Shit!

Oops.  I said it.  A bad word!   Did I say it to get your attention?  Perhaps?  Did it work?  If you’re reading this, then yes.  If I turned a potential reader away, it is probably for the best.

Because if you are uncomfortable with The Uncomfortable, then it is best that you do not read further on.  Intrigued?  Keep an open mind and read away.

Horses and a life with them, training them, riding them and enjoying them, can seem to be the pursuit of the vain and glamourous.  On the surface we have shiny dressage boots and white jodhpurs if you’re English, bespangled Stetan’s and slick snake skin boots if you’re western and thousands of other symbolic, shallow markers of identity that Equestrians cling to, to feel part of a tribe, create a sense of belonging through surface identity.  In this day and age of Instagramers and Facebookers, Bloggers and hustlers (of which I firmly include myself in the same catagory without shame) to the unaware it can seem that a Horse Life is a Blessed Life, one of canters at sunset, ribbons and admiration and life changing emotional breakthroughs in the paddock as our beloved equines breathe sweet nothings in our ears.

Horse owners, on the contrary, know otherwise.   All of the above is true, YES, a horse life IS a blessed life… but that is only the light side of the moon!  There is also a dark side to any positive pursuit.  And any genuinely wonderful career or sport will come with its own equal set of set-backs and struggles.

From our planet Earth, floating through unfathomable emptiness, our closest celestial neighbour the Moon is an excellent example of the POWER OF PERSPECTIVE.  All human beings that ever existed, has only ever seen the same geographical side of the moon.  Due to scientific forces beyond my intelligence to describe, the moon has successfully managed a three billion year dance of disguise, that only ever faces us in a sunlit and visible manner exposing the same face to us, gazing up.   But the moon has another side, this side not bathed in light.  Is is a dark, cold and dangerous place.  Not much is known about it and only a tiny handful of human eyes have observed it in person.

But without the dark side of the moon we would not the that part which is bathed in light!

Balance!

I have observed a trait amongst horse people that concerns me.  The bizarre, emphatic desire to ONLY engage with, understand and educate the ‘nice’ stuff.  Before you misunderstand me, I am not advocating that we become ‘dark’ with our horses.  Absolutely not!  Please, stay positive and stay on the hunt for those good things we all enjoy.

I am advocating balance.  Realistic perspectives.  Fully rounded, three dimensional approaches to our horses!  Please, do not deny your horse his expression!  His full expression!

I am asking people to EMBRACE your horse FULLY…. not only the part of the horse that makes you feel the most comfortable.  Or, scratch that, the part of your horse that does not pull you outside your comfort zone! It is the Equestrain equivalent of being a fair weather friend, and it destroys trust.

Deny or avoid a part of your horses right to express and we have created ‘shut down’ horses.  Agree with me or not but engaging with the horse only when they are in a frame of mind and behaviour you objectively or emotionally prefer, to protect your sense of comfort is denying the horse the chance to give their WHOLE selves to you.   Which is why I started this blog with a swear word.  Sometimes a little shock to the system is all we need to be woken up.  Snap out of your daydreams and imagined disasters.  Nothing is happening.  Wake up.

Allow me to be unashamedly personal with you.  I am twenty nine years old.  And for the first time in my life I am finding myself in a functional, healthy relationship with another human, based upon mutual love, respect and attraction.  As a gay-expatriate- animal loving-former professional ballet dancer-living in Eastern Europe-highly independent – horse trainer and obsessive equestrian, it cannot be under estimated that my chances of managing to find someone compatible to my specific self were about as likely as Donald Trump admitting he is a raging fool in our lifetime.   Never going to happen without Nuclear Apocalypse and potential ending of human race. Yet, despite the odds here I am, no longer living life alone.  Bliss!

There are many reasons why my relationship with Miki works, and works well.  One being that neither of us are afraid to show our ‘ugly selves’ to each other.  We do not encourage the ugly selves to engage, we don’t ‘like’ it.  But we don’t hold back either.  It is a normal form of human expression to be grouchy sometimes.  Or be triggered by things into a poor temper, or to be become frustrated, or have your boundaries tested.  To be clear, I am NOT in an abusive relationship.  We don’t get in screaming matches.  Tension is diffused and addressed in the same moment it arises and therefore always disipates without escalation.  Friends and family who visited us were astounded at ‘How well you treat each other’.  But at the same time if I am in a bad temper from a long day or a difficult situation, I do not hold it back, suppress it or ignore it.  I am loved and UNDERSTOOD without conditions,  my relationship is a SAFE PLACE FOR ME TO EXPRESS MYSELF FULLY.

Even if that expression is uncomfortable sometimes.

The success of any relationship often will come down to how well the relationship stands up to a crisis. On a bad day, does one partner abandon the other?  Or do they stick by each other? Even when sticking by them is hard to witness?

I am doing my bit to advocate this to horse people.  Be more that a happy hacker.  Be better than a trainer.  Be a horseperson, be their partner.  Fully rounded and unafraid!

Your success with them is not dependant upon those fair weather days when all the pennies just fall into place and you get lucky.  Your success will be dependent upon how you are when shit hits the fan!

Because it will!  Eventually.  In small ways or big ways, the time will come when shit hits the fan.  Do you abandon your horse?  Do you abandon the work?  Do you abandon your senses?  Does the horse abandon you?

Are you only a fair weather friend to your horse?  Because if you are there will be a part of the horse that will always be distant from you and this can show up in some of the following ways:
– lack of energy
-A dull, lifeless and robotic quality despite the horse being co-operative
– A plateau in progression of the training
– A ‘Grandma horse’ on the hack, but FEI contender in the paddock
– Horse performing one way for their trainer and another way for the owner

I am not advocating that the next time you take your horse from the paddock that you willingly and deliberate engage them in a shit slinging contest.  Do not deliberately provoke your horse to show you their weaknesses, their flaws, their issues.  Neither avoid letting it happen if it does happen to show up in training either.

Become a place where you can witness these things, even if that is all you do, witness them!  Sometimes you will need to step in; redirect those feet, set a boundary with discipline for safety, quell the hysteria, offer a solution, say ‘No’ if you must.

If your time at the stable involves a large bag of carrots, a mild and unaddressed feeling of anxiety, copious and meaningless baby-talk and compliments to your horse who did nothing more impressive that take a steaming dump near your hardly used riding boots whilst eating the hay you fed to distract them as you buzz around gossiping with all other equally anxious and unaware stable patrons… you might be missing the point.

To be with a horse is to be a part of a force of nature.  Nature can be idle and innocuous and it can be tempestuous and powerful.   Yin and Yang guys!

I am advocating balance.  I am advocating thinking on your feet.  I am advocating that within reason, to allow all cards on the table.  Become a place for your horse where they can show their full self to you.  Unveil their true nature.  Even if that is ugly sometimes!

I am dealing with a mare at this moment who is a classic example of all of the above.  I will anthropomorphise her deliberately, to give the reader an idea of what I am dealing with.  If this mare were a human she would tick the following boxes
– Late adolescent/very young adult, naive
– Teen mother, child sent off for adoption
-Abusive and neglectful early childhood
-All early schooling and education missed
-Bounced around between foster homes
-Was sent straight to finishing school, despite having not been to kindergarten or primary school
-Potential undiagnosed hormonal imbalance
-Severely shitty PMS mood swings
-Chronic malnutrition as child
– Chronic foot pain and imbalances, improperly and irregularly treated
-Not many friends.  Poor social skills with peers and authority

And now here I am trying to rehabilitate this mare into something that resembles a normal horse.   It has been interesting.

When I first met this client and her horse, all basic life skills; haltering, leading, grooming, were a challenge.  In fact, our first scheduled meeting just over a year ago, the owner was unable to bring the mare to leave her paddock.

(In case you missed it, this is my Iceberg of Horsemanship.  Showing the importance and priority I give to different parts of horsemaship)
HORSEMANSHIP ICEBERG

Flash forward to nowadays, and generally speaking, she is doing much better and we are enjoying many excellent rides and sessions with her both in the stable and out in the world.

But that ‘UGLY’ part of this horse, which is a nasty manifestation of all the wrong which was done to her, a Trauma Bomb if you will, which used to show up when taken from the paddock, no longer exists when taken from the paddock…. but it still exists.  Through rehab we have moved the trauma bomb forwards.  It is my job to continue moving this clunk of awkward energy of hers forwards until it surpasses the boundaries of where this owner wants to operate her horse within (recreational, weekend rider), and though it might show up at a competition or professional training level, this owner will never take the horse to that level, and so they can have a peaceful co-operation throughout her lifetime.  The ‘Dark Side’ still exisits, but it has been moved to a manageable place, and can be expressed in ways appropriate to her training and ownership regime.

At this time, the bar has moved forwards, past life skills (haltering, leading grooming etc), passed basic training, and is now sitting somewhere between the stable and the nice trots and gallops in the forest.  This UGLY that is in this horse shows up as napping, avoidance and general hysteria about simple things.  Despite the fact that we have really good professional and anecdotal evidence supporting the facts that she has no major diagnosable health issues at this time.  The moments when she allows us to get passed her temper tantrums, through setting of boundaries and general convincing, this mare actually enjoys the rest of the ride and is nothing except forwards, simple, willing and able.    Certainly nothing is present healthwise that would physically prevent her from walking calmly under saddle on flat and even ground.  Her feet are crap, but actually look better than they ever have, and are improving all the time.

And yet, here we are.  It can be frustrating and confusing to see a horse have such an unreasonable response to such a simple request.  We ask her to walk forwards slowly, and she responds like we asked her to cook a three course meal and read Anna Karenina to us in Russian, backwards, with plenty of swear words and hysterical screaming in between.  But let us remember the historical context of this horse, places her in the ‘not-normal catagory:
– Late adolescent/very young adult, naive
– Teen mother, child sent off for adoption
-Abusive and neglectful early childhood
-All early schooling and education missed
-Bounced around between foster homes
-Was sent straight to finishing school, despite having not been to kindergarten or primary school
-Potential undiagnosed hormonal imbalance
-Severely shitty PMS mood swings
-Chronic malnutrition as child
– Chronic foot pain and imbalances, improperly and irregularly treated
-Not many friends.  Poor social skills with peers and authority

What if her ugly responses to a kind request have absolutely nothing to do with the people present at that time? REHAB is a process of healing emotional, historical trauma, not merely fixing unwanted behaviour.  Emotional trauma is the memory of bad things passed, triggered by innocuous symbols in the present.  It is not a linear communication but a chaotic one.  It requires patience, balls of steel and a high intellect to move in the company of trauma without getting scared.

A wise Horsewoman once told me, with a knowing grin in her eye,

“There are a small percentage of horses, that once you get passed all their trauma’s, underneath their trauma, mixed in together with their sweet nature, they are a tiny bit of a shit.”

So here’s to the rebels, the troublemakers.  The larrikins and the comedians.  They might be unreasonable, difficult and sometimes even uncomfortable to be around, but when they shine their light on you, oh boy it feels so much better for the balance of it all!

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