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.

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Wordless Wednesday: it’s here

Yes, I’m still processing this, but receiving confirmation that I passed my courses and am now a certified professional has helped.  Opening this envelope was a very proud moment.

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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.

Finding his feet

Prince doesn’t know how many feet he has.  As an inexperienced riding horse, and one who has done a lot of Parelli playing from the ground, but not a lot of real schooling work, he often fails to pick his feet up, particularly at the trot.  As I don’t wish to be put on the floor, I decided this should be something we work on pretty soon.  I’m not planning on competing or doing any dressage with him, but he needs to be able to make his way in any direction I ask him to go without stumbling or tripping.  We know it isn’t a soundness issue, or something which relates to the way his tack fits, it’s definitely a case of not always thinking about where he puts his feet, and not being in self-carriage.

So out came the trotting poles, I sent Prince on a circle and… he flew over them.  I thought it might be beginner’s luck, so I sent him again, and witnessed another great performance.  I decided I’d need evidence in case nobody believed me, so I did a juggling act with a 22-foot line and my phone (and probably over-used my tongue as a result, I sound like I’m nagging in this video!), and asked Prince to approach the poles once more.

As you can see, he does a reasonable job!  The right rein isn’t so fantastic, with him missing the stride into them and clouting the first two as a result, but he made a real effort, so I was proud of him.

Here Prince is two weeks ago figuring out how to pick his feet up:

A week later, with an eye on the fact that our first playday is now less than a month away, I decided it was high time that Prince and I checked out the ten acre field.  The horses live there all winter, but none of them have been there for a couple of months, as they’ve moved into their summer paddocks.  I knew Prince would want the chance to check for dragons before any obstacles are set up or other horses arrive, so I tacked him up on the yard, and with the safety of two companions alongside us, we went to the ten acre for a play.

Sure enough, Prince wasn’t all that relaxed initially – up on his toes as he was in a ten acre field full of tall grass, but he soon started blowing and snorting (in the good way!) once I got him trotting and thinking.  Once he’d figured out that there was probably nothing nearby which would attack him, I mounted up and we had a mini hack around the field.  I half wanted to ride him back down the lane to the yard, but the person assisting me wasn’t all that confident, so I decided to leave things on a good note and walk him home.  Another reasonably successful session for the books.

Our final workout recently came earlier this week: it was almost the hottest day of 2015 so far, and I didn’t have Prince’s saddle at the yard, so riding wasn’t an option, but I wanted him a little tired so that he was well-behaved for the podiatrist’s impending visit.  I didn’t try to achieve anything clever, just gave Prince some miles in his legs, working on some transitions with him out on the line: upwards and downwards, between walk, trot and canter.  It’s just nice, I thought, that he now does what I ask, when I ask for it.  He finally pretty much trusts me and sees me as a partner and leader, rather than a stranger.

At the end of the session, the podiatrist had arrived but was halfway through doing another horse.  Prince was sweaty, so needed a hose down before being seen, but I had a fair bit of time on my hands, so I took him for a walk to the top of the paddock to cool him off and give him the chance to stand in the shade.  Our neighbours were burning something next door, and as the smoke drifted through the trees, it was hit by the bright sunlight from overhead, creating the kind of light you typically see in heavily-edited or brilliantly-lit photoshoots, or even in CGI-filled movies.  I put Prince in position, crouched down and shot away, producing some pictures I’m pretty proud of – you can check them out below.

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I’m a little behind where I’d like to be, but overall in a good horsey place at the moment.  Hope you’re all enjoying the summer too!

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.

Giving and getting

“We want to make sure that you’re getting what you want out if this,” Fran said to me back in January.  It wasn’t a conversation I was expecting, but one which one of the Directors of the charity I volunteer with broached on a windy morning, forcing me to stop and think.  I hadn’t considered what I wanted, beyond the chance to spend time with horses over the winter.  But at that point, it was becoming clear that I might be sticking around for longer, so it made sense that we consider the future.

Let’s take a few steps back, now.  I’ve always been a Girl Who Likes Things: I enjoy spending money; I like trying new food (preferably accompanied by good wine in a comfortable setting where I pay for the privilege of someone else cooking AND clearing up); I take pleasure in going shopping, whether it’s to find the perfect dress, shoes, handbag or pair of jeans; when I go on holiday, I’m happy to pay more in order to stay somewhere nice with good facilities and a breathtaking view.  Essentially, I’m materialistic.  And until even as little as a year ago, that meant (in my terms) that my time was worth money.  Because money buys Things, and Things are what I like.  Plus, I reasoned, I have talent and skills, those are worth paying for, right?

I even went as far as to tell friends and family that I would never work for free.  I didn’t mind working for low wages (if you want to get rich, you do not work at summer camps), but I did need to be paid.

I’m not sure I could tell you exactly what changed, so I think I’ll call it kismet.  It’s probably a combination of things: I found something I deemed “worth it”; I had time on my hands; I had another job which did pay me; I needed what was on offer… I moved the goalposts.  I volunteered.

I didn’t actively expect to “get” anything, partly because I already was: when I first went to see Fran and Jo upon my return to the UK last autumn, they invited me to ride one of their horses for them.  He needed work, I could (and wanted to) ride, it made sense to them.  For me it meant that I didn’t have to pay in order to do something I enjoy doing (my other option at the time would’ve been to go back to the local riding school and pay for lessons on their horses again, given that I don’t have my own horse).  I already thought I was winning.  In fact, the more I showed up, I knew I was winning, because they allowed me to assist on therapy sessions, something that I knew I wanted to ultimately do as my job, and an area in which I needed experience.  I didn’t think I needed any more.

But they wanted to give me more, and they wanted me to tell them what more was.  They wanted to make sure that I was developing, and that was purely out of the kindness of their hearts.  The way they saw it, I was giving them my time and some physical labour, and that meant I was due something in return.  I love this attitude, not because I stand to gain something concrete from it, but because it matches my own – that anyone who is even a millimetre ahead should be supporting those behind them.  Because that’s how we stabilise the future.  We shouldn’t be job-blocking or holding others back or – worst of all – de-motivating them; we should be encouraging and nurturing.

I’ve written before about how I’ve been inspired by some great managers (who sometimes work for not-so-great organisations), those who I thought managed talent well, and who helped the business they work for achieve its goals, but without ignoring the individuals who are there making it happen.  Because it’s not always about what the organisation needs: whether someone is turning up paid or unpaid, we all have different motivations, but as long as you tap into those drivers, you can help a team function effectively even though they ultimately want different things.

I genuinely believe that by protecting the good habits instilled in me by the managers I worked for when I was younger, I will hopefully be able to perpetuate them, and make the working world a better place.  This post may seem a little out of the blue: in fact, it was inspired by a discussion during #CharityHour, whereby a few of us became involved in a debate regarding support or help given to volunteers looking to advance their careers.  On one side was somebody who essentially said, “ain’t nobody got time for that”, and on the other side was me.  The other side said, “but we can’t have volunteers taking up the charity’s resources,” following which I exploded with apoplexy, because volunteers are a resource of any charity and, in fact, they are more than a resource, they are an asset and assets, as any businessperson will tell you, must be protected.

The other side reared up at my suggestion that volunteers at the very least be promised a reference, stating that they had known organisations whereby one person were responsible for hundreds of volunteers.  My response was that the responsibility should then be divided – provide training, I said, make sure people can do this; our saying within the horsemanship community is, “find a way or make one”.  Anything is possible (insert more cat-skinning related clichés here).  The sticking point for many – and I have worked for at least two enormous companies who have this rule – is good old arse-covering: in the UK, it is illegal to give a negative reference for an employee or volunteer.  As a referee, you have three choices – give a positive reference, a neutral reference, or decline (and the final option tells the person requesting one that, if you could, you’d be giving a bad one).

So big companies permit only neutral references – the standard is that you will confirm dates of employment and sickness record, but won’t comment on an individual’s performance.  Johnny who turns up early for every shift, stays late and is your top seller whose jokes, patter and warmth your customers adore gets the same reference as Bob, who shows up five minutes late, nips out for cigarettes every hour, looks unkempt and is borderline rude.  In my mind, to go the extra mile for Johnny – who has gone several hundred extra miles for you – is not hard.  To provide training and regulation for those who will be giving references (to ensure that your arse is covered) is also not hard.  To give you another equestrian analogy (because they work, as horses are mirrors): “Never knock the curiosity out of a young horse” – Tom Dorrance.  We remember those who snub us on our slow and steady climb.  We mirror their habits.  Let’s breed positive qualities.

I am hopeful that, one day, I will create my ideal world: the one where I get to do a job that I adore (full-time, paid), and develop those around me in a way I would like to see things progress.  I once heard a riding instructor say that they are delighted when their students enter the same classes as them at competitions and beat them, because that’s how it should be – the next generation should ultimately improve on the previous one.  It’s called progress, and without it, nothing changes.  But without a little help – a leg up, a “thank you”, and an opportunity – it can’t happen.  I want to see positive strides, but they can’t happen without my support, so I will give anything that I am able to, whenever I am able to give it.

The week the wheels came off… and went back on

I’m beginning to settle into my new working/horsey balance pattern.  There’s still going to be some adjusting along the way, but last week saw a bit of a golden opportunity: I would spend both Monday and Saturday at the yard, and I should’ve had enough time to work with and ride Prince on both days.  Should being the operative word.

As it happened, time wasn’t the issue: we spent most of Monday entertaining some guests – employees of the local council who make lots of referrals to us, and came to have a kind of experience day.  We showed them directly what the kids they refer to us get to do, by running some sessions for them.  There were also cookies and cups of tea and lots of questions, all of which was good practice for the coming week (our open days are finally happening!) as we had to be “on” all the time, fielding questions about what we do, how we do it and the impact it has.

Once the goodbyes had been said and the morning declared a success, it was time for Prince to do some real work (having spent an hour conning a group of people into picking him the juiciest grass from the other side of the fence and hand-feeding it to him).  By this point, there was a sideways wind and he wasn’t really in the mood to work, having been in the company for a very extroverted group all morning.  Nor was I, if I’m honest, with a couple of distractions playing on my mind.  But I set to it anyway, grooming him and tacking up to ride.

I realised not long into our ground work session that riding wasn’t a good idea.  Prince gave me a lot of attitude, wasn’t really concentrating and didn’t seem capable of achieving much.  So I got to a place where we’d done something good, then gave up for the day.  I was pretty despondent – handling my emotions is something I’m not great at, especially when I’ve got a goal which I don’t think is going to be reached.  As the play day gets closer, I’ve had far less saddle time than I’d like (I know that’s always the way, but I haven’t really ridden at all, rather than it being a case of getting only three hours of riding a week when my ideal would be six or eight).  When I went home on Monday, I felt pretty hopeless.

I had four days away to try and get myself together, but although Saturday dawned sunny and warm, I still wasn’t feeling any more positive.  But my day started with a surprise: I had to move Bella, alpha mare of the little herd, to another paddock.  Over the winter, she was easy to handle (because she was cold and knew that humans = helpers); throughout the spring, she has become progressively awkward to catch, as her owner’s pregnancy has advanced and she’s not receiving the attention that she thinks she should be.  As an extroverted horse, she’s basically a bit bored, so I played the catching game with her.

Bella and I did a dance around the field, but it wasn’t Bella leading me in a game of chase, it was me saying, “okay, let’s play”.  I had to go a little carefully, as she’s (we suspect) torn a muscle in a hind leg and has limited her mobility a little at the moment, but there was more than enough movement for a quick game.  As we made our way across the paddock, we reached Prince’s favourite spot – small tree stump, which Prince itches on but all of the horses can use as a podium.  Bella was on one side of it, I was on the other, so I backed away and beckoned her towards me.  It’s plenty small enough for her to step over, and she had the option to go safely around either side of it… but she chose to step up onto it with her front feet.  I almost fell over in shock.  I’ve done no real liberty work on my horsemanship journey so far, and here I was with an injured alpha mare offering me a big touchdown.  I stood and gawped for a few seconds, praising Bella verbally, before gently stepping into her space and scratching her neck as she stood on the log.  There was just enough time for me to step back and snap a couple of quick pictures before she got down, stood quietly behind the log and waited whilst I went and haltered her.

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One satisfied horse gave me a confidence boost, and when it came time to work with Prince a couple of hours later, the weather was calm and sunny, I was in a good mood and we were ready to go.  I plaited him up again (my skills in that area are definitely improving!) and away we went.  I played a quick variety of games, trying to get him focused, particularly on picking his front feet up and being aware of where they are – he trips a bit at the moment, even though he’s sound and his tack fits, it seems to be a concentration issue, so I tried my best to get him switched on.

Happy that he was ready to go, I swapped his halter for a bridle and hopped on.  My previous ride a few weeks earlier had involved him expressing some quite serious opinions on going round corners (we were only able to do so sideways at a walk – not ideal), but I focused on where we were at and moved off.  He was a bit wobbly in that he finds maintaining straightness hard (which is due to all sorts of things: not being ride-fit, being inexperienced under saddle, and being ridden in a different paddock to where he normally is), because again, it involves concentrating, but I decided to forgive him the wonky lines and focus on just getting forwards – we have the rest of our lives to ride spirit level lines if we want to, I just wanted to get closer to a point where we might be able to leave the yard and go on a hack one day!

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from the way this was captured, in my head this looks like we’re doing a piaffe… maybe one day!

Having walked around for a while, checking steering and brakes, I nudged Prince into a trot and found him much more willing than before.  I continued to focus on transitions, forwards and gentle steering and, eventually, we cornered at a trot!  See below for triumphant video:

Please excuse my hideously out of practice riding, and Prince’s aforementioned wobbly form.  It’s a work in progress, but that’s now the key word: progress was again made.  I’ve got everything crossed that I’ll ride at the play day in a month, but I’m trying not to hold my breath…

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look at his beautiful swishy feathers!

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and we can do backup too!

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Oh, and the other thing?  I realised whilst I was riding that when I checked my Timehop app on Saturday morning, a photo had appeared from a year ago of me riding another 15hh black horse… on a different continent, in a different type of saddle and of a completely different build, but either way – two years, two 15hh Black Beauties.  It’s funny how life works out!

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on the left: Murray in the US, 2014; on the right: Prince in the UK, 2015. Spot the difference!

It’s not about the…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting up for a win

Due to high winds, Prince got a reprieve last week.  He doesn’t know that, of course.  He never knows what’s going to happen when I show up, and this week he got a bit of a shock.

The plan was to test the “it never takes longer than two days” theory (meaning that there’s a limit for how long even the most stubborn or messed up horse will hold out before realising that they’re doing things the hard way).  As I’ve mentioned before, Prince has gone from lacking in trust and confidence to figuring out several ways around me.  Like many horse people, I’m too nice, too concerned for the horse, and like naughty children, they play on our insecurities.  Basically, it was time to show Prince that I’m serious, and that if I want him to trot all day, he’ll jolly well trot all day.

There were a few things which worried me about this – mostly different ways of saying, “I think I’ll mess it up, but I so desperately want to get it right” – so I gathered my thoughts and game plan very carefully before going out to work.  Essentially, the plan was to put Prince on a circle and have him trot until he offered proper relaxation.  There would be no whipping and beating, because we have other cues (we reached the point long ago whereby I’d ask him to go and he’d go), and the method we follow believes in telling the horse once what they have to do, and not nagging them to keep doing it when they already are.  So if his attitude changed for the worse or his speed dropped through laziness rather than a genuine incapability, he’d get a reminder of what his job was, but otherwise I’d just walk with him.

I started with a bit of yo-yo to make sure he was connected, and I’m glad I did: the send was great, the draw was terrible, which I think was Prince’s way of saying “I know you don’t want me to circle yet, so if I just stand here twenty feet away, I don’t have to do any work”.  So I changed the game a bit in order to get a reaction out of him and, following an uncharacteristic level of patience on my part, it worked.  But work is still needed there.  If he’s already in motion, the draw is too good; if he’s stood still, there’s no draw at all.  I think there’s a lesson in there about energy…

The circling eventually began.  I honestly thought I’d be sending him in circles for hours.  We had a false start as he managed to stand on the rope (a favourite trick of our horses in order to get out of work), which backfired on him, as it reminded me I really had to raise my game.  I concentrated hard on what I wanted and paid attention to the little things – sending his shoulder away so that the tension in the rope increased, meaning that he couldn’t stand on it; driving him forward if he slacked, but not leading with my hand; watching for the smallest signs of relaxation and rewarding each try…

Fifty minutes later, the relaxation was being offered quickly, and I called it a day.  He didn’t trot the entire time – walk breaks were given as rewards for big tries – but my arms were quite sore and I was pretty dizzy!  I think I’d unwittingly set myself up to succeed: the weather has been beautifully warm for early April the last few days, and given that Prince is fat and still has half a winter coat, he was white with sweat and fairly tired – he held out for less time than he might have had it been a more comfortable day.  We chilled out in the field for a few minutes, him cropping at the grass and me trying to unwind my shoulders, before we hosed him off and turned him out with one of his friends.

The ultimate object of the exercise is that the horse no longer questions your persistence, and the hope is that you only have to do it once in order to teach that lesson.  Time will tell…

Phase four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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