Horse play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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sand pit: no drama

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

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chilling in the hay

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

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

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

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winning!

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

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

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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.

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.

Dreaming

The wait for my first horse continues.  I still haven’t even started saving yet, but the conversation over what kind I want is a frequent one between myself and a particular friend.  As I grew up staring goggle-eyed at my favourite event riders, my heart is still somewhat set on a big, shiny sport horse (Thoroughbred, Warmblood, Hanoverian, Trakehner… something with that kind of stamp to it has always been my fantasy).  They can be impractical, delicate creatures, because I would also like a horse who can be a horse: one who can cope with living out at least part-time year-round, who hopefully doesn’t need five rugs, and I’m quite keen on the idea of him being barefoot (curiously, the gender of my horse is the thing I get teased for the most – I’m absolutely determined not to have a mare, and my friend is now convinced that’s what I’ll get).

Rather than setting my heart on a colour, breed or age, I’m trying to consider what I’d like to do with my mythical horse.  Though “like” and “achieve” are clearly different things here.  I still quite like the idea of sailing around Badminton, but I have neither the talent nor guts, so I needed some other ideas.

“You know,” Jo said to me one day, “one of my friends describes her horse as a ‘performance trail horse’ – she can take him down any track and get through anything.  He’s just a really great horse for riding out.  There’s no shame in that.  There doesn’t have to be a goal.”

And I was sold.  Because, although horses are my future career, does it really have to be super-technical all the time?  Is it not supposed to be about what I enjoy the most?  And if that is simply to be able to see over hedges and not have my horse fly sideways if a bird pops out at him, is there a problem?

Then Jo sealed the deal by showing me this:

Done.  Sign me up.  But, oh, the internet is a dangerous thing, because another friend showed me this:

At this point, I’ll throw in that I don’t condone the helmetlessness of these riders, and that I fully intend to continue wearing my helmet (I see no problem with dressing up and putting a wig on top of my helmet to complete any appropriate look!).  But Western riding is so much more than I ever gave it credit for.  Laura Sumrall’s ride has gone somewhat viral.  The thing I took away from watching further videos of that particular competition was the parallels to freestyle dressage, but the huge differences – how great is it that the crowd get to cheer, and show their appreciation during the performance?!  You can see horse and rider lift themselves when they get that feedback, and they look so excited, rather than stiffly focused as riders often do during a Kur.  Riding is fun!  If we look like we’re enjoying ourselves, how many more people might we inspire to take up the reins?

So much like the eyebrows which go up when you see a coloured horse or pony glide into the dressage arena in a perfect extended trot, I may well garner some surprised looks if freestyle reining makes it to the UK and I perform a sliding stop on either my current ride (a 15hh Irish cob who looks like he’s the horse from Disney’s Brave) or my hypothetical future ride (a 17hh European sport horse), that’s something that I think would be a lot of fun.  As well as being to ride him out with the peace of mind that, if something does surprise us, we’ll cope and carry on.  Or that we’ll go backwards across a wobbly bridge without a bridle.  Or that, like the man in the video below, I won’t need a step ladder (because I’m horrible at taking leg ups) to mount my horse bareback:

For now, it’s time to step away from the internet before I get too many ideas…

It’s not about the…

I’ve posted about building relationships with equines before, but something popped up on my Twitter feed the other day at the right time, so I thought I’d re-visit the topic.

A Parelli instructor blogged about how it can take as little as 15 minutes per day to build a better relationship with your horse and improve on the fundamentals, in response to consistent pleas of, “but I haven’t got time to teach my horse that”.  At first glance, the concept of spending “just” 15 minutes per day can sound a little bit like you’re being offered a miracle cure or being talked into a fad diet.  As many of us know, there are no quick fixes with horses, but I buy this idea.  Why?  Because I know it’s true.

When I’m working with a horse – particularly early in our relationship – I tend to go for pretty short sessions, because there’s such a thing as too much, both for them and for me.  Do something small, do it well, then quit and leave each other alone to think about it.  You have to get out of the mindset of “I only achieved X today”, because the truth is you could have achieved nothing.  Because it typically takes a long time to get good at a skill, there’s this misconception that you have to train for hours in one hit in order to look like you’re working hard, but that really isn’t the case.  Physical exertion in particular – especially if the person or animal in question is in poor condition – gets less effective when undertaking long sessions, so to give yourself and your horse too much to think about on top of that is counter-productive.

A real case in point is that I’ve seen Prince twice this week already (I was really maximising my days off!): on Monday, I went to the yard to feed the horses and give my sister a quick ground work lesson.  I half intended to work with Prince too, but decided against it.  However, I sat on an upturned bucket in the field whilst my sister worked, and Prince ambled over eventually.  He turned around, waved a leg at me (not like that), and I duly scratched it (he does this a lot – he’ll walk over to the fence if a person is nearby and waggle a leg, demanding it be scratched).  He was a very happy horse when I ended the lesson a while later and I hadn’t asked anything of him.

I returned the next day, Jo and I set up some obstacles to continue our open day and playday prep, and Prince actually had fun.  I’ve been very guilty of being “work work work” when he and I are together, as I keep my original remit in mind, so I forget that we should sometimes just enjoy ourselves.  But I had him posing up on the pedestal (which he loves) and offering some great tries with a scary obstacle.  The only disappointing thing was that I couldn’t get him to offer me any jumping, but I’m putting that at least partly down to my apparent inability to encourage jumping from the ground – I need some practice!  Ultimately though, things were much improved, and after just a short session, we were both feeling good.  I didn’t spend hours “perfecting” any of the obstacles, it was enough for me that we did certain things with all of them.

As the other blog says: your horse will be there tomorrow, and the next day.  That doesn’t mean you should put things off, but it does mean that you should take one step, then make sure you keep coming back to take more steps.

Masterclass

I’m very lucky that, despite my poor financial situation, I am still finding ways to enjoy myself, ably assisted by my family.  One of the things I’ve done recently was attend a recording of The Clare Balding Show with my Mum.  As with all TV audience things, the tickets were free, and unlike most other shows, these ones were guaranteed (with UK shows, production companies tend to over-book ticketed events which are free, because the audience aren’t financially invested so they get a percentage of no-shows, but need a full studio) – usually you have to queue up fairly early in order to ensure that you get in.  The very big down side to this particular show is that the audience have to stand – more on that later.

I adore Clare Balding, and have for years.  Since 2012, her star has risen to unimaginable heights, leading to some people thinking that they’re actually a bit sick of her but, in my eyes, Clare can do no wrong.  For the uninitiated – because, incredibly, it has come to my attention recently that there are even people in the UK who haven’t heard of her – Clare was born to do something sporty.  Her father is a retired racehorse trainer.  He, in fact, trained the Queen’s racehorses.  It wasn’t unusual for the Queen to have breakfast at Clare’s family home when she was growing up, as the Queen popped in a couple of times each year to see her horses.  Clare had a brief stint as a jockey before going to university, and her younger brother has ultimately taken over the racehorse training business.

Clare, meanwhile, went into broadcasting.  Racing being her specialist subject is where she started in sporting terms, but she’s also fronted televised rugby, equestrian and Olympic and Paralympic sport.  Oh and she has two radio shows, which aren’t related to sport.  In recent years, she’s developed a reputation for being a champion of the people (approximately one in every four sentences she delivered on air during the London Games was about how great the Games Makers were) and for being impeccably prepared, no matter what the subject (she’s become something of an expert in swimming and winter sports, as well as racing).  She’s brilliant at just getting hold of people: Olympian Chad Le Clos’s Dad is famous because of her, and if she’s at the races, she’s whizzing around the paddock with a microphone picking out the most random trainers, owners and jockeys in order to get their thoughts on forthcoming events.

Her current TV show is kind of a sporting chat show – she has three sporting guests on and interviews them, taking questions from the audience and from Twitter (Clare’s a massive tweeter, running her own account and engaging enthusiastically with her followers).  I was expecting to be impressed when we went to the show, because I’m such a fan, but I didn’t think I’d be blown away.  The show is recorded in a back-alley hangar on the Olympic Park – it’s far less impressive than it sounds, sadly, but I guess you’re not really meant to be impressed by the building and set.

The recording we went to was quite uniquely horsey – the guests were former-cyclist Victoria Pendleton, now-retired jockey AP McCoy and fresh-from-Vegas dressage rider Charlotte DuJardin.  I can’t think of the last time I saw so many horsey faces on one show.  It may actually never have happened.  That is the Power of Clare.  When she came out to start the show, you could tell she was more excited than she usually is – and her standard excitement level is roughly ten out of ten – and that she was looking forward to the show, and pleased at the amount of clearly-horsey people in the audience.  She was friendly, polite and well-prepared.  We were in for a treat.

AP McCoy was first onto the sofa.  The interview was filmed five days prior to his retirement.  Five days before he would be crowned champion jockey for the twenty-first season in a row (this was already a done deal, he is the Roger Federer of National Hunt racing).  But McCoy is famously… coy.  Withdrawn.  Private.  Dedicated and probably a little bit mad (what I didn’t know prior to the interview is that, like me, he has a spinal fusion… and that, like me, he was back on a horse two months later.  Difference between me and him is that he was racing competitively, I was cantering a riding school horse around an arena.  His fusion is also three vertebrae shorter than mine… but let’s not split hairs).  We had a feeling the interview would be good… because Clare.  She knows AP well, and she’s good at getting things out of even the quietest subject.  But she barely had to.  He came out with some brilliant anecdotes all by himself, as well as responding fantastically to her questions.  It was a bit emotional, as his impending retirement was addressed, but it was fantastic.

After almost an hour, Victoria and Charlotte were brought out to join AP, and some of my favourite horsey topics were covered: Charlotte is a huge champion for helmets in dressage, and this was discussed along with the accident which is the reason behind her stance.  Pendleton is currently training to gain a jockey’s licence, switching from cycling to horse racing, and noted that she hadn’t considered how much your relationship with the horse can impact what you’re doing, with this not having been a factor in her previous sport.  Part of me would urge her to switch out of racing as soon as possible (she’s contracted to her current challenged as it’s being funded by a sponsor), as she seemed to really like building this relationship, and I know that she’d get more of it in probably any equestrian sport other than racing or maybe polo.  That said, even AP spoke about having a relationship with his mounts – jockeys are famed for leaping from one horse to another without truly getting involved, but McCoy openly stated that he cried when one of his most famous rides died a few years ago (unfortunately, the horse sustained an injury during a race, which I’d certainly be crying about had I been on it).

We were stood for about three hours in total – not great for an audience who participate in sports which involve sitting down! – but we both agreed we’d go again.  The engaging guests helped no end, and I wouldn’t go for just anyone, but it’s always fun to watch these things from the inside.  Clare led her guests in a brief photo op at the end, where they sat together and slowly shifted to face each section of the audience, so that we could get our phones out and take pictures of them on the stage.  I wasn’t at the best angle, but my greatest shot is below.

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On top of this, I got a tap on my shoulder during one of the breaks and Mr EquineHour himself introduced himself.  I found out later that other Twitter pals were in attendance – it’s a small horsey world!

It’s great to watch first-hand as people do what they’re best at, and I’d encourage anyone to get there if they can.

The Clare Balding Show is broadcast in the UK on BT Sport on Thursday nights, with a shortened version on BBC2 on Friday nights.  The show is currently filmed on Tuesdays, and tickets can be applied for here.  Let me know if you end up going!

Open for… everyone!

I mentioned previously that we’re having some open days at the charity I’m working with, Equine Partners CIC (new website still in the works!), so I thought I’d share some more details!  Behold, our lovely flyer:

EP open days flyer

If ponies and cake aren’t enough to entice those from far and wide, how about this: we’ll be running demonstration sessions, open to anyone who shows up – once we have enough people, we’ll head into the paddock with one of the horses or ponies and play, so that you can see what would happen were you or someone you know require our services.  These sessions always start with you grooming the pony, so there’s plenty of hands-on horse time and a chance to make a new furry friend.

During the breaks in mock sessions, we’ll be doing some horsemanship demonstrations, a kind of “here’s what’s possible” deal… this is the part where I’m supposed to show off a bit, though what I’ll be able to show on the day is anyone’s guess!  Prince currently quite likes going sideways, so perhaps we’ll do some pretty leg yielding from the ground, who knows?!

On top of that, we’ll have a tack sale, some competitions (my ideas are currently: guess how many horse treats in the jar and guess the weight of the horse – sadly, you won’t be winning the horse as is traditional with cakes, but we will have a cuddly toy to win!) and, most importantly, the chance to talk to the team about what we do, why we do it and why people should be involved.  We’re predominantly currently raising funds for a new extra large field shelter to keep our herd cosy over the winter (I know, summer hasn’t even begun, but you have to think ahead!) and ensure that their field stays in good condition.

If you’d like more information, contact details are on the flyer above, but anyone is welcome to attend, just show up between the above times and say hi.  We can’t wait to meet you!

Public service announcement

“Nobody gets it,” I moaned a few weeks ago.  “People think I can be persuaded to go back.”  Last month, it emerged that the job I left two years ago had become available again… and that my former boss had also resigned.  Cue friends, former colleagues and other people asking if I’d be applying.  I probably didn’t help the situation by attending a trade show last month.  Or the fact that my LinkedIn profile still states that I’m a freelancer.

“They clearly don’t read your blog, then,” my Dad countered.  Which means that at least some people are getting the message.

I realise I have also been a little vague even here.  The reasons are twofold: I’ve always been hesitant to mention an employer by name – you could all figure it out if you really wanted to, but if I try to mask it a little, I feel that I can be freer with what I write; I don’t want to jinx my situation – yes, that sounds a little too superstitious perhaps, but I feel that it’s taken me this long to get this far, and that I want to protect myself and hedge my bets.  But perhaps it’s time to let the not-so-secret out more explicitly.  Today felt like a good day.  So here’s the plan:

Two years ago, I retired from event management.  I don’t know how much clearer I can make that.  Some of my closest friends understood right away, support me to this day, and I am continually grateful for their comprehension.  I could go back… if I wanted to.  If being the key word.  I still have the qualifications, experience and skills.  But there is absolutely no will there.  I honestly cannot bear the thought of the majority of my working life being lived indoors and at a desk.  I have seen the alternative, and it isn’t always pretty, it is normally hard, but it is worth it.

The reality is that, due to my experience and my long term aim, I will have to settle myself at a desk occasionally.  But I see that as being one or possibly two days per week in the future.  I feel better in myself for doing something active, even though it means that my standard work wardrobe these days is more waterproofs than wrap dresses.

And now for the really important bit: when I retired (I’ve decided I really like that word – it feels indulgent, and I’m also experimenting with the use of it in order to really ram the point home to those who are struggling to comprehend what I’ve done), I thought I wanted to be a riding instructor in the traditional BHS-mould.  I knew it could be a tricky process, given that I had no savings and was considered too old to join a typical apprenticeship-type scheme, plus I was in no way skilled enough to work as a groom or working pupil in order to get someone else to pay for my training.  The equestrian world also has a horrible reputation for promising employees the world and giving them very little – I’d love to be part of the change there, but… slowly slowly – so I assumed I’d have to go it alone.

After my first summer teaching in the US, something wasn’t sitting quite right, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.  I decided to go back for another shot – I hadn’t hated it by any means, and I wondered if what was difficult was the fact that the experience wasn’t fully representative of my potential future.  I thought I needed more time to think.  It turns out that I needed to meet someone new: I made a new friend who opened my eyes to a different way of working, and suddenly a few things clicked.  Equine therapy was something which had intrigued me for a few years, but I had even less idea of how to make that happen than I did of how to become a riding instructor.  The path always seemed woolly and mysterious, until I realised why: it plain is woolly and mysterious.  There are many therapists out there making it up as they go along, with the assistance of some overarching organisations, but most of them are learning by doing and through intuition and thinking laterally.  I found my place.  Sort of.

There was still the matter of how to make it really happen, because I’m still penniless, horse-less and largely clueless.  Then my one friend introduced me to two more, and things pretty much took off.  When I returned from my second summer, I started volunteering with their charity – although the problem is, I don’t see it this way, which might be another reason my peers are struggling to believe me!  It’s a sign that I’m doing the right thing, because it doesn’t feel like work, it just seems like hanging out with my friends and their horses, where clients happen to be.

The situation has evolved over the last few months to the point that there are serious discussions around booking me up for the days when I’m not working at the job which will help me tick over, plus that there’s a training course we’d all like for me to undertake, and the charity are hoping to fund that.  Whilst I’ve been out of paid work, I’ve been doing two or three days per week with the charity, some of these doing equine development (read: Prince’s boot camp), and others assisting with therapy sessions for clients (sometimes this is entertaining a pony who isn’t working, on other occasions it’s a more active role of teaching a group a new activity).  But whatever I find myself doing proves to be the missing link.  There wasn’t the same sense of fulfilment with event management; teaching riding is great, but I have a limited degree of patience when shouting “up, down, up, down” (though I do miss the fact that shuttle runs when teaching beginners keeps me fit, and tacking up my share of 30 horses four times each day gave me the best biceps and triceps I’ve ever had).

The charity is expanding rapidly, and there is a definite place for me there, thanks to a combination of old and new skills.  This summer there will be open days for publicity, play days for fundraising, pony camp-type days for income and many more things besides.  This all means that 2015 is looking likely to be the first year that my feet will remain on UK soil since 2011.  It’s going to be hard work, it’s going to be busy, and I’m still not certain that I’ve found the sector within therapy which really makes my heart sing, but I’m working for people who are supportive of my approach – they don’t know my entire history, because that hasn’t been important to them.  It’s important that I turn up, have the right attitude and want to grow.  It’s my favourite way of doing things – try it out and see what works, what you enjoy.  My hope is to undertake the formal training, work with different types of clients, improve my equine skills and see how far I can go.

There will be events, there will be paperwork and there will be marketing.  But there will also be wellies, skipping out and I will teach riding occasionally.  It took two years to properly figure out my retirement plan and how to implement it, but the next stage is here, and I’m looking forward to telling you about it as it happens.

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

 

 

 

 

Killer questions

In an uncharacteristic move, I was unprepared for a situation I found myself in the other weekend.  Back in December, I had a message from the director of my summer camp to provide dates of recruitment fairs she’d be attending in the UK and Ireland – former staff were invited along to say hi and help out.  There had been one such person two years previously when I was hired, and I thought it’d be a fun thing to do (plus I needed to see the director and discuss what may or may not happen in 2015), so I agreed to attend one of the London fairs.

Having witnessed someone else do what I knew I’d be doing, I didn’t think about it too much – the day I was hired, a friendly girl (who, as it happened, had done two summers in the horseback department) was essentially entertaining the queue of waiting candidates.  She wasn’t assessing anyone, but she was available to ask any of the more informal questions an applicant might have.  I assumed I’d be in the same position, so I didn’t prepare myself other than remembering what I might get asked.

However, I forgot that things have changed slightly in the meantime – I initially turned down the opportunity to return to camp in 2015, deciding to stay in the UK and start to get my life back on a permanent track.  Some good things have happened this winter, and I wanted to stick with them.  Then my boss also said she wouldn’t return, and the carrot of a promotion was dangled in front of me.  My decision was on the rocks.

Nobody at the recruitment fair I helped at was uncertain.  Once the doors opened, we were inundated with enthusiastic applicants.  I duly triaged the queue, turning away anyone who was seeking a position we’d already filled, and warming up those who we could potentially take.  As I was chatting away, my director grabbed me and asked me to speak to an applicant she’d already approved of – our first candidate for horseback.  I was excited to finally talk horse with someone, but what I wasn’t expecting was that I’d have to vet their skills!  The director had decided she was happy with the person – not an easy feat, she’s justifiably a tough woman to please – and I was to make a call as to whether their horsey experience was sound.

I explained a little about the department – one of the problems we often face at camp is that whoever hires people (a selection of directors travel around the world, and none of them work at the barn) doesn’t know a huge amount about what we do and how the day works, so they aren’t able to answer detailed questions.  Sometimes, it’s clear staff have been accidentally misled, and they get a big shock.  They’re normally told it’s hard work (which any horse person should already know) and long hours are involved (but again, it’s camp, not a holiday – you’re there to work!) but sometimes they seem to show up assuming they’ll ride several hours per day, or during their breaks… not the case!

It’s difficult to give an accurate representation of what it’s like without scaring people off, but I tried my best.  Anyone who loves horses and wants to work with them shouldn’t be phased by the hours, the poo picking and the grunt work, but some are.  So I was fairly gentle.  I made sure to explain that the majority of riders are beginners and that it’s therefore very repetitive.  I laboured the point that if you get an hour in the saddle every two days, you’ve done well.  But I did also point out that none of our horses live in unless they’re seriously ill, so although there’s poo to pick, there are no stables to muck out.  And they all remained keen.

Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t ask them too many questions – the thing I’ve learned over the last two years is that people can talk a great game, have brilliant experience with horses and know their stuff, but when it comes to teaching… that’s a different thing.  You honestly can’t properly tell how someone is as a teacher until you see them do it.  So I didn’t ask for any detailed philosophies there, but I did ask two questions which, to me and the way our barn runs are critical: how confident are you handling horses on the ground; how good are you at picking out hooves?

Those questions sound basic, right?  They should do, but they aren’t.  We do always get a variety of levels of experience (see previous regarding the type of person responsible for hiring staff – non-experts), but it amazes me how many staff seriously lack confidence when they’ve got an excited or flighty horse on the end of a lead rope, or who are reluctant to bend over and pick out eight hooves first thing in the morning (that’s all they have to do once we’ve tacked up!  Each member of staff is responsible for two specific horses – if you as a person do the same two horses once or twice per day for 13 weeks on the bounce, if those horses don’t have at least the fourth hoof in the air waiting for you, you’re doing something very wrong).

Throughout the course of the afternoon, I vetted and accepted enough staff to fill my department, and they’re all lovely.  It was very exciting to take people through that process and see their reactions.  But I did walk away a little disappointed in myself for only thinking of two killer questions – I used to work in recruitment for goodness’s sake!  Anyway, it’s done now.  I got excited about camp again.  So my 2015 is still to be confirmed…

If you’re looking for grooms or junior instructors, what’s the most important horsey quality for you?  Clearly, something else of great importance is that someone has the confidence to speak up when they’re uncertain, rather than do something wrong, but that goes for any job… Do you look for champion hoof pickers, strong biceps for lugging water buckets or another type of X-Factor?  Let me know in the comments!