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.

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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.

The monster returns

It’s taken me a few days to get my thoughts straight on this one, but I think I’m finally there.  The issue is this: yet again, UK equestrianism has been hit by the health and safety debate.  With this topic, one issue tends to bring another, then a third follows, and before you know it, opinions are like… well, you know the phrase.

There’s a chicken and an egg to this story: the tabloids over here picked up on two stories in quick succession – one was the resolution of an inquest into an incident which occurred about a year ago, whereby a rider died after her horse bolted; the other was something which actually happened recently, when an owner and reportedly highly-experienced horsewoman died following injuries sustained whilst clipping a young horse.  Following the reporting of these cases, my favourite bastion of tradition and outcry, Horse and Hound, published a feature on how terrified riding schools are to teach the way they’d wish to.  And then British Eventing came out with their hammer and nails to finish the coffin off and decided that they can’t afford to properly investigate the safety or lack thereof regarding helmet cameras (this despite deciding that they would do so back in October in time for the 2015 season, and the USEF deciding in the meantime that they would allow riders to take responsibility for their own decisions).

So now I’m frustrated.  I’ve mentioned previously that I think health and safety gets an unnecessarily bad reputation – rules are there for a reason (protecting often-unsuspecting humans), and should be followed – and I maintain my stance that many rules are in place because people lack basic common sense.  It sounds pretentious, but I see my responsibility as an instructor – whether it’s ground work or ridden – is to teach my clients to think as much as it is to teach them to ride or handle a horse.  Because we do work with sentient beings, so I can’t possibly mitigate for every scenario.  It’s not like teaching someone to ride a bike – push one pedal forwards and down and around you go, check for other traffic, look where you’re going – things will change on a moment by moment basis, and whoever I work with has to be aware of that.  It’s critical to me that they are able to quickly and calmly assess any situation and figure out the best course of action in order to preserve their safety, because that’s what a horse does!  Horses are prey animals, which means that they react to the slightest sign of danger and do everything within their power to get away from it.  As we aren’t physically a match for them, we must do the same.

It’s for this reason that I can’t ever see myself wishing to teach someone to leap from a galloping horse in order to “stay safe” and “bail out” because they’re out of control.  My opinion regarding that particular skill is that it’s a fallacy – that and I’ve witnessed a friend get injured doing this (our experiences inform our opinions somewhat…).  There is something I’d teach regarding that scenario, though, and I don’t think that it’s something which pushes the boundaries of health and safety – there are ways and means to bring a horse back to you and ask him to stop which don’t involve you leaping headfirst into the nearest tree… but nothing will always work.  The bottom line is that there are no guarantees with horses.

All of this happened in a week when I was already pondering the possibility of equestrian centres and employers demanding that staff and clients handle all horses in a helmet (and, in my opinion, once we go down that road, where does it end?  Will we ultimately be in body protectors?  Or leading horses only on 20 metre lunge lines?).  I’m aware that some sectors of the industry – notably racing, from what I see a lot on TV – already have these kinds of rules in place, where grooms seem to spend much of their time wearing helmets when not mounted.  As I was writing this post, in fact, a “cautionary tale” popped up on my Facebook feed, and much as I am of course glad that the lady in question is okay (as is the horse), I decided to analyse it a little further – this task made much easier by the facts that I don’t know the lady, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and everyone’s a critic (story in italics, my commentary in bold… and I’ve corrected the grammar):

 “Now I’m not the most safety conscious person in the world. In fact I’m well known for being a bit haphazard. [Alarm bells ringing for anyone else yet?  This lady already comes across to me as accident potential…] I’m the first person to jump in to a situation whether I’m prepared or not. [Good, so like many other people in the horse world, you’re someone who is reactionary, rather than prepared…] On Wednesday however I got a bit of a wake up call. I don’t usually wear a crash hat to fetch any horse in from the field, even if it is a horse I don’t know. I happened to have my spare hat [You ride in a “spare” helmet?!  What is wrong with you?] on from riding and quickly nipped down the road to fetch a horse in. Well he was a bit of a sod and wouldn’t come through a patch of mud. [Why not?  What were you doing?  Oh, taking him away from his friends, probably in a hurry and with a poor attitude.  Are we shocked the horse doesn’t want to come with you by himself?] I tugged on the leadrope [Excellent idea – could he see you?  Did you offer any verbal encouragement?] and he decided to rear up and strike out with his front feet. [And you were stood – as a friend of mine puts it – where the tree falls] He caught my chin on the way up and whacked me round the top of the head on the way down… I bit my tongue as well and I have a lovely hole in it. Now no one knew where I was. [WHY ON EARTH NOT?!] If that had been my head and not my hat I don’t think I would have walked away with just a bruised chin and a holey tongue, [No kidding!] and I wouldn’t have been found for a good couple of hours at least. Just a thought then, perhaps that sweaty head look isn’t such a problem. It’s better than a dented head.”

I’m not perfect.  We’re all in a hurry, we all make mistakes which – hopefully – we don’t suffer too great a physical injury from and that we are able to learn from… but as I have pointed out, there are so many things about this scenario which could’ve been prevented.  Indeed, fortunately this woman was wearing a helmet.  But there are some real basics here which she could have stopped and considered in order to prevent this incident from happening: firstly, she should’ve told someone where she was going and/or not gone alone; secondly, it’s a foolish person who tries to take a horse away from his herd by himself, unless he and the others can see where he’s going; thirdly, it’s in the way you choose to go about this task, and where you physically put yourself in a scenario – why was she within striking distance of the horse?

This kind of thing, I feel, proves my point – that health and safety isn’t there to make lives harder and ruin our fun, but it is there to make us think.  Yet clearly, that message isn’t getting through.  In my opinion, there is absolutely no need to drastically change the activities we choose to teach, we just have to monitor the way they are taught, and regulate them in order to make them as sensible and safe as possible.  Would you teach bareback lessons with more than one client per instructor, or with a horse or horses who haven’t done it before in a bustling arena?  Would you allow a client to lead a horse anywhere in the stables without checking first that they know how to do so, where to put themselves, what to watch for?  Would a client be left responsible for tacking up their own horse and then be allowed to mount without an instructor watching or checking their equipment?

It seems to me that equestrians consider the term “health and safety” and think about the ultimate negative implications of an accident without truly considering what can be done in between, other than ceasing activities altogether.  To me, it’s just a puzzle: find a way or make one.

Marginal gains

Throughout the summer, I often found myself discussing horsemanship classes with other staff at the barn: when we all arrived, it emerged that I wasn’t the only one who was interested in the idea, and that two of the new staff actually had a lot of experience with it.  I was intimidated at first, but as I was the one scheduled to teach the classes, I just had to get on with it.

The other instructors were mostly busy with other classes whilst I was teaching horsemanship, but they were sometimes available to drop in and either assist or work with their own horses alongside the kids.  It was always a comfortable atmosphere of everyone learning from each other, with no real hierarchy.

Towards the end of the summer, I sought advice from the others more frequently, as the kids were progressing and I again began to feel a little out of my depth.  One of my colleagues watched one of my classes and came away impressed by how far the kids had come.  She asked me how I’d done it and my initial reaction was to laugh and tell her it had been an accident.  She pushed me to think about my process a little more and here’s what I told her…

  • Safety comes first. It has to.  I establish rules at the very beginning – they’re not written down, they aren’t commandments, and there aren’t loads, but they are clear: no horses or people are to get harmed physically; listen to me and ask questions; other than that, use your imagination
  • Once the kids have the basics, I rarely step into the bubble they have with the horse. I teach from a physical distance: normally, I’m working in a small arena anyway, so I’m never far away if I need to step in, but the horse has to see the person holding the rope as the leader and their partner, it’s disruptive for me to be too close.  So I lean on the fence and watch, sometimes not even saying much…
  • This is where it starts to sound a little hippy-ish to some: I’m not teaching the kids a physical skill, I’m teaching them to think. I go over the basics of biology and psychology – what horses do and why; how we impact upon that; how to observe the horse and look for the smallest of changes.  They learn how to set up their session and judge when they and the horse are ready for the next activity.  They have to be able to go it alone, I help them to arrive at the answer, rather than giving it to them…
  • I give them stuff they can do, then feed them the next thing they can do. The kids have to succeed, otherwise they lose motivation.  It’s also a way of giving the horse confidence, as they’re feeding off their human partner.  In addition, this is a way of controlling the situation and keeping it at a manageable pace for all of us
  • I don’t seek perfection. For me, there’s sometimes a bit of smoke and mirrors involved in teaching: I want my students to enjoy the experience and learn something new; I’m not an expert in this, I don’t feel qualified to tell them firmly that what they’re doing is absolutely wrong, so if the result is right and they’ve stuck to my rules, I’m not bothered if the journey wasn’t perfect.  It’s ego again – everyone needs to feel good about themselves

When I’d finished explaining, my colleague thought for a second before announcing that my strategy was “clever” and giving me a pat on the back.  I was flattered, of course.  I’m not sure for how much longer I’ll continue with exactly the same ideas, how long it’ll be before they grow and change, but for now I’ll take it, and be pleased with what I’ve done.  It’s a start, at least.

Getting to know them

Easily the most frequently asked question I get from kids about the horses is, “how old is he?”  My mind boggles every single time, because I honestly don’t think it ever occurred to me to ask the age of my mount as a child.  If I were looking to buy or loan a horse, I’d certainly want to know their age, but when I’m riding one for an hour or so, I’m really not bothered.  There are many more important markers of fitness to work for an hour other than age, so it drops down my list of priorities.

There are other things the kids are curious about and, apropos of nothing, the current second favourite seems to be, “do they know us?”  Meaning: can horses tell one person from another; do horses prefer some people over others; do horses remember certain people?  My answer to all of those questions is and always has been a resounding yes, but my appreciation for horses’ abilities in these areas has recently improved.

In order to explain, I need to rewind to early August.  As our third session of camp drew to a close I was preparing my campers – whether I taught them riding or horsemanship – for visiting weekend, when they’d be able to demonstrate what they’d learned for their families and friends.  Whilst teaching my classes – polishing riding routines and pushing kids through new ground work exercises – I found myself feeling horribly jealous of the horsemanship students.  Most of them had been with me for six weeks by this point, and all were working beautifully with their horses: if I ever had to take the rope and demonstrate something, I found the horses to be remarkably responsive, and far more willing than they had been at the beginning of the programme – a testament to the hard work the kids had put in.

But it wasn’t me the horses were responding to, it was the kids who had been working directly with them.  One of the first things I learned and decided when teaching horsemanship, is that you really have to do it from a significant physical distance most of the time.  The horses are very easily distracted, and in order to help them focus and encourage the students to be more independent, I mostly stay well away and hover by the edge of the arena observing quietly.  I’m sure that if a stranger were to pass by, they’d wonder if I were teaching at all.  So my literal involvement had been minimal – I’d truly stepped back and allowed the process to happen, becoming more of a facilitator or coach than anything.

I’d thrown a huge amount of energy into teaching these classes, and had abandoned the idea of working with my own horses during the day.  I’d then been lazy about keeping horses in to work with them after dinner in the evenings, preferring instead to spend time with friends or relax in the sun.  So although I’d facilitated improved relationships between students and horses, I had nothing of my own.  I spent a few days pining for something I thought I wouldn’t achieve, waved goodbye to the campers who were leaving and then took stock.

Two of my students remained and, for the first time in six weeks, I had an hour each day where I had no students (and my other two classes had both become private lessons).  As the kids who remained were now six weeks into the class, I no longer had the excuse that they needed a lot of help, as well as the fact that I was now only responsible for one horse and human per class, rather than two.  It was time to pick up a rope again.

My boss and I formulated a plan, deciding that I would continue to work with two of the horses I’d been supervising, with my third hour reserved for my favourite horse, who needs a lot of entertaining (even more so when he lost a front shoe, therefore rendering him unrideable until the farrier was able to visit).  I stepped a little cautiously back into the ring, at first going through the motions.  I can’t remember what happened in order for me to do what I like to call pressing the fuck it button, but that’s what I did: I realised there was nothing to lose, so I should probably make the most of the remainder of this opportunity and just see what happened.

A week later, my three horses absolutely know me.  The one who was off work playing Cinderella would trot to the fence of his field and whinny whenever I walked past (at least eight times per day as I head to and from classes, the bathroom or to catch other horses), but wouldn’t give anyone else the time of day.  One of them – who is actively despised by most instructors because it takes a very particular type of rider to make him move – volunteered a movement at a canter when I was teaching him a new pattern during one of our most recent sessions (I almost fell over in shock, but instead cried “good boy!” and cheered him on).  The final horse pricked his ears, lifted his tail and peeled around the indoor arena on the end of a lunge line, completing a tricky pattern at an enthusiastic trot which rendered one of the other horsemanship instructors speechless.

Horses shouldn’t surprise me like this, but they do.  Following about an hour per day for a week, I’m confident that those three horses know who I am, what we do together and remember certain things about me.  How much they’d recall and how quickly if I were to disappear for a few months, I don’t know.  But getting started is far easier than I thought.

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?

Paging Dr Freud

I’ve long thought there’s no room for ego in teaching, particularly if your subject is a physical skill. It’s all too easy to get frustrated, or simply and naively believe that you are offering a demonstration by stepping in and literally showing your student how it’s done when they get stuck.  I’ve witnessed riding instructors who order their student from the saddle, hop on and proceed to perfect the desired manoeuvre with ease.  I’ve also seen it backfire, with the mount continuing to refuse to offer the required movement – and these days, I view that from the perspective of horsemanship and relationships – and the situation descending into chaos, which can involve anything from quiet chuntering to out and out violence.

There are other reasons as to why offering students a demonstration doesn’t always work.  For one, many people aren’t visual learners, and won’t be able to spot the differences in their teacher’s technique in order to replicate them.  Even visual learners might struggle sometimes, as many cues are almost invisible to the naked eye without the aid of video analysis or other technological tools.  Another key reason for demonstrations failing is that you are at serious risk of damaging your student’s fragile ego.  When a person is struggling to achieve something, they are already psychologically in a precarious position, and more often than not, what they need is building up rather than bringing down.  And given that a fundamental part of teaching human beings is the skill of communicating verbally and explaining the topic you are allegedly an expert in, the inability to do so is surely a failure on the part of the coach.

There are, of course, subtle ways of demonstrating your point, without taking over and literally showing off.  With many sports, it’s possible to physically guide your student through the process – this has to be managed carefully, particularly if your student is a child, but at camp we’re advised that touching in order to teach sports or other activities is fine providing we’ve explained what we’re going to do and sought the child’s consent.  A person being on a horse isn’t a barrier to an instructor helping them to improve by guiding them physically: you can reposition a rider with them in the saddle and yourself on the ground; many establishments have mirrors so that you can show your client what their body looks like and, if mirrors aren’t available, there are the good old fashioned riding instructor series of squat poses in order to demonstrate what your client looks like on a horse (NB: it’s not always pretty).  When it comes to kids and horsemanship, I’ve often found myself holding a child, a rope (and therefore a horse) and a carrot stick and waving four arms around in order to direct an animal who is at the other end of a three metre line – I’m positive that it doesn’t look elegant, but I’m just as certain that it works.

What I’ve learned recently is that ego can pop up during teaching in another way: it also relates to progress.  Whilst it’s important not to show off in front of your clients, it’s also critical to manage their progression in a way which supports them rather than harms them.  It’s a common situation: a client has a goal in mind and, sometimes, they will drag you towards it rather than allowing you to guide the process.  Sometimes, it’s not just the student who makes use of pester power – they may have a significant other putting a deadline on them, or a classic pushy parent in the wings.  Keeping clients in check is an important skill not just for their confidence and your sanity, but also for their safety.

I figured this out having made the error a couple of times recently.  Sometimes, it’s just hard to think to say “no” rather than “yes”.  Sometimes, I too am eager to reach the mythical finish line.  A horsemanship student I know very well asked if he could move on to the next exercise.  My gut quietly muttered “no”, and my ego excitedly squealed “yes, do it, today’s the last day, let’s go out with a bang!”  Of course, things ended with a splat, and it wasn’t me who suffered.  I failed my student by letting him take charge, and it’s my job to fix the situation.  And I can fix it, but I also can’t let it happen again.

First and last

When I first knew last summer that my job at camp would involve escorting kids on ridden trails, I felt a huge sense of responsibility to both them and myself.  I saw it as a privilege – rather than a right – that my boss trusted me enough to take kids and horses out of her sight and control.  Those who don’t know horses might think that there’s only so much that you can do in 45 minutes… they’d be wrong.  Anything can – and does – happen when horses are involved, so I was acutely aware of the fact that these rides wouldn’t often be at my own pleasure.

I quickly learned that when you’re escorting a ride, you’re mentally riding each and every horse in your group.  You’re trying to anticipate their movements and help the riders out, whilst ensuring that everyone is safe and enjoying themselves.  It’s a juggling act and, until you know both the horses and the kids, it’s pretty nerve-wracking.  And even when you do know your equine and human companions, you can still only guess as to what’s going to happen.

There are strict rules for trails where I work, which my boss has developed during her 10 summers at our camp.  There are certain parts of the trail where the only gait you can travel at is a walk, and times when you must use your best judgement from day to day.  At the beginning of the session, trotting is forbidden, as the horses have had a few days off and are pretty lively.  Trotting is also off the table if the weather has been poor.  Cantering is only okayed once riders have successfully cantered in lessons – something which is just plain common sense.

Despite the rules, we had a few issues last summer, but I doubt there will be any surprise that I stuck to the rules religiously.  I wanted my kids to be safe and not scared.  But above that, I didn’t want to be the one who returned home with a horse who had left behind a shoe or sustained an injury.  The weather was incredibly hot for much of last summer, and our horses all work around four hours per day, so I was also reluctant to flog them.  I also didn’t want my privileges to be revoked, so I did my best to play by the rules.

It paid off, as I’ve been given a good number of trails this summer too.  My boss will supervise the departure of many trails, but leaves me and our other returnee to sort ourselves out, trusting our knowledge of the horses to allocate them appropriately to campers and decide on a suitable order for the ride.

I taught one of our frequent fliers for all six weeks of his stay this summer, meaning that he and I have wandered the trails with his class many times.  He’s always appreciative of our rides, and taking him out is a great experience.  When his final trail arrived, my boss decided to come with us, even though the numbers didn’t dictate it to be a necessity (her rules are one staff member to every two or three campers, depending on horses and rider ability – this class is my advanced one and, as I only had two students, I always took them out alone).

I knew from the beginning that it would be fun, partly because the responsibility was off me as I was happy for my boss to take charge.  She rode at the front on one of my favourite horses, and I was on her favourite horse at the back – a change from our usual situation.  This was actually our first ride out together with campers in our two summers working together – she prefers that one of us remains at the barn at all times, rather than escorting trails together, but this was an exception.

As both campers are capable riders, it was a speedy trail from the outset.  We waited and walked through the early rocky stages of the trail before taking a quick trot up a side road to the open field which serves as our usual cantering space.  Sure enough, there was a canter around the side of the field towards the woods beyond.  As it was the end of the day and we finish that class a little early to feed the horses, I knew we’d have to go some in order to get home, but my boss was determined and flexed her rules with good judgement.  I wasn’t surprised when we trotted a couple of the less muddy sections, but was a little shocked – though pleased – to get another brief canter.

The trail descends along an old riverbed before snaking up through the woods – it’s my favourite section of our trails, because when the light catches just so, the view through the trees is beautiful.  I didn’t get to see my favourite view this time: we trotted up the final steep section, and I saw my boss canter away once the path levelled out!  There are a few sharp turns, but the horses were more than capable and seemed excited to get the chance to blast around the woods.  My riders handled the ride brilliantly and I got to kick on and enjoy myself as my horse powered along the track.

When we emerged from the woods, my boss turned in her saddle and announced we’d have a final canter, and that this time she was going to let us go a little faster.  We surged through the tall grass along a track I could probably canter smoothly in my sleep, and pulled up grinning at the corner of the field to begin our amble home.

We made it back to the barn in good time to help with feeding, and I dismounted feeling exhilarated after my ride.  It had been a fun week on the trails for me, after the previous session had been a slight washout with the amount of rain we’d had, as well as being the perfect way to say goodbye to a treasured student.

State of the instructor

Thanks to some supportive messages from a friend, I’ve realised a few things.  The third session of camp has finished, and we’re into the proverbial final furlong (sort of: the final session of camp has started, but there’s an extra week tacked onto the end which I’m staying for this year).  I was feeling disappointed with myself – I wasn’t surprised that the lofty ambitions I had for this summer hadn’t been met, but I was still a little down about it.  There were so many horses I wanted to “fix” (or at least improve), but time has been my biggest enemy, with lack of consistency from other staff coming an incredibly close second.

Because that’s the thing with horses, no matter what your approach is: consistency is key.  And the fact of the matter is that these 30 horses are being handled by 14 different full time staff, plus goodness knows how many campers, plus the occasional other bodies who float through.  We’re not all on message – even I’m not on message some of the time!  There are moments when I could do with someone to give me a slap and remind me what my principles are, because when I’m in a hurry or trying to do five things at once, my beloved ideals go straight to the wall and the quickest course of action takes over.  Ultimately, working at a busy barn is far different to the controlled environment of a private yard which is home to five horses.

There was a day recently when three of my colleagues approached me separately and asked me if I could “do something” about a certain horse.  At the time, I was enthusiastic that they’d seen my approach as a valid option, but urged them to get involved, citing the fact that my diary was already full of horses I worked with.  I let each of them know that they were more than welcome to join my classes, which would be the best way for me to help them.  And that’s when they lost interest.  They weren’t looking to engage on that level and make that effort, they wanted me to do it for them.  But that’s not how this works.  I shrugged it off initially, accepting that they just weren’t that interested in learning more.  And then I felt guilty, because I thought I should be able to help more horses.  Which is when my friend had to get involved and tell me to have a word with myself.

It took a day or so for the message to really sink in, but my realisation was this: the responsibility isn’t mine alone when I’m working as part of a team.  If something isn’t working, we all have a duty to change it and improve.  I’m happy to help, but it’s not up to me to fix everything, it’s not my job to be the solution.  With horses, every handler has the responsibility to behave consistently and ensure that the horse is treated and behaves in the appropriate manner.  One person twiddling a rope for half an hour per day isn’t going to cut it: it’s about the way the horse is approached, handled, tacked up, led, even spoken to by everyone.  Otherwise the positive voice and actions get lost in a sea of white noise.  How is a horse supposed to sort through the inconsistent actions of over 14 different people and figure out what to do in order to be treated properly or praised?  It’s no wonder they do what they think is best, not what they know is right.

This isn’t the end, and it’s not a surrender.  It’s a realisation of what I can achieve within the current limits.  A philosophy I was told about a few months ago was that when faced with a challenge, one should find a way or make one.  So that’s what I’ll be doing next, because I can’t accept the current situation as best practice.

Lucky

We’re in our third session at camp and, incredibly, there’s still time for me to teach three horsemanship classes per day.  I’ve also still got an advanced class, and I’m back to teaching one set of beginners – English-style, first up in the mornings.  I enjoy finishing the day with the advanced class: it’s almost a chance to relax and switch off – there isn’t the stress and concern that the kids won’t know what to do if anything unexpected happens; I don’t have to remind them to check diagonals, keep their heels down or shorten their reins, so I’m freer to work on more complex ideas (complex in this context being seat contact or bend, still nothing overly fancy!).

There are still a lot of things I find completely alien about the way riding is taught over here: I’m glad I’ve yet to meet someone who rides saddle seat, because I don’t think that conversation would go well, given that my level of frustration at how the so-called hunter/jumper barns teach is high enough.  Most of the campers who ride year-round or learned to ride somewhere other than camp ride in an arched back with a light seat, and none of those who ride outside of camp know what a flatwork lesson is – there’s an expectation that half of every lesson will involve jumping.  So with intermediate and advanced classes, I often find myself explaining the concept of a serpentine to 15-year olds who’ve been riding since before they started school, as well as teaching them how to find their seatbones and use them.

Staff and horses alike are fatigued at this point: my boss explained this time last year that what’s routine for us now is still new for many of the kids (as they’ve only just arrived), so it’s important to still keep the fun element and ensure that they enjoy themselves.  It’s the biggest challenge right now, because our lives have become very repetitive and institutionalised.

Some things are quite different to last year: during the beginning of the third session, it was oppressively hot – to the point where riding was cancelled on several occasions – whereas this year has been dominated by some horrendous storms and a lot of rain.  I’m told it’s because the tail end of a hurricane travelled up the eastern seaboard, which led to some impressive amounts of rain, the likes of which I left the UK to avoid!  Similarly to last year, gastro is doing the rounds, but it’s reached epic proportions this year, leading to 72-hour quarantine periods for those presenting at the infirmary with vomiting, doors being propped open to avoid contamination via handles and the self-service salad bar being closed (which has led to obscene queues at mealtimes).  In an example of “things which shouldn’t happen to non-bunk staff”, I was hit by the mystery bug too (something which didn’t happen last year), and was knocked out for 24 hours (there was no way I was submitting to quarantine).

The end and the holiday glimmer at a distance on the horizon, but they aren’t yet in focus, warped by the distance still to go and the uncertainty of some conditions.  Some things remain the same, some things change – one of the changes appears to be that my ability to remember names has improved, which is brilliant when the kids can’t remember the name of the horse they’re sat on and I need to get a child’s attention.