Micromanaging

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Throwback Thursday – memorabilia

It’s almost two years since I left London behind and moved back in with my parents.  It’s my second “boomerang” (my first being when I left university and didn’t manage to get a job straight away, thus not having the funds to support independent living), and as I have lived away from home, I have far more stuff than is able to fit properly into my childhood bedroom.

Many of my things live in the garage, but that’s mostly large items like kitchen equipment, all awaiting their next starring moment when I manage to break away again, currently neglected like abandoned toys.  The remainder of my possessions are crammed into the bedroom which has been mine for 20 years this summer.  When I say “crammed”, I’m actually very lucky to have a pretty sizeable amount of storage: our house is what my Mum refers to as a “modern box”, and thus comes with fitted wardrobes.  Mine is the second of our four bedrooms and – a little perversely, I’ve always felt – somehow has the largest wardrobe (I managed to land the second bedroom because, in our previous house, I had the smallest room in the building, so it was my “turn” to have the larger room.  Sort of sucks for my sister that my tenure in the smallest room was two years, and my stretch in the bigger room is 20 and counting…).

My return to the nest in the spring of 2013 was less than two months prior to my departure for my first round at camp.  During that time, I spent a week in Greece, a weekend away with university friends and a lot of time stressing about my visa, packing and what the hell I was doing.  As a consequence, I spent zero time attending to my bulging wardrobe, straining under the weight of a set of clothes which had previously been housed across two abodes.

I failed to address the situation last winter when I was home, mainly because I was confused.  I had managed to slim my wardrobe down a little, partly because I’d slimmed down, and some of my clothes therefore no longer fitted (and I had no intention of allowing myself to get big enough for them again).  I had also cut back my business-wear section (as I had no intention of returning to a full-time office-based career ever again), but had been conservative in this cull, in case of an emergency.  Said emergency did occur last spring, and I was relieved that I had enough clothes to get me through a temporary stint in an office… though resolved that I wouldn’t even do a short-term run of that again.

I finally cracked for two reasons: I was struggling to both find and house clothes; I threw away a pair of jeans which had become too loose, and thought “Well, why not tackle the rest?”.  I approached the first section, and duly got a little emotional, and a lot amused.  It was one of those things which could easily be a chick flick movie montage, because I started with my dresses.  Some of them I’d owned for over six years, most of them purchased for nights out to celebrate friends’ birthdays at university.  I thought back to the person I was, tried each dress on and alternately laughed and cried.  There were some surprises amongst the dresses, but more surprises when I got to a couple of boxes of, well, junk, at the bottom of the wardrobe.

There’s a lot of old paperwork – former household bills, contracts and other bits – which I need to shred or burn, but there were also some gems.  Here’s what I found:

Olympia ticket and Puissance start list

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My sister and I were really geeky when we went to professional competitions.  We liked to make little notes about the combinations we saw.  Some of them were nothing more than “horse had swishy tail”, others related to jumping faults or what we thought of the rider.  Either way, I’m glad I kept these.  Sadly, I don’t remember much about the evening, other than being really excited to finally be attending this famous show.  It’s my only visit to date, but I’d love to go again.  In the meantime, I have these mementoes

Show numbers

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Competing wasn’t the main thrust of what we did when we were kids.  We were nowhere compared to the flashy Pony Club types, and I’m actually glad of that.  We just went to enjoy ourselves.  Our ponies normally had stable stains and green lips.  Most of the show jumps we attempted could be cleared from a backwards amble.  We were entered into classes such as “Prettiest Mare” and “Handsomest Gelding” (I know – cringe).  But we enjoyed ourselves.  On the back of each of these, I’ve written the date, venue, classes I entered and how we did (spot the Event Manager-in waiting), but I’d totally forgotten I kept them at all.

Dressage test sheets

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These are probably the most embarrassing items.  They’re the only two dressage tests I’ve ever ridden, on my shared ex-racehorse who thought he was a giraffe.  After the second one (the one with the lower score), my instructor’s comment was, “I think next time, you’ll ride in spurs.”  There was no next time, but I didn’t mind.  They’re definitely experiences which framed my opinion of dressage as a waste of time – I’ve progressed a little since then, but it’s still not my idea of fun.  Probably because I never removed myself from the memory of being towed around by a horse who was completely behind the bit and wouldn’t canter when asked (but would probably have quite happily galloped).

So there’s a glimpse into my past!  Which mementoes – besides photos and rosettes – have you kept from your early horse days?

Sucking eggs

As it’s (almost) the middle of winter, there’s a lot of blustering advice going around the horse community at the moment whereby some are criticising others for moaning.  I’m tempted to join in, because it is frustrating as a non-horse owner to sit and watch those who whinge about “having” to “find time” to go and “do the horse” in the dark/wet/cold/mud/before work/after the school run/prior to microwaving dinner.  I can’t promise that won’t one day be me.  And yes, it’s awful if you’re having a less than ideal time of it – your horse might have thrown a shoe and the farrier’s too busy to come straight away, meaning you can’t ride, but your horse still poos and needs his rug changing; your beloved equine might have a more serious injury, which requires walking in-hand to get some exercise or, worse, mean box rest.  You probably curse the day anyone invited you to ride as a small child, rendering you helplessly hooked on this furry drug, and leaving you in the current situation of financial ruin with an inability to feel your extremities.  But something makes you do it.

And here’s what I’ve learned: focus on the positive.  I’m not sure if this is a story which can be told, it may be something which requires living, but I’m going to try.  I’ve been through some dark times with my riding, and there may be more to come.  But even the bad times haven’t made me want to give up.  I still want nothing more than to be with a horse and, ultimately, clamber into the saddle.  I am happier around horses, whether I’m mucking out a box, attempting to get matted mud out of a mane or dragging water buckets around with wet legs (though that situation is much improved since my discovery that ski pants are the way forward).

But here’s the thing: this is your time.  It’s play, rather than work, and should be enjoyed.  We pour a phenomenal amount of money, time and effort into our horses, so it’s even more important that we enjoy them than we enjoy our work (and we know how I feel about the importance of feeling positively about our jobs, too).  But to give a pictorial (and festively-themed) representation of why we should cherish this time, I’m going to give you some examples from the past, present and future.

The ghost of ponies past
I was That girl: the one who got really excited when she spotted a horsebox on the motorway.  The child who didn’t want to do any sport other than riding.  The one who scoured TV listings and memorised event schedules in order to watch the quarterly 15 minutes of equestrianism on TV.  The girl who, when finally given the opportunity, cherished time with her loaned pony, and got to do exactly what she wanted – try a hand at showing off in the ring.  These aren’t from Burghley or Badminton or Hickstead or Olympia, like the ones from my dreams, but nobody’s taking them away from me.  My past is made of pastel ribbons, and I loved almost every minute.

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The ghost of horses future
I’m not clever enough in the right way to have made this image, I saw it on Facebook a while ago, and fell in love with it.  My body has grown up, but it still has that shadow of The Dream attached.  Whatever shape yours takes – and mine has many, actually – keep it in mind with every step you take.

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The ghost of horses present
This is the kind of thing which you often hear professionals say when they’re quizzed on why they do certain things that they do, but this relates beautifully to the everyman/woman too.  I’m a huge advocate of doing things for yourself, but sometimes it’s worth bearing in mind that you’re also always being watched.  Give someone something to look up to.  Show them that life is fun and worthwhile.  Be the one to demonstrate the possibilities by having them yourself (that’s a win-win).

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With all of that taken on board, if you’re still struggling to find the impetus to go and pat your pony and tell him how much you love him and can’t wait to take him on the first glorious hack during Spring, take Pat Parelli’s advice: buy a motorbike.

In case you missed it

Now that I think about it, I can’t remember when I first attended Your Horse Live.  Thanks to a combination of memory and my iPhone’s photo gallery, I’ve figured out that 2014 was at least my fourth visit, if not my fifth.  Having missed 2013 due to other commitments – and, if I’m honest, reluctance to believe that 2012 could be topped – I made it back for the 2014 show.

What I love about the show is the variety on offer: there are professional demonstrations from elite mainstream athletes, which is impressive enough, but there’s also normally one “novelty” entertainment act (we’ve previously seen the Knights of Middle England and Rockin Horse, as well as pairs dressage to music alongside the top “celebrity” demonstrators).  In addition, there are trainers who work at a more grassroots level, or choose to take an independent approach – the show reflects the growth and change of our industry, by giving a forum for those whose interest is rider fitness, biomechanics or psychology, plus time in the agenda given to natural horsemanship and showing.

Thanks to this show, I’ve had my eyes opened to all kinds of elements of equestrianism, been completely humbled by my own experience and lack of ability, met some superstars, and seen some cutting-edge innovation.  Previous pictorial highlights include being wrestled into an inflated air vest in order to see what it feels like (result: it’s near the top of my “to purchase” list once I get around to getting a horse of my own), and meeting one of the women I loved watching so much as a child – Mary King.  Not pictured: demo by Pippa and William Funnell (she rode, he got bossed around and told that poles were “on the wonk”); demo by Geoff Billington and Ollie Townend (though I do have some videos of this, including a horse swap!); demo by Ben Maher (the only pictures I have are blurry); demo by Carl Hester (“I come from Sark, in the Channel Islands, which is six hundred alcoholics clinging to a rock”).

Your-Horse-Live-2011 air jacket rider safety horse riding equipment Your-Horse-Live-2012 london olympics medalist silver Mary-King signing equestrian eventing fan

But that’s all a million years ago.  This year, I was fortunate enough to win tickets to the show, courtesy of Equestrian Index (thank goodness for online competition entry: I was in Hawaii whilst the competition was running, it was nice news to come home to!).  With my horsey perspective having changed since my previous visit to Your Horse Live, as well as taking my first tentative steps from hobbyist to professional, I would this time attend with a different approach.  Rather than stick to the main arena and shop as much as possible, I was on more of a learning mission.

My friend and I decided to arrive early and attend the first two big demos, hoping to beat the crowds.  It was the right idea for Paul Tapner’s 10am demo – I felt a little bit sorry for him that people were either still in bed or mucking out, because it was fairly empty, but we enjoyed his thoughts on training to jump.  Paul focused on the idea or accuracy (something which would unsurprisingly be revisited by other demonstrators!) and mastering simple exercises before taking a step up.  As well as being informative, the session was engaging – partly because he had the crowd counting strides taken by two horses between poles!

We chose to watch Carl Hester’s demonstration immediately afterwards, again assuming that the afternoon demonstration was likely to be busier.  Sure enough, during the hour we’d been sat down, many more people had arrived, and the arena was packed for Carl’s demo (home crowd effect?  Or popularity?).  I was unsurprised to see Carl in jeans rather than breeches – when we saw his demo in 2012, he explained that he no longer rides at these sort of events, as he prefers to commentate or teach, having done his time of “riding around breathing heavily into a microphone” – it’s actually great to see a big name happy to show off their horses being ridden by others, clear demonstration that Carl is comfortable in his own abilities and doesn’t feel the need to do it all himself.  He chose to bring two six year old horses – one of the typical dressage Warmblood variety, and the other a coloured cob.  The demonstration was a lesson in what’s achievable with different horse types, with Carl also stressing the need for accuracy and playing to your strengths – he drew a comparison with Uthopia, his horse from London 2012, whose walk he describes as being awful, which meant that the remainder of his test had to be brilliant in order to compensate.  Carl’s entertaining nature made the demo easy and fun to watch, and our shopping trip finally began.

I mostly failed at shopping, partly because I have no money to spend and no horse to spend it on, but we enjoyed our tour around the rescue horse village, plus the huge variety of stands on offer.  BETA had some particularly interesting information on safety equipment – I wasn’t aware that there are now standards for hi-vis rider wear, as well as the existing standards for helmets and body protectors.  The stand also had some examples of helmets which had been through traumas, to demonstrate how it can be impossible to determine the level of damage a helmet has undergone based on the exterior of it.

I was also impressed with Rolltack, who have received a lot of attention on social media lately.  It’s a great piece of kit for transporting your tack around in, is beautifully-designed and doubles as a very sturdy mounting block.  It’s currently suited to GP and dressage saddles, with a Western-appropriate model in development, something that I feel will help the product in the US, as well as the fact that I see more and more riders in the UK using Western saddles.

A surprising discovery was Horses Helping People – I hadn’t heard of them previously, but stopped and spoke to one of their volunteers, speaking mainly about their professional courses.  It struck me as unusual that a centre would offer to support potential competitors by sharing information, but I also found it an incredibly generous and supportive attitude.  As a result, it’s something I’m hoping to add to my calendar for 2015.  It’s certainly worth thinking about.

The remainder of the day was spent taking in two other demos in the smaller arena: one on dressage to music and another on horsemanship.  I’ve interacted with both Alison and Jason via Twitter, so it was great to see them in action.  Alison’s freestyle beginning on her horse was brilliant, and it was fun to watch a selection of horses work to a variety of pieces of music, and try to spot which piece suited which horse best!  Alison and Nick work hard to use more innovative pieces of music, and some good questions were asked, such as how to determine a horse’s beats per minute (Alison described how to watch your horse and count, as well as recommending an app which can help you), and one of my favourite things – whether or not it’s acceptable to use music with vocals, or whether pieces must be instrumental (Alison advised that vocals are normally fine as long as the piece is edited appropriately – she counselled against cutting the track off mid-phrase).

Jason Webb’s demo was very different to what he anticipated delivering, thanks to his main horse suffering the trauma of The Last Post earlier in the day!  Your Horse Live observed a two minute silence in recognition of Armistice Day, and Diesel wasn’t a fan of the horn being used – something Jason now says he’ll work on at home (I hope he finds a way to share his progress, as this would be really interesting to watch).  So the focus of Jason’s session became getting Diesel’s confidence back, as well as showing how he applies horsemanship to his love of polocrosse – the way he asks his horse to move when ridden or on the ground then has applications to other activities (you may also recognise this as appropriate to how cowboys train their horses for wrangling).  Jason finished by bringing in a horse he’d been working with to demonstrate some basic ground work – how to build a horse up to working in a bridle by starting in-hand.  He also touched on something which I think could help many horse people improve their relationship with their horse a great deal in a short space of time – Jason spoke about the signals you give your horse by the direction you angle your lead rope when leading your horse, and how the old school advice of “one hand under their chin” is actually very confusing for the horse.

I took in a lot more on this visit than any previous one, and it’s still one of my favourite days out.  Next year has the potential for double the fun: Total Confidence Live, Your Horse’s new show is happening on my doorstep in April, and Your Horse Live returns again in November – can’t wait to see what’ll be on offer next time, and hope to visit again!

Health and safety: brilliance over burden

Almost everyone moans about health and safety these days.  It’s become a scapegoat for the ruination of the nation, the Fun Police, something which should be sneered at rather than valued and appreciated.  It’s part of all of our lives, we all live among the restrictions it sets out, whether we like it or not.  For some of us, health and safety goes beyond a set of rules we must follow, and that’s exactly why I appreciate it.

As an event management student, I had to study health and safety rigorously.  I had to display knowledge of all kinds of legal restrictions and obligations, but we were always taught that this isn’t just about covering your arse and denying responsibility – it’s actually about protecting yourself and your assets.  There’s a difference, you see.

As a riding instructor, guardian of children and keeper of horses, I don’t want to see anybody or anything get hurt.  In fact, I want everyone to have the freedom to enjoy themselves.  But the first step in that is that everyone has to be safe.  Nobody can reach the enjoyment stage if they’re fretting about being in mortal peril.

Thanks to my backgrounds with horses and events, I have a habit of immediately assessing the safety of a situation.  It happened on Twitter the other week: Horse and Hound published an article on tiny tots in the saddle – all of whom looked beautifully-turned out and, without exception, the children riding these tiny ponies were wearing helmets.  I saw a reply from an account I follow, crowing that they had a picture of an even younger child on a horse.  The picture was duly displayed, and I almost gave birth to several kittens.

Sure enough, there was a small child – small enough that they could barely sit up independently – atop a pony.  Said child was being carefully supported by two grinning women, neither of whom was holding onto the rope attached to the pony.  Okay, said the horsewoman in me, some horses are trained to stand still even when not being held or tied up.  It didn’t take me much closer examination before I decided I was definitely appalled: the child was not wearing a helmet; one of the women was in sandals, the other was barefoot.  That’s when I snapped, and I informed the poster that I was horrified.

I can almost guarantee that if I’d been there in person and stated my concerns, the women would’ve assumed I was worried for the child.  I can hear them now: “But we’re holding her,” they’d say, “she’s not going to fall.”

“You don’t know that,” I’d reply.  “What if the pony shifts his weight and lands it on your foot?  I’d bet big money that you wouldn’t be holding her then.  Same thing if he spooks.”

The greatest pony in the world isn’t immune to the fight or flight response that their body comes with – standard safety feature, darling.  Primal, nothing you can do about it… apart from put some boots on, make sure anything you put on it’s back can support it’s own weight, and that if said cargo has a skull, that it is protected.

The poster of the photo took my concerns on and informed me that it would be removed.  I thanked them and went about my day.

The thing is – and I say this from experience – sometimes, we all break the rules.  We allow someone to ride if they’re perhaps not fully-insured.  Or without the correct safety gear, because you just can’t argue with some people.  But we do so with the full understanding that this will all be fine as long as nobody gets hurt.  Because, darling lady in the beautiful Jimmy Choos petting my lovely but spirited horse, we all know who will get the blame if, rather than licking you to death, he chooses to make a go for you with his teeth.  So yes, I will insist that you step away.  I’m doing it for your own good, my peace of mind, my reputation and my ability to keep doing what I do.

Don’t blame “bloody elf and safety” for “ruining lives”.  Blame human beings and their stunning lack of common sense, or inability to perceive danger.

Guest blog: Nadja Mueller

As I’m still away, I’ve decided to dip my toe into the guest blog waters.  I had some great responses to a call I put out on Twitter, and the one which I felt suited the tone and subject matter of my blog best was from Nadja.  So without further ado, I present her post on how horsemanship techniques can be used by even the casual leisure rider.  Many thanks to Nadja for putting this together!
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We‘ve probably all shared this experience: Riding newbies, coming into the barn, being introduced to the horses, wanting to do everything right. Dreaming of a harmonious relationship with the horse, one of mutual understanding and respect (though it‘s a school horse and ridden by approximately 25 others per week).
And then we enter the reality. Find out that we are not able to bridle the horse because he sticks his head in the air. Find out that he has the tendency to aim for our feet when we pick up his. Find out that he likes to bite us in the backside when we girth him. Let alone riding. We try to pick up the reins. Resistance. We push with the legs to get him to go; he wanders off with the speed of a snail. We ask for some bend in his neck; he becomes as stiff as a board. The list is endless and can be complemented individually.
So full of good intentions we end up struggling with the horse, punishing him for his disobedience and unwillingness. And our bad conscience becomes bigger and bigger and with it grows our frustration.
I am not saying that this scenario will happen in every riding school out there, but still you are likely to encouter it. The horse world moves in the right direction, meaning more and more horses get to live like they are supposed to, running in pastures with their buddies, sharing a social life. The horse world does move, but it‘s moving slowly. So we still need some patience until every school horse lives the horse life he deserves. When his needs are met he can meet ours. Not the other way round.
To survive until then, I want to share with you some approaches from a horsemanship perspective that help you to understand the horse and vice versa. I know that one rider out of 20 or more, handling a horse once a week, will not have the impact on the horse‘s behavior and attitude he wishes to, but at least it is a start.
1. You want to make a good impression on your school horse. So try to be polite. Don‘t just open his stall, walk up to him, put the halter on (if he lets you) and drag him out. Instead open the box, wait until he looks at you, approach (not too quickly but neither hesitantly) and reach out with your hand offering him the opportunity to touch you. Wait until he touches you with his muzzle, maybe he even sniffs you, then touch him. Let him touch you first.
2. No matter what you do, always carry a soft and nice feel with your hands. Don‘t jerk on the rope or the reins. Allow your hands to close one finger after the other, slowly and surely. Build up the pressure gradually, not quickly, so your horse can tune in mentally. You will not surprise him with your request (well, he might be surprised by your politeness though) and you make it easy on him to be obedient.
3. Always – and I mean it – ask lightly first, meaning start with a polite request, a good deal – though you know that your horse is likely to ignore it. Still, give him the chance to respond to very little whenever you ask. And if he responds, no matter how long it took, release him. Reward him by taking the pressure away and allowing him to rest and think. For many horses this is a new experience. They‘ll appreciate it.
4. Don‘t micromanage him. Ask, assert yourself (if necessary) and then leave your horse alone. Don‘t tell him to trot when he is already trotting. Cut him some slack. Tell him what you want but give him the responsibilty to execute it without reminding him with every step what he was supposed to do. Your horse is able to think for himself. Show him the respect by believing that he will do it.
5. Move his feet in every way you are able to and can think of: forward, backwards, sideways, front feet around the hind feet and vice versa. Speak to the feet and try to isolate them. The more control you gain over the feet, the more respected you‘ll become – it doesn‘t matter if you are riding or on the ground. When on foot, make sure your horse doesn‘t push you around. If he does, correct him by backing him up. Even better: Don‘t allow him to invade your space or run you over.
These are the five things I‘d pay attention to when being around new horses and trying to do them some good. If you get the chance to try these out, I’d love to hear your own thoughts: did it make a difference to you, the horse and your relationship?

Teacher or student

It’s a debate I’ve been having for a while, as I think more and more about when I might be able to take on my first horse: is it better to learn from a schoolmaster or to take on the unknown of an animal who is as green as you are?

It’s always struck me as a little perverse that most riding schools will teach beginners to ride on older plods, choosing to allocate the clients mounts who are safe, but who must be ridden in such a way that all they are able to learn is how to stay on a horse who barely moves.  The clients are essentially taught many bad habits during this process, as the animals are often so introverted, catatonic and dulled to the aids of a human being, and as the clients progress they must learn to break these habits rather than refining the skills they have previously learned.  But I do understand the general logic of teaching people to ride on a horse who somewhat knows his job, rather than a scatterbrained youngster.

I began practicing natural horsemanship skills on a horse who’s mostly been there and done it in terms of the discipline – his owner knows he could still improve, but those improvements relate to more isolated situations or pushing on to a higher level.  The horse could read me like a book, knew I was a beginner at wielding ropes but not new to horses, so he went easy on me for a session and then proceeded to test me.  The experience mainly provided me with an idea of what is achievable, but it didn’t help me in terms of how to start from square one and what I should expect in terms of timescales.

When I arrived at camp, I was faced with a very mixed bag of 30 horses and an enormous challenge.  It seemed daunting enough when my task was to throw all of my spare time and energy at improving the difficult horses, then I was also faced with the idea of teaching kids how to do what I was still learning to do.  There was a lot of trial and even more error.  It’s taken me nine weeks and seven students to figure out what I currently think is the best approach, but things have begun to pay off.  There have been weeks of feeling like the blind leading the partially sighted and deaf – some of the horses may have done this before, but I have no way of telling, so I just encourage the kids to deal with what’s in front of them, rather than trying to guess where the horse has been before or who he had a fight with in the field last night.

Mostly, the kids have picked different horses to work with, but my musings on experience versus learning together have come from working with one horse and child partnership for six weeks and, when the initial child left for the horse to get a new partner for three weeks.  The new child and already-started horse then joined a class with a girl who’d been with me for three weeks: technically the partnerships were at different points, and so were the campers, but the horses were also very different.  It was a juggling act to say the least, and to the untrained observer, the newest student could possibly have looked far more proficient than the girl I’d already been teaching, because her horse had had more training.

In fact, the variety of partnerships I’ve been teaching all peaked at a similar time: each horse and human combination grasped the same exercises during the same week, irrespective of how long they’d been participating in the classes.  By the end of the third session of camp, I had six partnerships (seven if you count the original pair) completing the same level of exercises and more than ready to move on to the next step.  The final girl to join the programme had become more proficient in handling all of the equipment; the flightiest horse was happy not just to stand still for the basic exercises, but also to successfully complete the more complex ones which other horses had accomplished a few days sooner.

As we all progressed as a group, my teaching and organisation came on.  I developed new ways of explaining various elements of the tasks, as well as putting things into context in a different way for myself and my students.  I began to see how different things related to each other, spotting patterns thanks to the different personalities I was working with – both equine and human.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, when I figured out how to join a few dots, I saw a faster progression in my students.

Horsemanship is a strange thing to teach because, although there is a progressive nature to it, you can’t really put a deadline on things, or walk into the arena and say for certain that you will achieve something specific.  It depends on the horse.  It depends on the human.  Sometimes, it depends on which way the wind is blowing or who ate what for lunch.  All you can aim for is better.  This frustrates some kids and excites others: for the goal-orientated, it’s hard, as they like to have something to tick off their list; for those who are goal-phobic, it’s great, and the only limit is their imagination.  The more we achieve as a group, the more I have to have in mind – I have a vague and secret plan as the instructor but, like a magician, I don’t show the kids my cards, because I don’t want them to see it as a race.  It matters to me that they get everything absolutely right before moving on, and I find so far that this works better when the next step is concealed.

The – slightly scary – conclusion I’ve drawn is that my preference is to learn alongside my equine partner.  It’s perhaps harder, as if it’s your first attempt at learning something new, you’re teaching both yourself and the horse.  Mistakes will be made, and it’s taking things the long way around, but at least it gives you a model to work from (even if the model is imperfect, or a route you wouldn’t use again).  That said, I think it’s better to learn in this way whilst being supported by someone with experience.  It’s been a long-term dream of mine to have a very young horse and ultimately back it myself, rather than sending it to a trainer, so I think this has always been my philosophy, I just hadn’t fully realised it.  It’s certainly satisfying when you work and grow with the horse, learning together and eventually getting the result you want in the way you’ve chosen.  And it’s definitely gratifying to coach students through the same process, observing and helping as they figure out the way which works best for them and achieve something enormous with the partnership they’ve created.

What are your experiences?  In an ideal world, would you attempt to break new ground with your horse alone, or would you rather learn from an old hand?

Definition through translation

Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand America.  Never do I feel this more than when I’m talking to my riding students.  I hope it isn’t the case throughout the whole country – and, surely, it can’t be, because the US does produce good riders for international competition somehow – but certainly for the majority of kids who ride year-round and choose to ride at the camp I work at, the concept of a flatwork lesson is a completely alien concept.  If these kids aren’t jumping, they don’t consider it worth their time to be on a horse.

My classical riding education is somewhere between lacking and poor, and certainly nowhere near finished, but unlike one child I currently teach, I didn’t reach the age of 14 before learning what “change the rein” means.  Now, imagine my surprise when said camper’s answer to my question of “what do you do during your lessons at home?” was “oh, you know, dressage and jumping”.  I stood and scratched my head for a second, asked her to ride a serpentine and was met with a puzzled expression.  Earlier in the summer, a different camper – who rides nicely and is a very sweet girl – had expressed an enthusiasm for learning dressage.  “Okay,” I answered, “do you have any ideas of what exactly you’d like to learn?”  Her reply was, “I’d like to ride a working trot.”  This from a girl I’d given several cantering and jumping lessons to.  I bottled the response, pointing her at my boss, as I didn’t have the heart to give the answer which ran through my head of, “what kind of trot did you think I’d been having you ride all this time?”

Realistically, the definition of dressage is a wide one.  Those whose only knowledge of equestrianism is the Olympics may well believe dressage to only exist at the highest level, whereas true linguists may prefer to define it as controlling one’s horse (therefore, technically, if you are in control of your horse, you are doing dressage), but many equestrians will probably land somewhere in between.  I would certainly expect a teenager who’s been riding since they were little to know what “change the rein” means, and I would also anticipate that they have an understanding of bend, collection and extension, plus some lateral movements, even if they aren’t able to successfully demonstrate all of those things on any mount.  But perhaps I’m too tough?

Many riding establishment proprietors will probably testify that clients are economical with the truth when it comes to their skill level, and when you don’t see the place a student normally attends and the kind of horses they ride, the only way to judge is from what you see in front of you, but surely there is a standard qualification out there somewhere?  Is it possible that some stables are teaching people to walk, trot and canter around an arena aimlessly – and without consideration of their horse’s way of going, or the scale of training – whilst giving the impression that this is true dressage?

I’ve thought many times during the last two summers that I’d love to be a fly on the wall when my students return to their usual riding centres, and observe the teaching.  No instructor is perfect, and it’s entirely possible that students misunderstand, misinterpret or outright lie, but something very different to my own horsey upbringing is going on over here, and I’m not convinced it’s the good kind of different.

Dressage: controlling your horse, piaffe and passage or increasing your awareness steadily over time, in order to improve the technique of yourself and your horse?  You decide.