around my job won’t be as much of a mountain to climb.  I’ve also got my fingers crossed that, rather than telling her friends how exhausted she was, the little mare will have mentioned that I was a lot of fun – the last thing I need is for them to be reluctant to work with me!

Public displays

My family mock me constantly for the fact that my phone and my right hand spend little time apart.  It doesn’t bother me, I know I’m addicted.  It’s something I’m (sort of) in control of, though will readily admit things have become worse since I got the first of my succession of iPhones.  There are times when I draw the line, but just as with my retail therapy appreciation, I’m very good at justifying my actions.

During #BlogHour last week, one of the questions posed was whether it’s acceptable to take pictures of food when in restaurants.  As the discussion took place on Twitter, the question was phrased with a good deal of brevity and the exact meaning of it was open to interpretation – was it a question of ethics, etiquette or preference?  That would be up to the respondent to decide.  For me, the topic marries up nicely with another debate which continues to bubble (particularly on my “personal” Twitter account and via my Facebook feed): selfies – yes or no?  Whereas the “phones in restaurants” question was aimed at bloggers, the selfie argument stems largely from the vast proportion of the population who seemed to obtain selfie sticks as Christmas presents.

So firstly, phones in public.  My attitude towards this was strongly formed when I was a barista.  This particular miniature career of mine was born in the days pre-iPhones (remember those?) and when, incredibly, mobile phones weren’t quite as prevalent as they are now.  But still, customers would approach the till, yakking away, move the mouthpiece away from their face slightly and – without making eye contact with us – bark, “Latte” and return to their conversation.  There would be at least half a dozen questions I would require an answer to prior to being able to process their order, but did they have the common decency to postpone their conversation?  No.  And how would they feel if the roles were reversed and I were on the phone, or even holding a conversation with a colleague or friend?  Pissed off.

Therefore, my rules are these: it can wait.  I will queue and use my phone, but it gets put away as soon as I am called to whichever counter I am waiting for service at.  I may sneakily check my phone in a restaurant, but only if all other parties I’m with disappear to the bathroom simultaneously (it’s more likely that I would check it on my own bathroom trip).  There’s a great game you can play in restaurants if your companions are phone addicts: place all phones in the middle of the table, stacked up, when you’re first seated.  First person to touch their phone pays the entire bill.  I’ve not tried it, but it’s a game I wouldn’t want to lose!

There are exceptions, though.  Sometimes, it’s nice to have photos of your night out.  It may be a special occasion, it may just be a normal Wednesday, but you could still want to honour the moment.  Even if it’s a flashy place in fact that, to me, is even more of an excuse – you may have saved for ages to be able to afford to dine at your dream restaurant, so of course you want to remember it.  It’s not like the food is a memento!  So snap away.  Take a picture of your plate. Raise your glass and pose for a picture.  Let the staff help you.  And once you’re done, put your phone away and filter, edit and Instagram it later.  Because the conversation you’re having is just as precious.  Other people have dedicated their time to you – enjoy it.

This brings us to selfies.  Yes, we’re all still getting used to a world in which selfie sticks are a thing.  They do look strange, they can get in the way too, because once someone is holding one, they seem to lose all concept of personal space and spatial awareness.  But my friend Ollie summed it up nicely (and he’s a professional photographer):

 

I read that Tweet, stood up and clapped.  This is an age of high body-consciousness.  A time when we are far quicker to criticise than praise.  And if Mr or Miss Average wants to stick their head above the internet parapet and say, “You know what?  I’m pleased with how I look today” then that’s ok by me.

Pout with your arm out, cherish your £50 pork belly and kale for posterity and enjoy the knowledge that comes with the power of your smartphone.  But remember that it also comes with the responsibility of keeping one foot firmly in the real world with those around you.

Room with a view

There seems to be something about this time of year which makes me crave a miniature change of scenery.  Or it’s that during the post-Christmas tidy up I pull my finger out, look beguilingly at my Dad and he grits his teeth and fetches his hammer.

When I got my first iPhone five years ago, the amount of photos I took on a daily basis increased rapidly; when I re-discovered my ability to leave the country two years later, I went a little nuts, and I suddenly have a vast collection of digital photographs, rivalled only by those who have children.  It’s kind of fascinating that, not only have photos gone from being an extravagance to normality, but that it’s also become far more difficult to take bad ones (bad in terms of the actual quality of the shot – it’s arguably far easier now to take pictures which are poor in terms of composition, and that are unflattering to the subject).

I can pinpoint the reasons for my own excitement about photos easily: my trip to South Africa was largely funded by a generous gift from my grandparents, and as a sign of gratitude, as well as a nod to the fact that it was a trip now beyond either of them given their ages, I made sure that I documented the trip heavily.  Given the volume of output I create, I sometimes find going through my photos and choosing ones to print a chore; depending on my mood, it can also be a sad task to trawl my pictures and be reminded that the fun is over for the time being, but I try to remind myself that it’s not forever, and there is more to come.

At some point, I decided to try and up my game a little, and Googled basic tips on composition.  I can’t remember the source, but the top rule I found is the “rule of thirds” – this is the single easiest rule not only to remember, but to implement effectively.  Here’s what I now try to do:

  • Place the main subject of your image in a third, rather than the centre – your images instantly become more interesting, as the viewer’s eye is encouraged to look at the surroundings as well as the subject. It gives better context, especially with subjects who are moving (horse people listen up here!)
  • If you aren’t great at fractions, most devices will have a grid mode – play around with your phone or camera until you figure out how to make it display a grid, which then allows you to really see how your image breaks down, like an extra viewfinder
  • I most frequently find myself applying the rule of thirds laterally (so I place my subject towards the left or right of the frame, whether it’s a landscape or a portrait), but often use it vertically too (meaning the subject is in the top or bottom of the frame, as opposed to the middle), and occasionally use both (subject is in one of the extreme corners)
  • Of course, there are exceptions to every rule – sometimes your subject is enormous, and there just isn’t a suitable spot for you to take the photo from in order to change the positioning; sometimes, it just looks right for it to be centred. But next time you’re taking pictures, just give it a go.  Particularly if it’s a stationary subject, like a landscape – take your picture as you normally would, then take another shot applying the rule of thirds and compare them

I didn’t mean for this post to be a photography lesson, but somehow it happened anyway!  My main point was going to be this – show you all the views I currently wake up to.  Because, for me, one of the beautiful places I’ve been to just isn’t enough:

display-landscapes-scenery-pictures-photos-memories-travel-south africa-safari-greece-melissani cave-cave lake-hawaii-oahu-rainbow-memphis-portrait-camp-team-summer

Above: these frames were hung this time last year, and I’ve just switched two of the original shots out for other prints – the small silver frame on the left now contains a shot I took last year in Hawaii (which completely disobeys the above rules!) and the one at the top in the black frame was taken in Greece (I’d forgotten about it, because it’s hidden away in an album!  It was my sister’s idea to bring that one out).  I’m really pleased with how this now looks, and can’t wait for the new pictures to go up alongside them…

memories-photos-friends-selfie-portrait-beach-hawaii-oahu-scenery-landscape-riding-horses-trail-san francisco-california-las vegas-holiday-summer-camp

…and above are the new pictures waiting to be hung!  I’ve made a classic mistake though: we only have one picture hook in the house, so “buy picture hooks” has added my “to-do whilst waiting for new job to start” list.  These are all photos from 2014, and I took all but one of them!  The “between the ears” shot is also the one I use for the lock screen on my phone, and it gets better every time I look at it – there’s a lot of movement in it which brings it to life, and helps keep the memory powerful in my mind.

photo-horse-riding-display-swimming-river-portrait-america-usa-western-summer-camp-rosettes

Those of you who know me well will have noticed a very important picture was missing: that’s because it has a special home.  Above is possibly my favourite shot of the summer (I’m sort of sad I didn’t take it, but that’s because I’m the subject!  I’m eternally grateful to my friends James and Eva, who were shooting “my” horse and me from the banks of the river that afternoon).  My Mum repeatedly says that the only time I smile is when I’m on a horse (it’s not true, I swear!), but I defy a horse person not to smile when they see this – I’m grinning, the horse is engaged and enjoying himself, the sun is shining, and I remember being in the saddle that day thinking “I get paid to do this”.  I was trying to figure out how to position my new frames, and then I glanced up and remembered there’s a huge chunk of real estate on one side of the room that I haven’t touched.  There was also a vacant picture hook (abandoned from the days when I last hung a clock there many years ago) begging for attention, and the fact that it sits above my rosette board?  Well, that just felt like a sign.  I will never win a rosette with that horse, but that picture deserves many prizes in my book.  Now I just have to save some money so that I can fill the space around it…

Flashbacks and fast forward

Vague plans have been afoot between myself and a few friends for a little while, because 2015 is a landmark for us: we’ll have been friends for 10 years.  For one reason or another, I don’t have many people outside of family who I’ve known for that long, and although we live in a world where it’s easier than ever to keep in touch, it also feels like it’s very easy to pull away from people, so I put huge value in the friends I’ve retained – I feel like it must be for a good reason.

I hadn’t heard from one friend of this circle for quite some time – this isn’t unusual for her, nor when you consider the fact that I’ve spent eight months of the past two years out of the country – until her husband tagged her in a post on Facebook two days ago.  It was to announce the birth of their daughter.  I’m not a broody or maternal kind of girl (unless you present me with 17hands of Warmblood, Thoroughbred or Trakehner, which is when my ovaries start making funny noises and my wretched bank account drools), but I burst into tears of joy over this one.  Everyone has That friend, the one who they think deserves this more than any other; the one who has fought many battles, lost faith or hope and come close to not making it.  But finally, through much adversity, this friend has made it.  She has many new battles ahead of her, but I know that these will be happy ones.

As I drove to the yard to see Prince that morning, I couldn’t keep my friend and her daughter out of my mind.  Although our contact can be sporadic, we’ve shared many experiences – adoration of a favourite band, whose reunion tour we attended; selection of our retirement hometown, thanks to a last-minute magical mystery tour; support of a beloved sporting hero in a fairly intimate and hilarious setting; her wedding, the reception of which she spent debating whether it was me or her hairdresser who would win the award for best legs on display (I’ve never been so flattered in my entire life).

There have been those moments when we’ve shared few words, but each has said to the other, “yes, I absolutely hear you.  I feel that,” and one of the most profound incidences of this for me was when she shared with me a short story she had read.  It’s a story I relate to heavily in parts, one which I return to time and again although I know parts of it through intuition.  It reminds me of what it is – as I see it, anyway, because we all identify differently – to be a woman in a variety of ways, and what it is to have soul sisters.

Thank you, Clara, for sending me Sam Binnie’s The Dress.  Congratulations on the birth of your daughter, and here’s to friendship – dresses and things don’t always last, but memories and friendships can.