Certified

A month after completing my EAGALA part one and two courses, I am finally ready to recount the experience.  There was a huge amount to take in, both in terms of how to practice equine assisted activities (EAA – other terms commonly used are equine assisted psychotherapy/learning [EAP/EAL], but I’ll stick with the broader term here), and about myself as a person, so it’s taken me a while to unpackage it all and begin to properly process it.  The experience was completely transformative, and unlike anything I’ve been through before, so it’s been a bit of a shock to the system!

I’d had the courses booked since April, thanks to funding through the charity I volunteer with, and in the build up, all I felt was excitement.  This is a little unusual for me, because although most people who know me would define me as an extrovert, I’m not all that confident among a large number of strangers, and I hate networking with a passion.  I think the excitement came for two reasons – I was going to be meeting “my” people, others who wanted to practice EAA, so we’d have that in common; I would be able to enjoy an entire week of what I really wanted to do, rather than a day squidged between the standard runs of my day job, which I’m not relishing.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, and although I felt naive for walking in with my eyes shut to what might happen, it probably meant that I experienced things in the truest sense.  You can qualify for EAGALA certification as either a mental health specialist or an equine specialist – due to my lack of mental health or counselling qualifications, I come under the latter, which is fine – and their model states that each session must be conducted with a mental health and an equine practitioner present.  The training is in the model, not the skills themselves (there’s nothing about caring for horses or horsemanship, for example, as well as there being nothing on how to be a counsellor), so practitioners from both parts of the team attended both courses.

The training is designed to be experiential, but there were some dissatisfied people during the first course – as experienced mental health practitioners who have undertaken a lot of training previously, they found the experiential element to be lacking and thought that the course was more about observing.  I was glad that I volunteered to be part of a dummy group, as I got more of an experience in the first course than some people did, and I was surprised that I didn’t react all that much (there was a point during the activity where I felt triggered, but I was able to deal with the feeling and move on at that point).

Part two was where I came unstuck!  I felt a real low, that I was being judged by some of the other participants as not being good enough (there was some good learning about self-awareness and taking things personally!), and I found it a very draining emotional experience.  There was one incident in particular which I felt we really weren’t given an opportunity to process, and one of the big takeaways for me was how important it is to get on with and trust the team you choose to work with.

But I worked my way through the entire course.  I went alone, I left having made some fantastic new friends.  I learned a huge amount, both about myself and what it is to be a practitioner and how to practice.  EAGALA’s recommendation is that you attend part one individually, but that you attend part two as part of your treatment team, and having seen what the activities are like, I’m keen to do so.  My co-facilitators are hoping to go next year, and I’d like to repeat part two with them: it’s a chance for us to practice in a “safe” environment both in terms of the “clients” (pretend ones!) and being supervised by the course facilitators and our peers.  We might even get experimental with our ideas and try a few new things out!  Either way, I think it’d be a fantastic experience and one which would boost my confidence further and see me take another leap in terms of my skills.

Back at home, I’ve already seen a huge positive difference in my skills as a facilitator – I’m using “clean language” skills I learned on the course, making more astute and informed observations, and picking up on what our clients and team need.  It’s helped to galvanise the team and bring a sense of unity.  And some of the positive impacts have extended into my non-EAGALA life.  The biggest difference has been to my confidence as a facilitator – thanks to the certificate and my team, I now believe that I really can do this, and that over time I’ll only get better.  I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the journey brings, particularly when I’m able to make the leap to practicing full time.  For now, I look forward to my days off with a new assurance that I can, do and will continue to make a difference.

certificate_EAGALA_qualification_certified professional_equine therapy_equine assisted therapy_equine assisted learning_practitioner_frame_display

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.

EAGALA_certificate_certified professional_qualified_equine therapy_equine learning_equine assisted learning_equine assisted psychotherapy_qualification

Adopting

There’s an increasing Americanisation of the UK, with us taking on many of their “holiday” traditions these days (that can stop, by the way – we don’t need Halloween or Black Friday, thanks), but I’m trying to bring something else into commonplace.  My favourite American custom is that of encouraging people to have a nice day, rather than just saying goodbye.

As a long-serving (suffering?) service industry professional, I’ve seen retail and food outlets adopt what many super-reserved Brits regard as being an over-the-top friendliness.  To greet customers or be the ones to initiate conversation is seen here as a combination of nosy and pushy salesperson-type behaviour.  When Starbucks began asking customers for their name when ordering drinks, they were met with stern opposition (and not just from the mocking Twitterati, who take delight in exposing spelling mistakes) at this supposed over-familiarity (side note: take it from a former-barista, this policy is saving lives – nothing more frustrating than the umpteenth customer asking if the stone-cold latte on the end of the bar is theirs, and then proceeding to take the extra hot triple decaf wet soya latte which clearly isn’t theirs instead).  No, the American custom I’m on a mission to expand within the UK is that of encouraging people to have a nice day.

Rather than leaving my customer sign off as, “thank you, goodbye”, I try my best to encourage people to have a good day.  It often surprises them.  They tend to say, “thank you” or at the very least smile in response.  It visibly lifts them.  And occasionally, I get the biggest win of all: they return the phrase.  Sometimes, it’s an unconscious, “you too”, but on other occasions it’s clearly heartfelt.  And that makes me smile, put my shoulders back, and glide back into the retail fray with a better attitude.

I don’t save lives, I sell merchandise.  I’m not a member of the emergency services who works unsociable hours, I work in a shop and often work unsociable hours (we won’t discuss my rota for December here, in case some kind of miracle occurs and I escape it, but let’s just say it’s far from good).  I’m no hero, and I can be on the receiving end of some abuse.  So when people are nice, or grateful, and happy, it’s noticed.

I do it as a customer too – partly because I know what it’s like to be the poor person behind the counter who has rotting milk in their hair, or the one on the till whose feet hurt and has been wearing an enforced smile for several hours, and faces a stock take once the shutters come down – and I feel sad when it isn’t a part of that worker’s culture, when it’s me who delivers that line to them (always, always earnestly), who has to try and make them feel better.

But it’s worth it if I change one person’s outlook.  And it’s definitely worth it when one of my customers smiles and tells me to have a great day.  Because now, I just might.

Open for business

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me!  I haven’t had time to write a full blog post today, so I thought I’d give you a peek at the events I helped put on last week.

The Equine Partners open days were a great success – lots of people came to visit us, there was a huge amount of cake consumed, and our visitors were very generous with their donations in return for said cake.  It’s now onward and upwards to make the most of the summer, getting lots of sessions in and continuing the good work that we do…

Here’s our yard looking busier than it ever has before!  We normally only see one family at a time (all images are clickable to enlarge)

2. stable yard_horses_equestrian_equine learning_equine assisted learning_equine therapy_nlp_display_open day_events

 

Kira made some new friends!  I promise she didn’t eat anyone…

1. pony_audience_yard_open day_events_equine learning_equine assisted therapy_EAGALA_stables

 

Prince and I were teaching a student and ended up doing a demo I was very proud of!  He tried really hard and gave me some great things

3. natural horsemanship_demonstration_parelli_open days_events_equine learning_equine assisted learning_equine therapy_cob_irish cob_horse_playing

 

I did some demo sessions as well, here’s Kira doing some teaching about obstacles and communication

4. equine learning_equine assisted learning_equine therapy_natural horsemanship_obstacles_obstacle course_teaching_lesson_horsemanship_natural horsemanship_parelli_pony

 

And finally, we took the opportunity to have a photo shoot – here’s Prince and me posing shamelessly

5. horse_portrait_cob_irish cob_buttercups_sunshine_summer_field_chairty_events_open day

 

Hope to be back on track next week!

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.

Equine therapy demystified

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elephants and mice

Since beginning my adventures as a would-be equine learning facilitator, the lesson I’ve found that we teach most frequently is the difference between introverts and extroverts.  It feels strange to say it, because once people learn this lesson, they tend to wonder why they missed it previously, but sometimes you can’t see the elephant in the room for looking.  Even I didn’t realise some of the most important factors before I began using ponies to demonstrate these facts, but here’s the thing…

Broadly speaking, a person is either introverted or extroverted (a little more on that next week, if you’ve got the interest following this post!).  To stereotype, this means that introverts prefer their own company, whereas extroverts need other people like we all need oxygen.  That’s probably where the understanding ends for most people.  We tend to think, “oh, so-and-so just isn’t a people person, I’ll go and talk to someone else”, but the problem is that avoidance isn’t always an option.  Sometimes, there isn’t the practical chance to allow the introverts to decompress immediately, because we all have lives to lead!  But therein lies the second problem: only seeing one solution to it.

Fortunately, horses are a great physical demonstration of differences in processing and different methods of problem-solving.  Many horsey people will quickly label certain equines as “stubborn” or “lazy”, much as we do with particular people we find difficult to cope with… have you ever considered that it could just be because you haven’t stopped to try and understand that person?

Introverts have a tendency to require a greater deal of processing time than extroverts.  Even when faced with seemingly simple questions such as, “what would you like to drink?”, an introvert may seem completely lost.  There are at least two ways to handle this particular situation: ask them the above question and leave them to think about it, or give them a short list of choices from which they may make a selection.  If there are two (if not more!) clear options to such a straightforward question, how many other methods of getting through could there be when the situation is more complicated?

It’s also not critical to always be subtle when handling an introvert in this manner – sometimes it’s a bonus if you clearly demonstrate that you are intentionally giving them time and space to think.  You can even set a parameter, something like, “I need this information by the end of the day”.  Though, let’s not get into the can of worms that is why you’d need such a quick turnaround, that’s a whole other level of poor management!

The bottom line is this: know where you identify within these categories, and learn where the people you deal with – whether they’re family, friends or colleagues – fit.  Then consider how you communicate with those people, and wait to see the positive change as a result.  You might suddenly spot a lot of elephants.

Open for… everyone!

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

EP open days flyer

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

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

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

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

Progress

It’s poor form for a blogger to take an unannounced hiatus, but it had to be done.  My life is still pretty unremarkable, in that the debacle with my new job failing to be able to give me a start date rumbles on, so my days are actually startlingly empty, but that perhaps is an explanation for the impetus to blog being lacking!  Not that I intend to blog a lot about my day job when it finally starts, but when you have very little going on, motivation towards other things tends to drop too, and that’s the hole I fell into.

Happily, the equine side of my life is only getting busier.  This continues to shock me, as well as delighting me: when I chose to stick in the UK for the year, I didn’t think I’d get this far with what I’m trying to do, but circumstances have dictated that I’m suddenly heavily involved in a project I really enjoy!

During my time away from the blog, the charity I’m working with have scheduled their events for the summer, which sort of means I’m a little bit out of retirement.  We’re running two open days in June, and two play days (one in July, the other in August) – those are exactly as they sound, a toddler-style play date, except we bring our horses and play horse games rather than bringing children!  Well, children may well come with their ponies, and some of our kids on our programmes will hopefully be in attendance, but it’s about playing games with your horse and having fun with friends.  And eating cake.  Because, why not?

So preparations are well underway for those, with me busily contacting media outlets (if you’d like to cover our events, please let me know!) and getting quotes for branded t-shirts and proofreading our new website (hopefully coming very soon).  And on top of that, I’ve still been trying to get to the yard twice each week in order to help with sessions and develop the horses.  Then around all of those things I eat, sleep and try to maintain a social life without an income – it’s a tough job sometimes!

One of the constants in my life since November has been my work with Prince.  The initial reason for me being asked to ride him (because that’s always been the intention, I’ve mostly been unable to due to our lack of riding surface over the winter) was that he’s a horse who needs to be in work, but his owner has taken a hit to her confidence.  Prince therefore underwent a full re-start with a Parelli instructor, then was handed back to us to continue with his journey.  As the winter trundled on and I wasn’t able to ride, we all doubted the timing of the re-start, pretty much wishing it had been left until the Spring, so that I could then retain the momentum which went with it, but hindsight is a wonderful thing!  Instead, I plugged on with what I was able to do, which was lots and lots of ground work.

The ground work has improved enormously with the recent beautiful weather – I’ve been able to work for longer periods outside with him on a longer line (you really are limited with what you can do when you’ve got an anxious horse who has a huge capacity for work on a short rope), and a few weeks ago, my friend’s bareback pad was duly retrieved so that we could build up to getting him back under saddle.  Despite having had nothing around his (massive) belly since early November, Prince reacted well to the cinch and bareback pad, and I carried on for a few sessions, waiting for the saddle to also be produced from storage.

That happened last weekend, and I got a refresher lesson in tacking up – Prince’s saddle is a Western one, and much fancier than the ones I’ve used at camp!  It’s got lots of latigos (leather strings which are used for tying all of your kit to your saddle… I assume for cowboys, this is things like tents.  I see them as useful for hooking up things like my lunch) and a breastplate (I’ve never fitted an English one, nevermind a Western one).  And we didn’t have Prince’s proper cinch, so it took a bit of adjusting to use the one we had, but the intention wasn’t to ride, so I wasn’t bothered about it being perfect and rideable, I just wanted him to wear the saddle and be comfortable in it, then put him away again.

The biggest challenge was swinging the saddle on from the off side!  It’s the Western way, because you have more stuff attached to that side of the saddle, so to swing the cinch, breastplate and other detachable bits over the horse doesn’t make sense.  I’ve got a great rhythm and muscle memory for swinging Western saddles on from the near side, but it’s weird to reverse the action.  So that took two attempts.  Fortunately, Prince is only 15 hands, so it’s less height to have to throw it than some of the 16.2 hand horses from camp, but I’m definitely out of practice!  The best news is that he reacted well to being saddled again, so off we went to do some work.

It’s probably the best session Prince and I have ever had.  From the word go, he was relaxed and connected, giving me what I asked for and showing some confidence.  Although my plan hadn’t been to ride, it felt right to hop on for a few minutes, so with a little help from Jo to play around with me stood on the mounting block, I soon got on.  I took my time, having Prince relax by the mounting block and rubbing him all over before mounting up – and when I did, I took the time to hang over the saddle and rub him again before swinging my leg over and settling down.  Almost as soon as my backside hit the saddle, he blew out and relaxed – Jo and I almost cheered.

horse_riding_western_saddle_parelli_natural horsemanship_field_summer

I had Prince amble across the field in his halter, asked him to back up, requested a bit of lateral flexion, posed for some pictures and then dismounted again.  We got a highly positive five minutes of saddle time – another building block on the way to future success, and the first time in 2015 that I’ve sat on a horse!  It was a long wait, but now we have a new target in our sights: 12 July sees us host our first play day at the yard, and I may even be so bold as to ride him in neither a bridle nor a halter…

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?