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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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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Equine therapy demystified

I’ve been trying to write this post since I blogged on my retirement and change of direction back in March, but for one reason or another, I kept getting stuck.  I also intended to post this as part of my equestrian content… then remembered that equine therapy isn’t about equestrians, and that I should be attempting to reach my mainstream audience, so here we are.

The reason I’ve kept putting this off is that it’s a subject which is very important to me, and I was frightened of not getting it across correctly.  But I’ve spent the last few days explaining what equine therapy is (as I’ve started a new job and everyone wants to know why a childless 28-year old only works part time), so I’ve honed my description a little further.

I like the term “equine therapy”, although it’s not conventionally used within the industry as a descriptor.  The more accurate term is Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) or Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP): the problem with EAP is that it can sound frightening, and the problem with EAL is that nobody knows what that means – they even get stuck with “equine”, because they’re so bamboozled by the words which follow it.  So I’ve started saying that I’m a trainee equine therapist (rather than an equine assisted learning facilitator – how pretentious!  And what a mouthful!) – the only occasional snag with using equine therapy as a term, is that people think I’m treating horses.  But that’s usually easily recovered.

So I say that I’m training to be an equine therapist – that it means I help people using horses, and that’s true.  In a nutshell, that’s what we do.  Experience and training have led us to develop a selection of games which we can play with our clients and the horses, in order to subtly teach various things.  Horses act as a mirror for people, and teach the required lessons in a non-confrontational and non-judgmental way: rather than being told by a therapist that someone is a bad parent, or has caused a problem, the horses demonstrate how a person’s actions impact someone else, which communicates the message in a friendlier way.

We don’t teach people to ride, but they do handle the horses: sessions with us typically start with grooming, in order to allow everyone a chance to calm down (visitors tend to arrive with a lot of energy, whether it’s excitement or nerves!) and get used to being in the company of the horses.  Groups will undertake exercises such as building an obstacle course and ultimately leading a pony sympathetically around it, or having to shepherd a pony into a box without touching it, but sometimes all that’s needed is for the parents or carers to unload and the children to run around in a safe open space.

Sometimes, there still isn’t an awful lot of science to what we do, and part of that is due to the fact that you can’t control the reaction you’ll get: I spent about eight weeks doing the same exercise repeatedly due to the number of new clients we received, and I haven’t yet seen two groups react to it in the same way.  So as a therapist, it’s fascinating work.  It’s a puzzle for us too, figuring out what someone needs in order to get the help they require.  Watching the horses teach just by being horses is fun, and I often wonder how I was ever effective as a horseperson and as a human being before I knew what I know now.  Somehow, I managed, but I know I’ve improved since switching gears, and the fact that I’ve improved is what motivates me to help other people.

I knew a long time ago that I would never make a doctor, nurse, dentist, policewoman, fire fighter or any other traditional “helping” career.  It’s taken me a long time to match my favourite activity with a desire to help others, but I’ve found the answer, and hopefully it’ll keep taking me to places I had no idea existed.

Life lessons from a cob

Following my session with Prince early last week, I was on a complete high – he’d given me some great stuff out in the field, I managed to get a response I didn’t think I’d get when I’d put him in a situation where I changed our environment a lot in one go.  My body didn’t thank me much for it – where we live, the earth is essentially clay-based, so spending an hour doing groundwork in a sodden wintry field is killer on the calves – but it was worth it for how good I felt about our progress.  I knew there was still an enormous amount to do, but positive sessions are always welcomed.

When I went back on Saturday, I was excited to get going and see how we could build on our previous attempt.  Jo (my friend/mentor/”instructor”) asked me what I wanted to do, getting me to set out some expectations, and was on hand to provide support and advice.  I said that I hoped to repeat the exercises from before, build some consistency and just check that Prince had taken it all in.  She liked my plan, and gave me a new challenge – Prince was to catch me in the field.  It’s a concept I was unfamiliar with, and my first attempt was horrible.  It’s not about the horse chasing you around, it’s about getting his attention and having him come willingly to you, rather than you going and dragging him away from his food and his friends.  Prince was having none of it, and I was totally stuck for ideas.  Jo gave me a demonstration.  I felt like this was something it’d take me a while to get the hang of…

The session wasn’t as good as the previous one, which served as a gentle reminder to me that you can’t be good all the time.  Prince wasn’t offering me a lot, and I got a bit frustrated because, having decided that I wanted to work on being more subtle with him, he was giving me exactly the opposite, and I was having to chase him and micromanage him a lot.  Back to the drawing board.

I wasn’t completely dissatisfied with Saturday, but it didn’t feel as fantastic as my previous effort, so I approached my next session with a little trepidation.  Part of me wanted to persevere with the original work, because it’s important to get it right, but a bigger part of me was concerned that Prince and I are both getting bored: “consistency’s a great teacher, variety is the spice of life”, after all.  I’d noticed that there was something he and I aren’t great at (okay, there are a lot of things, but this thing in particular struck me), and brought it up with Jo as an idea.  She backed me up, and we returned to the barn to give my poor unfit legs a break, and because the weather was looking a bit threatening.

I stuck with the 22-foot line, as I decided I needed the practice in juggling the knitting, plus the main thing I wanted to work on was our yo-yo game, and for that it’s far easier to have a better feel and give a good release of pressure with a longer line.  Prince seemed a lot more focused – I was still terrible at having him catch me (that’s going to need a LOT of work), but once I had him haltered, he was with me from the word go, and even gave me a very nice squeeze going through the gate to leave the field.  He was a bit jittery going up to the barn, as there are lots of scary ducks in the hedgerow at the moment, but we made it in one piece.

I gave him a half-decent groom (around the wet patches of mud) – I’d actually been hoping to trim his feathers (which I’ve decided now look like tentacles) prior to the podiatrist’s imminent visit, but the outside tap is broken, so that’s been delayed – and managed to chill him out before we started.  Jo offered some ideas of how to achieve what I wanted to achieve, and I set to work, encouraging Prince to back up and come to me at a decent speed and to and from a specific point.  I surprised myself with the softness of the backup I achieved, but got a bit disheartened at how difficult it was to get him to “yo” back to me – sometimes, there are strong signs that this horse sees me as a growing partner, and on other occasions, it’s as if he couldn’t care less or actively dislikes me.  It’s hard not to get frustrated or take a hit to the ego when things go that way.

I got most of what I wanted, and a few surprises, when I accidentally switched to playing “touch it”.  It’s taken me this long to figure out it’s Prince’s favourite game, and he looked like a completely horse and was actually excited to be playing!  Another wake up call for me – a reminder that even unconfident horses are happy when they’re given something they enjoy and know they can do.  Time to start splicing that in at regular intervals perhaps, to take his mind off the activities he finds more stressful.

All in all, the learning curve continues to be steep, and I feel like the horses are as usual teaching me more about myself than I am able to help them.  Times like these, I wonder if I’ll ever feel like I’ve got a handle on it all…

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Testing the waters

It feels like spring is trying to mount a charge: the daylight hours are increasing, and I even spot a glowing orb in the sky on some days.  It’s definitely getting a little warmer (though I still choose skiwear for the yard), and rain is a slight surprise rather than an expected occurrence.  Having fed the horses this morning, we pulled our chairs out of the tack room and into a patch of sun to have a drink and a chat whilst planning our work for the day.  I almost felt my face change colour.  As we contemplated what to do, I felt myself itching to make the most of the day and get out of the barn – space is limited in there, and due to the underlying concrete, trot work is very limited.  I’ve been aching to get Prince onto a longer line to see if we’ve improved over the last three months, so we decided to brave the sticky field and work outside.

Previously on "Becky and Prince": working in the barn last week - Charlie can't resist sneaking into the picture

Previously on “Becky and Prince”: working in the barn last week – Charlie can’t resist sneaking into the picture

Off I went, hauling my feet through the clay-mud with a 22 foot line determinedly in hand (and plenty of treats in my pocket – I’m definitely going to need a bumbag this summer, I thought to myself, as I realised that the one benefit to winter is that coats mean pockets).  Prince seemed happy to be remaining outside rather than being taken to the barn for a workout – I’m getting just a little concerned as to what he might do when I finally get him under saddle… this horse is definitely ready for a good run!

I warmed him up for a few minutes on the normal 12 foot line, before switching to the 22 – it’s three months since I’ve used it, and my experience is still very limited, I find it hard to juggle the knitting and an unconfident horse who is easily confused by my body language, but we both have to learn somehow!  What disappointed me most is that I had to put my gloves on: I always worried about burns when I first started working with ropes, until I realised how much gloves negatively affect my feel, and that I’m generally working in a small space with a short line – the horse doesn’t have far to go, and ultimately if I have to drop the rope and let him, it’s no big deal… until you’re in a 10 acre field with a very strong and panicky cob on a 22 foot line.

Generally, we’ve definitely improved.  Relaxation is offered far easier than it was in the beginning, and that’s been our main aim.  Prince even offered some canter of his own accord, which always shocks me given that he normally only canters for food!  The one thing that’s become obvious we need to work on quickly is the speed with which he returns to me: he’s a 15 hand horse with 12 hand legs, but he’s a lot of horse widthways (hopefully not for long!) and once you call him in, he really barrels at you in relief.  So I have to get him to be more controlled with his return, and I have to stop jumping out of the way!

Things are going in the right direction though, and progress is being made.  I ended the session pretty tired from the mental and physical workout, and I’m sure Prince had a lot to think about too.  Here’s hoping the weather and fields continue to improve, so that we can really crack on.  It might even be time to get his trainer back to see what she can advise, now that Prince and I have a relationship and can work together in a reasonable fashion…

Foundations

Being mostly riding school-raised, I’ve had very little (read: no) involvement in the training or development of any horses or ponies.  When I had a pony on loan, they were both at the stage at which it was acceptable to hop on, blast around the school for an hour (or trot around the roads for longer) and go home again.  Which is probably why I came completely unstuck when I started sharing an ex-racehorse, who was altogether more complicated.  It never occurred to me that it might be important to do more with an established horse (I appreciated the need to work more extensively with youngsters) than get on and ride it, so learning about ground work has been a game changer.

I still haven’t ever really lunged a horse (over the summer, I was asked to try lunging a couple of horses who needed extra work.  It didn’t go well), but I have picked up some new skills this year which I’ve found incredibly useful, and in ways I didn’t expect to.  I think that, when you spend enough time around horses, you learn to spot the difference between a horse who’s being silly (meaning: playful or frightened and trying to react only by running) and a horse who’s being silly (read: naughty or dangerous), but you don’t necessarily learn how to deal with either behaviour, other than entering into a futile tug of war (guess which of the two beings is going to win when one weighs a ton?) or becoming typically human-style noisy and aggressive.

I can’t remember when I was taught to lead a pony, but I clearly remember the how: strict, BHS-style “one hand holding the reins/rope off the floor – so that neither you nor the horse trips on it or gets it dirty – and the other under the horse’s chin – to control the horse”.  What’s more mind-boggling is that it took me over 20 years to be shown how much of a fallacy that is.  Laziness (and sometimes, necessity) had taught me to be far more relaxed leading horses: I’d naturally adopted a more one-handed approach, with the horse further away from me and both of us more relaxed, but it was only when I was introduced to natural horsemanship practices that I learned why this is not only better, but also safer.  As a friend put it to me, by attaching yourself to the horse’s chin and going with him if he pulls his head away, you are putting yourself where the tree falls – you are in the firing line and honestly asking to be stepped on.  The horse can’t see whatever is right under his nose – though he can smell and hear it – and he is likely to put his feet there.  Trying to drag his nose back isn’t going to get you very far, so I’ve been re-trained to allow the horse to take responsibility for where he puts his feet (and his nose) as long as we go where I want to go.  And being further away along that rope or set of reins means that, if the horse decides to be silly (or silly), you’re not in the way.

To take a step on, I’ve learned better how to deal with the silliness.  Sometimes, they need reassurance – the horse needs for you to stop, be calm and be the one who lets them know it’s ok.  On other occasions, they require a different kind of leadership – the kind which tells them that whatever you want is happening, and that they can choose to go about it the easy way or the hard way, but that either way, the result will be the same.  So it’s only recently that I’ve become more confident when handling horses on the ground: previously, my mentality had been that you had to hang onto their chin or bail out, and that you were far more in control on their back than stood next to them.

But it’s not just about control, comfort and safety, it’s also about enjoyment.  I’ve discovered what it’s like to work with a horse on the ground and build your relationship that way.  When I returned from the US this autumn, I was asked to work with and ride a friend’s horse, who’s been “re-started” by a Parelli trainer.  Almost two months on, I still haven’t actually ridden the horse yet, as I’ve only managed to go and work with him twice (he was away with the trainer when the original offer came in, and then with work and other commitments, his owner and I haven’t been able to meet close to as often as we’d have wanted).  There isn’t an arena at the yard, which is putting paid to riding at the moment, but there’s also the fact that the horse isn’t really at the stage where riding is an option – when I was first introduced to him, he had a reputation for dumping his riders (flashback to a year ago when everything I rode bucked!) and he’s become quite nervous and unconfident.  So we focused instead on building a relationship and getting to know each other.

I wasn’t sold on how much he would have remembered or changed when I didn’t see him for a month, and driving to the yard this week I was a little anxious, but things actually went really well.  I remembered more than I thought I did about how to handle and spot certain parts of his behaviour.  We worked well together, got the result we wanted, finished on a good note, and he went back to his friends for a think.

I didn’t think I’d ever be satisfied with a horsey session which didn’t involve riding, but I’ve proven myself wrong, because I’ve learned that if I put the work in now, I’ve got a far better chance of having some fun rides in the future.  In some cases, patience is important, and will be rewarded.

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The Long Ride Home – book review

It can take me a long time to read a book these days.  Sometimes it’s because I’m busy occupying myself with other activities.  Mostly it’s due to the fact that I seem to struggle to pick one book and stick to it.  It might be time to make some personal resolution in order to change that, and picking up a new routine in the coming weeks might enable me to find that task easier (meaning: I’ll be commuting again, but not driving, as well as taking an hour-long lunch break, rather than a rushed 15 minutes).

But I digress.  It’s taken four months – almost to the day – for me to conquer this book (and, in fact, that’s far quicker than the embarrassing 18 months I spent on the author’s previous offering), but I’ve made it.

The Long Ride Home follows on from The Horse Boy, and if you’re in the UK and have heard of neither, it’s possible that you read none of the national or equestrian press: before I went abroad for the summer, The Long Ride Home was being promoted heavily by author Rupert Isaacson, and I’m reliably informed this didn’t let up all summer.  In fact, the books are still getting coverage now – I spotted Horse and Countryside magazine at the weekend because I recognised one of the pictures from the book on the cover, and the current issue of Your Horse states that an interview with Rupert will appear in the next issue.

When I finished reading The Horse Boy, I naively thought that things had come to a fairly happy ending for those involved, but The Long Ride Home tells the truth: yes, there was an element of finding a key to unlock Rowan’s autism, but at the same time, as often happens, other challenges surfaced.  The book highlights what should be obvious – that setting up a charity across two continents is a huge task, especially when you’re also trying to care for your child and manage the rest of your life.

I won’t spoil it for anyone – because you all should read it, horsey or not, and impacted directly by autism or not – but I will say that I read the book hoping that everything would turn out alright.  I found it to be a deeper exploration of the people and things around Rowan, whereas The Horse Boy was very much a tale of how one child struggles to find his way in the world.  Some of the book mirrors my own thoughts and feelings, particularly as I approached the end and found Rupert dive into some highly introspective moments of existential debate.  The book is a blunt example of the fact that, although things can look okay on the outside, there is often far more going on underneath than even the person living the experience may know.  I like the concept offered by Rowan’s mum, Kristin – a scientist, in fact – who asserts that it’s acceptable to say, “I don’t know”; this is something that many parts of society really struggles with – human beings need a solid answer to everything, and many of us feel pressure to be able to confidently and clearly answer questions such as, “what are you aiming for?” or “where do you see yourself in five years time?”

Next time I’m struggling to figure “it” out, I hope that I either reach for this book or remember the message that sometimes, it’s not even as straightforward as heading in the direction of your own ideal outcome:

“Working with autistic kids and horses had never been my dream…by throwing myself into these things that weren’t my dreams, by being in service to the dreams of others – others more vulnerable than myself – my own dreams were starting to come true.”

This book shouldn’t be read as a definitive guide on how to handle autism: the particular journey taken here is just that – specific, tailored towards what one family was able to organise to suit their own needs.  Nobody is suggesting that every family with an autistic child trek through Mongolia (and Mongolia surely wouldn’t cope with that sheer weight of traffic), but what it is pleading for is that people work together in order to find a solution.  Life is a group effort, and the part you play may not always be clear, but the purpose will eventually become obvious.  The book is more of an encouragement to do what is right, and follow your dreams, rather than doing what you think you should do.  It’s a message I wholeheartedly endorse.

To find out more about Rupert and his team’s work, visit horseboyworld.com

My favourite word

I’m sad to say that the World Equestrian Games (WEG) passed me by.  They took place in France recently, and I’m choosing to blame being in a different time zone without access to TV (plus little access to the Internet) for my inability to keep up.  When I found out four years ago that the 2014 championships would be taking place in France, I was keen to attend, but my plans changed over time, and I found myself in the US for the summer instead.

But the equestrian and event manager in me feel the need to catch up now.  One of the few things I heard about as the event was taking place was the apparent Team GB debacle that was the show jumping competition, and with the focus of my news being on that and the sad death of Harry Meade’s horse during the eventing competition, I was surprised to learn that Team GB had again topped the medal table.  This result is largely thanks to our athletes in the dressage and para-dressage competitions, all of whom achieved as fantastically as they did during London 2012.  This is a great turnaround compared to my childhood, when it seemed that the Germans and Dutch were completely untouchable.

The truth, though, is that Team GB are being caught.  It’s brilliant that, despite the loss of key horses – largely through sale or retirement – since London 2012, Team GB again topped the medal table… but it was with fewer medals than in 2010, and every other nation has upped their medal count, rather than lowered it.  We’ve held on, but in order to win again in 2018, improvements will need to be made.  Although we’ve begun to raise the bar in one sport, other nations are catching up and, arguably, we’ve lost ground in eventing.

That all sounds a bit doom and gloom, but the truth is that our elite legacy post-2012 and towards the future is looking strong: as ever, we have strength in depth – there were key withdrawals of horses in the run up to the Games, but we were able to replace them with competitors who were just as strong, to the point that the results weren’t negatively impacted.  On top of this, there are new riders coming through who are showing great potential – the beauty of equestrianism is that some riders only get better as they get older, whereas other sportspeople have firm shelf lives and can only compete into their early 30s, the competitive career of equestrians can extend into their 50s or beyond.

For those of us at home, there is even better news.  One of the reasons I will enjoy teaching riding is the opportunity it provides to be part of sharing my sport with others, and ensuring that even more people can treasure the experience of riding and being with horses.  Although WEG doesn’t get half as much mainstream media coverage as the world championships of most other sports, I know of one person who has taken up the reins as a direct result of what they saw: Jonathan Agnew, one of the most recognisable voices in BBC cricket, has been sharing his journey into the saddle via Twitter.

It’s actually been a long time coming for Aggers (as he’s better known), whose wife, Emma, is a keen rider.  In addition to living with a horsey spouse, Aggers is preparing to cover equestrianism in Rio for BBC radio, having turned his hand to archery in 2012 (cricket being absent from the Olympic sports roster).  Rather than his wife’s encouragement, what boosted Aggers into the saddle was observing Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro at their best in Normandy.  Proof that inspiration can come from all kinds of places, and those who are inspired may not be from the stereotypical demographic.

Both Aggers and Mrs Aggers have been using the #mysport hashtag on Twitter, which is the brainchild of Hoof – join in if you have a Twitter account, it’s a great way to share what we all love about riding via social media.

Finally did it

It only took about six weeks, but I finally caught my favourite horse’s amusing noise on video.  I’d never heard a horse blow raspberries before.  The day after I caught this, we had a horse with colic: I spent most of the day walking the colicky horse around and, as if to give instructions on what he should do, this bay horse stood by the gate to the field watching me and making this noise for an hour.