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Perfect

EXPAT_EQUESTRIAN-logo(black)The Russian American choreographer George Balanchine once said:

“What are you waiting for?  What are you saving for?  Now is all there is.”

He was referring to his dancers and their tendency to hold back and not be generous with themselves.  Having just left that career and had experience on ‘both sides of the studio’ dancer and choreographer, I understand and empathise with both perspectives.

It is a valuable attitude to have with horses.

I see people paralysed by perfection.  The pursuit of it, the struggle for it, and fear of it.  They wait for the perfect moment, the perfect idea, the best conditions to do something.  And in the meantime, while they wait, nothing at all is actually accomplished in a real or lasting way.  Or worse, in the vain pursuit of perfection they pervert their horses into confused, micro-managed puppets of their ego.  I try to let the horse show me what they are good at and what they like, and work on those things.  I know what it feels like to be a square peg being forced into a round hole and it really can break your spirit, or at least damage it.  I wouldn’t dare do the same to a horse.

The problem is, as you wait for the perfect moment, you miss the moment of now.

The moment you have in front of you is all you really have.  It might not be perfect, it might be damn ugly, difficult, or confusing.  But the same dark moment, when looked at from a different perspective, could be a moment of opportunity.

Mistakes are not failures they are opportunities to learn.  My attitude is to not make the same mistake more than once and let a single mistake be a learning moment, a barrier which helps me find direction to navigate the journey towards a vision for me and my horse.

Having said that, it could be said that I make mistakes every time I am with my horse, because every time I am with my horse I learn something, and he learns something too.  Sometimes I am able to simply develop forwards on a path of learning without making a mistake, but when I do make a mistake- it happens once- and I learn from it.

I don’t care if  Sanson is pretty, beautiful, or ideal in terms of his movement and behaviour, but I DO work towards those things very decisively.  I do not wait for perfection to arrive or fall into my lap.  Nothing in my life came easily to me, nothing in my life was pure luck.  It was all down to resourcefulness, endurance, smart work, hard work, and a strong survival mechanism.

It’s like climbing a mountain, when you’re on a summit, legs burning, one foot stomping in front of the other- you rarely feel perfect, beautiful or ideal, but you are aware of why you must do this, to get to the view above.  Eventually, you can learn to enjoy the climb even if it is not comfortable in the moment.  You can be sweating and gasping for air, and have a smile on your face, because you know you’re doing something positive, something that will bring beauty and accomplishment into your life.

I believe horses can feel the same way, or at least learn to.  Which is why I do not feel guilty for asking my horse to do something.  Some days I ask nothing of him.  And some day I ask a lot of him.   Some horse people are guilty about setting expectations with their horses, or guilty for riding them.  That a dichotomy I won’t participate in.

It’s fair to say that I have set a pretty high mountain for me to climb.

But I guess I just really like to climb.

Don’t wait.  Don’t stall.  Don’t live your journey with your horse ruled by inertia and indecision and useless virtue.  Turn it around and be productive.  Get something done.  Just where you are- make a difference.  Just where you are, right now, today.

 

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DELTA

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Why is change so hard

Why does change feel so uncompromising? 

Why are so many people and horses resistant to change?

When I was in high school, Science was not my favourite subject.  I find the study of the natural world and its underlying logic and patterns very interesting, but I disliked science because the manner in which it was usually taught in schools made me frustrated.  Science teachers were often devoid of social skills, (you know the type I am talking about we all met them and were taught by them!) and would come to class like a robot and follow state curriculum without one iota of creativity.  That worked great for students in the class with that kind of mind.  It did not work great with me and I was often left in the back of the classroom with my friends, eating dates secretly out of our blazers and socialising.Regular_triangle.svg.png
But for one year, when I was 15, I was blessed to have a science teacher who seemed to be just a human and a great teacher.  She was able to explain science to me in a simple way which made sense and motivated me to work harder, and as a result, I finished the year with top of the class results in my exam, where usually I was at the bottom.  She was also a young teacher, and very anti-establishment.  Rumour was she famously loathed our ultra-conservative, staunchly Catholic foundation principal, and in a short time after I finished her class she left the school due to ‘mutual disagreements’ with the board.  Hmm. 

I often wonder what kind of hopes she had as a teacher, because she was seriously one of the best the school had.  I wonder what kind of debates or private misgivings she had with our Headmaster.  She was also the coach of my Volleyball team (compulsory sport found me playing Volleyball against my will for a year with other student sport drop outs, we never won a single game) and sometimes on the bus on the way to doomed matches, this young teacher could be called into relinquishing some carefully phrased opinions about our school to us… but credit to her, she was always professional and never over stepped the line and would zip her lips if we pushed her too hard for gossip.

I later found my self in the the school Headmasters debating team (another co-curriculum activity that runs strong in my family) and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this man was seriously out of touch with the youth under his care and their education needs.   

One day when writing notes up on the white board, in the middle of a sentence she drew a triangle, and then wrote onwards in English.  I put my hand up.

“Miss Hanzis, what is the triangle for?”  Totally confused.

“It can be used as a scientific symbol for change, a name for it is Delta.  I use it generally in note taking to speed up my writing. ”  she said quickly and then carried on with the task, totally non-plussed.

Since then, when I was learning something, or note taking, even up until a few years ago when I did my Equine Nutrition course, I use a triangle symbol instead of writing the word ‘change’ to speed up my note taking.  I am also a visual/kinaesthetic learner so it actually helps me remember things faster.  It is just a boring habit using symbols when taking shorthand notation.

Change is hard.


The triangle is the perfect symbol for change.  Lets look at this shape in a broader context.  In engineering, the triangle is EVERYWHERE.   Why?  It is the strongest basic shape known to us. 

Look at bridges, nothing but a serious of triangles.  Look at most tables, the legs are supported by cross bars which form a triangle when viewed together with the table top and the table leg.  A triangle, when inserted into a structure, makes the whole structure stronger.
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This wonderful Science teacher also brought the idea home for me when we had a double period and the class experiment was to construct bridges out of drinking straws and tape, and have a mini – competition to see which bridge could support the most weight by the end of the class.  To the those who were paying attention, the most successful straw bridges were those with ample and intelligently places triangles installed into the structure.  They could hold the most weight.  When viewed as a metaphor for our life, that weight could also translate to responsibility. 
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I must then consider the relationship between change and strength.  From a natural world view, is not change irrefutably intertwined with strength?  The more change you have undergone, the more you might be able to responsible for.   Responsibility is just the ability to respond to your environment.  When we undergo serious changes and transformations, does that not give us the ability to be more responsible, once we reach the other side?  Are irresponsible people simply those opposed to change?  Let’s take an example. If someone sees a problem, like a paddock fence that keeps breaking.  Horses escape too easily and then nothing is done to fix it.  But when directly asked by people whose horses are at stake if they can fix it, and they reply essentially ‘No’ I must wonder if they are responsible.   Are they someone familiar with change and how to make positive ones? 

This is where I could make the case for Natural Horsemanship versus traditional or coercive horse training.  Training of a horse designed to develop, spark, encourage and sometimes even DRAG a horse into change which makes them better, stronger, happier, healthier generally moves them into a more positive mental and physical framework or structure.  Using positive change as a catalyst for relationship building, a horse can learn to trust you, because you have lead them through their insecurities or weaknesses, helped them, understood the issue and then created a better ‘feel’ for the horse to live with.  ‘Feel’ to a horse is their life blood, their everything.   A horse figuratively lives and dies on Good Feel or Bad Feel.  Just like a dancer does too, I guess. 
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Traditional or coercive training, often called ‘horse breaking’ is the opposite, at least that is my weak understanding about it.  These trainers take everything natural, instinctive, unique and intrinsic about a horse and break it, remove it, dismantle it until they have a totally pliable object devoid of any original semblance, in order to use it to their own will and demands.

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As a former professional dancer… I know how those horses feel.  I had a ballet teacher who would regularly say and I quote verbatim;

“I need to BREAK you Lachlan!!!!” as he held me with a piercing black eyed gaze and mimed breaking a stick over his knee.

“You must come into the studio every day and KILL yourself working”

Or a pedagogue who coached me not so long ago who said:

“Dancers.  DON’T. Talk!  NO. Speak.  Just work”.

I really wish I was making those things up but they are word for word true.  Burned into my brain.

At the end of my time training with one teacher I had almost zero emotional reaction to my training or work environment- positive or negative.  I was totally broken and apathetic.  Outside my training environment I was confused, angry and focused only on trying to feel better.  That manifested its self in many different ways until I found horses.   Horses 100% of the time, without fail, made me feel better.  Horses seem to be a compass which shows me the direction of a Good Life, teaching me that accepting less than ideal situations through and even awful situations as ‘just a fact of life’ is a bullshit philosophy we simply must stop encouraging in ourselves.  I am ready to let the good times come.   And help others to get there too, if I can, by sharing with them the mistakes I made and how I use them as constructive things to move forward from.  

I am in a time of change in my life.  I have just left behind my career as a professional dancer, which the reasons for are becoming increasingly vibrant and sanguine as the weeks without dance start to pile on top of each other.  I am left with an increasingly wider perspective on where I have come from and what it did to me. 

With horses, I keep a central hope.  I understand horses that were misunderstood, manipulated, broken or maltreated, because I was quite literally in their shoes for a very long time… a creature of movement and expression, robbed of a voice, performing for people who could so rarely be trusted.
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Change is good, necessary and healthy. But change is hard.  But if we analyse the word ‘hard’ we might just be misunderstanding this ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’ feeling for strength.  What you feel which shows itself now as a trial and tribulation might actually be the process of becoming stronger.   Just like when working with a horse who is having a hard time with life, I don’t hold it against them.  Or when I meet someone who doesn’t like my ideas or the force of my opinions, or even me personally, I set a boundary and then move forwards.  I might represent change to them.  That can be scary. 

For change to be successful, the less constructive elements you are altering have to go through a metamorphosis, and sometimes even a little death and drop off as unneeded baggage and left behind.  All our paths in life are strewn with these little dry shrivelled remains of parts of us which used to be us, and are now no longer needed to survive or thrive.
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One of my favourite life coaches, Iyanla Vanzant said

‘In order to change your life you have to be prepared to piss people off. Because people will hold you to your limitations, and don’t want you to change.’

Recently a path of change opened up before me and for Sanson.  A chance to make positive change.  But some people tried to hold me to my limitations.  It was a very tiny, subtle attempt to hold me back, but I felt it.  In a state of confusion or frustration, they tried to stand between me and my horse, which was a mistake on their part.  Nothing can stand between me and Sanson, ever.  I was obliging and respectful and compliant.  But when chaos started to come into the mix, I was forced to stand my ground, and make it very clear that they cannot stand between the change I needed to make.  I knew that setting such a clear boundary had the potential to break our contact, maybe even piss them off.  But I had my back against the wall.  My horse was in danger.  I had a horse to protect.  I wish it didn’t go that way.  In the end, things came to a logical and calm resolution but not without a bit of trouble first. 

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I am FAR from perfect, and so is my horse.  Our horses are a mirror.  I hope we can grow to like what we see.  Concentrating on mistakes, might bring only awareness of mistakes.  I try to focus on things that grow.  I don’t have much time to dwell

Changing my career is a lesson in realising: The unacceptable is simply that unnacceptable, and nothing else.  This is one black and white truth I won’t run from anymore.  If you feel bad, you feel bad.  That’s a juvenile way to put albeit effective. Don’t let people manipulate you into telling you that bad feelings are good things. 

We CAN change, we MUST change if you want to harvest possibilities just waiting for you.

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SISTER

expat logo slimWhere ever you are right now, reading this, if you have ever felt or been surprised by a horse raise your hand. 

My guess is that 80-90% of you did, and if you didn’t, maybe you didn’t have the chance to let a horse surprise you yet. 

In fact it was a surprise that lead me towards natural horsemanship.

I had been riding at various places in Spain and Warsaw and though I loved it, being around horses, there was something that was still missing for me.
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I remember I was at a lesson in Warsaw, with a lovely girl and her Polish mare named Sister.  This mare was clearly well trained, in the traditional sense of the word.  Meaning:  if I put my heel like this… you do that etc, trained-in signals, like installed software.  A mechanical action that was then tied specifically to an intent.  First the intent had to be there but usually the horse unlearns to listen to the intent behind the mechanical aid, and will just listen to the aid. 

In this way a horse can be trained, that no matter where it might be in the world or who might be riding it, they can be ridden and used.  For example, if they feel heel pressure it usually means forwards.  Logically, it’s also possible to teach a horse to go forwards if we do a number of other mechanical movements, like, if I touch your withers, go forwards, slap my thigh, go forwards.  But yes, in this sense of the word, Sister was trained.  She knew that if her rider positioned in a certain way, to go ahead and do a specific thing in response.  But this meant she did not always listen to her riders intent.  Because maybe her rider/trainer never had any?  I don’t know.

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It was the third lesson.  Everything has been going fine.  I felt good with Sister and we were progressing.  Then, for seemingly no reason, Sister started actively side passing at a walk.  What?  I didn’t want to side pass.  I wanted to just chill and go forwards.  I sat deeper, looked forwards, squeezed my heels and urged her onwards, to stop dribbling to the side.  I repositioned her head to look in the direction of where I wanted to go, but Sister wasn’t looking where she was going, Sister barely knew where she was.  She was now exactly what she had been trained to be, a machine.  And now she was throwing out a mindless gesture,  maybe it was a new task with her and her rider, and in previous trainings which had nothing to do with my lesson, she was taught to side pass and then training was stopped.  So Sister might be thinking, if I side pass, I can finish.  This is all what I think of now, retrospectively, but at the time I was confused. 

‘Why is she going sideways?  I don’t want to go that way, she is not listening’ I asked the young Polish owner, who was apparently also training her, and training me too.

Her trainers reply, I’ll never forget.

‘Just put your left hand down and back, shorter rein, make your right rein a little higher and tighter, your inside leg to the front and press her into your left, pull her body around your inside leg and sit with right hip a bit forwards…’

That was not what I was asking.  I asked, WHY she was going sideway?  Not, ‘What series of positions may I take to manipulate her into going forwards’. 

Look at a horses in nature.  Imagine a whole herd was headed towards a goal, like a water source, or new patch of grass, and all horses were relaxed yet intent on where they were going, ears pricked or relaxed to the side, and travelling forwards -straight- in a natural and effortless way.  If watching this scene one horse suddenly ducked its head behind the vertical, rolled its eyes to look sort of behind it, and started aimlessly drifting sideway, bumping into other horses, or running itself into ditches or unseen poor footing, you would think there was something missing in this horse… mentally.  It is a pretty basic need of a horse, to go forwards without effort.  Why then must we manipulate horses when riding to go forwards properly?  I understand the argument that when they carry our weight they must develop special and different muscles in order to be strong enough to carry us, but I condition my horse to be strong enough to carry me, before he carries me, out of respect for him!  All he has is himself, and when I ride him I am with ALL he has!

I know when it comes to high school dressage a whole range of technical details are involved, and then we must ride with more details, yet there are horses who can naturally perform such movements without being manipulated into them.  What I am talking about is basics.  Can a horse walk, trot, canter, gallop, back, left, right and stop on a loose rein, with simple aids?  I believe, if they cannot, the rider then has no business talking about ‘Collection’, because there is a difference between collection and containment because you are just afraid.  Afraid of your horses potential, your own potential and losing control.

If I have to over-position and manipulate my body in order to have a horse travel not only forwards but in a healthy biomechanical position and movement chain, then something is wrong somewhere.  I call that an un-healthy and mechanical manipulation of a natural alive creature.  Go buy computer software to program, or a motorbike to tinker with, if you love machines and unnatural systems.  Respect the horse as a living breathing creature with a mind and opinions.  herd_running.jpg  

That was the day i realised there was something I wanted and needed in a horse experience this trainer couldn’t provide me.  I never went back to her or Sister.

I then later discovered natural horsemanship, and I continue to research and explore it in its many forms.  I wouldn’t even say I had scratched yet 1% of the surface of what is there on offer… but I am certainly on a path that feels good to me.

Sister was surprising me with negativity in the moment, but in time became a positive.  Such a simple, everyday riding lesson moment became really the cornerstone of all the choices I made after that point.

But some surprises are positive from the start.  Another story, Sanson this time, showing what happens  with a horse who understand only a riders intent, instead of understanding mechanical aids.   A Surprise with sister will be something you don’t want.  A Surprise with Sanson might be exactly what you need.

It was 3 years ago, one of Sanson’s best summers so far.  We had been spending time together every evening in the dusty round pen after the stable work was over for the day.  We had been going out on the mountain quite a lot by ourself and with clients.

That summer we had a number of excellent horse people on Working Holidays or Volunteer programs and I think Sarah, owner/manager, felt a small reward was due. 

She put all of us on a really fun ride, the Waterfalls day ride.  It went down the mountain, traversed west across the upper Cortijo’s and terraces of Lanjaron, before taking steep switchbacks up through Olive tree’s and lower reaches of the Sierra Nevada National Park.  After a lunch stop at a spot over looking a waterfall in a valley below the ride then had fast canters back up the mountain again to a long scenic Mirador, and then back down to the Ranch again… I do love that ride!  With my friend Amy in the lead on a very young and bombastic Spanish gelding Jaleo, me on Sanson at the time just turned 6 and all of us riding horses under 8 years of age.  It was a very ‘Green’ ride.   I think Sarah was grateful to have a yard full of decent riders and took the opportunity to develop the young horses with us.

We were on the mountain road headed into Lanjaron.  Just before the bitumen road into town began in earnest, there came a blind corner, overhead was an ancient stone acequia and under it a sharp 180 degree turn.  Just before the corner was a straight precipitous section with sharp rocky cliff climbing up to our right, to our left, bushy, rocky cliff drop.  We were chilling out headed for the blind corner when suddenly, like a whale surfacing from the deep, a huge truck lurched out from around the blind corner, not 5 meters from us.

‘Aha,’ I thought. ‘This could get interesting’.

Panic.  Scared by the sudden appearance of a large vehicle, Jaleo as lead horse started napping backwards in panic, quickly bumping into the noses of the horses behind him.  Sanson and I were fourth in line and it took not 3 seconds to have three panicking horse bums pressed into Sanson’s face and my legs.

I sat deep.  I froze and became very concentrated.  Everything in my head and heart said to Sanson  Just, do nothing.  Sit tight.  Stand still.  Stay calm.  I had him on a contact, but neither did I want to hold him back.  There was nowhere to go anyway, between the narrow road, the sharp rocks and the steep cliff, and the idling lorry  in front of us, I didn’t want Sanson to panic under pressure so more rein contact was the last thing he needed, all the horses were already going backwards anyway.  I didn’t want him to turn and bolt either.

I know what happens in a group of green horses in a crisis, if all the horses pulled back, turned and ran, then their herd instincts take over and we would have had a bolting group of green horses on a mountain road, potential life threatening for all of us.  I knew instinctively, that at least one horse and rider had to hold the ground, and act as an ‘anchor’ for all the other horses, to prevent a group bolting incident.  I thought Sanson could be up to the task… hold your ground mate…I thought. 

Here was a real life situation, where all the mechanical training aids in the world will fail and fall faster than the panties on a hooker.  What would Sister’s trainer say now?  Some instructions to tighten inside leg?  Take him on a left rein?  Yield sideways?   No.  Training like that doesn’t prepare for real situations.  Intent and connection with your horse DOES.

BELOW:  The mountain Sanson came from.  This is a rather tame example of the kind of corner we were confronted with that day with the truck

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He was a young horse.  And though I had developed a pretty strong bond with him by now, I had not yet tested him in a ‘crisis’.  He had yet to even go out front as lead horse.  He was technically still learning to trek and only ever popped on the line of horses to learn his duties.

To my amazement, he honoured me.  Be became very concentrated and stood stock still, ears on me, head erect.  I sat with him, taking a breath.  Not 6 seconds had passed.  The front horses back peddling got worse but as a result, a small gap appeared, about 40 cm to our right, close by the rocky wall but far from the truck and the drop off.

Without prompting from me, Sanson boldly took a step forwards, and with his nose he pushed the horse’s bum nearest to us, out of the way, creating a space for us to pass.  He did that without me.  Then with a little bit of leg from me that just said to him yes you may he strode forwards and stood on the clear shoulder of the rode, sighed and licked his lips.  He listened to my intent to not panic, and thought his way through, keeping both of us safe.  I just patted him.  Amazed that Sanson, the ‘nervous one’, was the only horse that kept his cool in a crisis. 

Jaleo was so shaken he refused to then take the lead, even after the truck had cleared the road.  So I just kissed to Sanson and there he went, he lead the others out of ‘danger’.  That was his FIRST time in front as a lead horse.  He held the lead for a couple of km before I eased him on back and let him just chill out in the line.

Sister and Sanson.  Two different approaches, two different worlds.  The choice is ours to make.IMG_0692

 

Responsibility

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It is a huge responsibility to own a horse.  Many of us before buying our horses had parents or friends say things like,

‘Oh but it is so expensive’

‘You have to take care of them for 20 or even 30 years or more’

‘You know there are lots of potential hidden costs, like emergency vet bills, specialist feed, training, lodgings and equipment… can you afford that?’

‘They can be dangerous animals!’

‘Are you sure you want to commit to such a large and specialist animal?’

Before I bought Sanson I asked myself all these questions and more besides.  But not only was I able to answer each or balance them, I found that the only thought that kept coming back to me was… ‘Just DO it!’ 

One of the best ballet mistresses I ever worked with, Kathy Bennets, the Australian come Berliner assistant to American neo-classical master William Forsythe would tell us all the time if someone expressed a long doubt…

‘Just make it WORK!’

For horse work this might be misconstrued as coercive, but there is certainly something to be said for being focused, determined and result oriented.     

Fact is, none of us can say for certain where we will be in 20 years.  Few can truly guarantee financial security on a long term basis.   And how many of us can say that tomorrow is promised?

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We get one life.  This is not a rehearsal for anything.  In so many ways it is now or never!

Response. 

I had a bit more to consider with Sanson and becoming a horse owner.  Being a dancer/employed artist is a famously poorly paid profession, which is both time consuming and unstable.  I am an expat, so living on the other side of the world, as an immigrant, and I don’t have the same rights to live here as a naturalised person does.  Up until 4 months ago, if I lost my job, I would have been deported back to Australia.   Samson didn’t just live a couple of hours away.  He lived on the other side of Europe to me.  Even to the lady I bought him from it took her ages to realise I was serious when I asked to buy.  She didn’t think it was sensible or achievable.    But I have the ability to respond to a task.  So I lined up each and every single thing that was standing in the way of that horse coming into my care, and in a calculated and methodical fashion, I steadily eliminated them, one by one.


And here Sanson is.  I did it.  And I am doing it.

Ability.

The only thing that keeps me going is a sense of faith.  You have got to believe in yourself.  If you cannot believe in yourself, believe in your horse and how much you love them.  The strength of this love will be what protects you, like body armour, as your go through this world.  It will protect you but also guide you towards prosperity.  And through this focus you will find a way.  What you focus on grows.  If you focus only on the things that could go wrong, guaranteed they will go wrong.  Cosmic ordering, I believe there was a little book phenomenon called The Secret, that made millions speaking about this concept.  But for me it is just common sense.  If I believe I can, I will.  No matter what, I will find a way.
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Response.  Ability.

People can get scared of adult life tasks.  Even a positive opprtunity can seem like a burden if someone lives with fear and doubt.  Even experienced trainers, people who have been around horses for 20 years or more, and have successful training businesses, for some reason still don’t own their own horses!  This is rather befuddling to me.  And then there are those who do have their own, but the moment they set up the business they stop riding and working and being with them.  This I can understand and empathise with a bit more.  I think the former boils down to choosing fear, and the latter boils down to exhaustion. 

I am determined to not let this happen with Sanson and the  horses I will become the owner of.  There have been days when even though I had a pile of work to do, I put it down, and went to the stable.  I was not there for others, to sit and talk for hours and drink coffee, or do a fitting, or run a training.  I was there for my horse and for me. It is a habit I have made for myself, to schedule time for it, to protect and nurture my passion and abilities. 

Responsibility.  The Ability to Respond.

A wise old African saying goes

“Never Accept a shirt from a naked man’.

Another of a similar vein goes

‘I fill my own cup first.  My cup runneth over.  What is in my cup is for me.  What overflows is for you all.’

If you trust yourself, that you have the ability to respond to anything that comes your way, it’s amazing how many heavy burden you may carry with lightness. IMG_0712

Manipulate

A rudimentary search of this title into google reveals results showing two very different meanings

manipulate

verb

1.

handle or control (a tool, mechanism, information, etc.) in a skilful manner.

“he manipulated the dials of the set”

synonyms: operate, handle, work, control, use, employ, utilize

“the workman manipulated some knobs and levers”

2.

control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously.

“the masses were deceived and manipulated by a tiny group”

synonyms: exploit, control, influence, use/turn to one’s advantage, manoeuvre, engineer, steer, direct, guide, twist round one’s little finger, work, orchestrate, choreograph

“the government tried to manipulate the situation”

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This is a dichotomy that I think is worth breaking down in relation to horses.

We see it all the time, everywhere, it is utterly pervasive.  From chilled recreational stables to high tension sport yards, horses are being manipulated.  If we look at it through the lens of point ‘1: handle or control (a tool, mechanism, information, etc.) in a skilful manner.’  It seems like an innocuous, harmless and perhaps even admirable thing to do. Working a horse ‘correctly’ requires skill after all, and in this sense, the horse can be seen as a tool that we can influence, and master, improve and alter.  We even employ them in jobs, and utilise them for pleasure.

I am not saying that those things are bad.  I think many of them can be really positive if done with the right perspective and awareness.  I think it is worthy to develop a horse in a way that is healthy for him physically and mentally and to do this we must ‘manipulate’ them somehow… right?    

I don’t think so.

   There are some horses that really love and benefit from being ‘put to work’, in the sense that they perform better when there is an objective target for them to aim for.  Rather than just moving in seemingly mindless circles and figures without sense, some horses come alive in a job as simple as a trek or a trail ride.  Take it one step further; when working cattle or livestock.  Sport horses come alive when they have jumps to clear and obstacles to consider.  This is also pure movement science.  Moving without a reason is empty and hollow and leads to pure mediocrity, in any alive animal.  In fact, humans seem to be the only human heel bent on movement for movements sake.  This might seem funny coming from a dancer, but I dance because it is highly developed movement that has a meaning to me.  Not just pure exercise… pure exercise for exercise sake is boring to me.   Movement with intent gives potential for excellence.

However, so often manipulation can slip easily into its darkest form.  That of point 2 : control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously.

People without moral principals, honesty or fairness will misunderstand the importance of providing meaningful work to a horse and simply manipulate them.  they manipulate them so they can get what they want, rather than give what the horse needs.  These horses become vessels for their humans egos, anger and sometimes even sadness.

I used to teach very regularly at a local Sport stable of pretty good reputation not far from the Warsaw city center.  And whilst my student and I certainly were the odd ones out with our slow and gentle (and bitless) approach it was many times a great opportunity to observe riders whom I could quite fairly and objectively categorise into some form of point 2.  If for no other reason than there seemed to be a basic disregard for the horse in general.  Beautiful shiny dressage bridle with a flash or drop nose band so tight that the horse was losing litres of foamy drool after not 10 minutes of work.  I remember seeing blue tongues.  Rolling, staring empty eyes.  Flared nostrils that struggled to breathe.  Oh but the horse was moving beautifully… said their trainers.  What?
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My student Matylda and her Gelding Tadek

But mostly it was the eyes of the horse and the expression of the rider I will not forget.  A rider who sat unsmiling, on a beautifully turned out horse.  Unrelenting hands and a seat that masqueraded as something classical but all it was really doing was holding onto their thick dressage knee pads for dear life, and a horse with an empty staring expression that seemed to ask,

‘Why?’

or worse yet…

‘I give up.’

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It was not my place to say something.  And so I did not.  But just this past week at a consultation I was presented with an open window, a client and her trainer who asked for my help and I felt I had a chance to make a difference. So I did.   I am glad they were open enough to listen.  And I am glad the horse in front us us ultimately vindicated me of what I was trying to reveal to this trainer.

It is ok to manipulate, if you are doing it honestly and kindly and with some sort of balance.

One of my favourite trainers, Buck, always an endless source of soundbite inspiration to me said at his clinic:

‘Horses don’t like Horse Trainers.  Work with your horse in a way where he doesn’t feel like he is being trained on.’

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Even though on my website and Facebook page I use the term Horse Trainer, I don’t feel at peace with the term.  Because I don’t believe in the typical- Teach Aid, Refine Aid, Push Button, Horse Reponds, This Is Correct, That Is Not Correct- approach to horsemanship. 

Thankfully I have a horse who tells me very clearly, if I have slipped, and approach our session with a ‘train on him’ attitude.  Each time my intention before our meeting was ‘I am here to be with you and go forwards in growth together’, always brought nt only better results but better feelings in us both.

If you had to look into the mirror, which side of the manipulation fence would you be on?     

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Maths

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I was talking with my friend Don the other day.  Don is decades my senior and though she speaks from the perspective of wisdom gleaned from time I have yet to pass through, she often surpasses me in her youthfulness and simple clarity.  Some might call me an old soul.  I would just call her vigorous and smart.
I had put her on speakerphone because I was at the stable, and needed both hands.  Normally, I would not use speakerphone in a public place because I don’t think it is polite but it was the May long weekend, and the stable was a quiet place, just the proprietors and me… and Sanson. 

Don is actually my ‘boss’ of sorts, she is the international co-ordinator of the brand of saddles I represent here in Poland, and she is based in Holland.  But we have a mutual like and respect of each other and our conversations frequently and happily go deep off track.  Those who have ridden with me know I am a fan of going off road! 

I had called to ask a question from a saddle perspective but 2 hours later our chat had turned to other matters.  In this time I had haltered Sanson, brought him to the hitch rail, groomed him and un-did his braids, fed him a biscuit of hay, and now in the round pen working on our ‘dance moves’.  Simple manoeuvres designed to connect his nose to my body centre, and dance, move around each other to influence his feet and body shape.  He is rather fabulous at it, so it was no problem for me to have ‘Don’ buttoned in my shirt pocket as Sanson and I gently danced around each other in the warm afternoon air, as I babbled away to my friend.  IMG_0521.jpg

Our conversation had turned to teaching and rather, teachers.  We were discussing the idea of teachers and how they influence people.  Don said that she absolutely does not like people who try to tell her how to live her life.  She had been burned more than once by people obsessed by NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and had developed a fairly muscular radar for manipulators, though as someone who is an employed leader herself, and even to the point where she must educate those she leads, I can speak from experience I have never felt her attempt to mind control me, change me or alter me.  She met me where I was as a person, and just presented information for me to pick up… if i wanted it.  She even helped direct me, point me in the right direction.  This is a person who has had 30+ years of experience of retail and customer service in a highly specific field and yet, she seemed immune to the very human desire to control and dominate.  Astounding.

Don also mentioned that though she is often in a position where she must ‘teach’ she doesn’t consider herself necessarily ‘worthy’ enough to call herself a Teacher… so doesn’t expend energy trying to change people.  I countered with my perspective, because I often find myself in the position of Teacher.  It happened first with ballet and dance, now with horses, and nominally in a number of other areas too.   I certainly do not consider myself a teacher, in a traditional sense of the word.

The crux of my position, I said to Don, was many people who find themselves in the position of Supervisor, Leader or Teacher see this relationship as something very black and white.  Based around the concept that As-a-teacher-I-must-know-Everything-about-that-which-I-teach.  Student is the subject Teacher must enlighten.  Teacher tells you what is True, Correct or Worthy.  You remember the facts Teacher gives.  Then repeat.   I happen to think that this concept is antiquated.  Repeating is not the same as understanding or interpreting, something that an artistic education teaches very well.
The American horse trainer Carolyn Resnick says

‘ Good trainers are very comfortable with not knowing what they are doing’. 

Careful not to misunderstand this statement, to be effective trainer you must have knowledge and experience.  But what Carolyn is advocating is remaining open to the situation and the moment, and allowing it to continue to change and alter you.
LISTENING.

Yes, a true teacher knows that they must listen to their students and the world around them, if they wish to remain viable.

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How is it possible for one person to know EVERYTHING about a given subject?  My beloved ballet teacher, Miss B, used to tell us regularly,

‘The day you think you know it all, is the day you should stop dancing’.

  I think the same should go for all pursuits, horses included.

I think that humans have barely begun to scratch the surface of what horses are capable of, and what we can learn from them.  The horsemanship library is a vast, vast ocean of information, perspectives and approaches.  Indeed, my small perspective is just that… a perspective.  My window into the Universe of the Horse.

  Never do I intend to offer hard and fast ultimate rules.  Unbreakable truths and black and white techniques.  Just because something might be true to one person and one horse in one moment does not mean it will be true for all. 

There are some general things which can be depended upon.  There are some techniques which even can have some semblance of universality across hundreds of thousands of individuals.  But if we focus on the technique of what we are doing, we dangerously glaze over the small moments, the tiny shifts, the in-between feelings which are the key to magic success in a true horseperson, and what separates them from their mechanical copy cats. 028d79ca7932c9a78c5e0cf19439805a--school-life-school-days-1.jpg

To put it in a specific example.  I met a trainer once who made a statement I had heard more than once, from more than one source, and said it with an emotionless, matter of fact tone… like it was just one of hundreds of remembered phrases they had picked up on their horsemanship journey,  never questioned its validity, and preached it as Gospel truth to all their clients.   

‘ The toes (of the rider) must point parallel forwards, or the hips are blocked.’

 That’s it.  It was said with total finality.  No room for discussion.  This was someone who also preaches openness, between them, their clients and the horses.  And in the same breath, makes a sweeping statement of the finality of correctness.  Odd!  How insidious it can be, in this day an age where Natural Horsemanship is the go to buzz word, where so many old-school trainers have taken exactly the same approach, and just put a different hat on it.  Odd!  

‘ The toes (of the rider) must point parallel forwards, or the hips are blocked.’

I know people who practise a similar type of riding as that particular trainer teaches, that have photos of them on their dressage horses, performing things like half pass, passage, or pirouette, clearly showing a slight open angle to their toes… are their hips blocked?
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As a dancer, I was trained to turn my toes out, because in this position the hips are actually the most free and open.  Nobody can argue with the fact that dancers, particularly classical trainers dancers, have some of the most mobile human hips in the world.  The degree to which you can open them will depend a lot upon your anatomy, your training, gender, muscle patterning and hundred of other variables.  Even the brand of shoes you trained in, to the culture of training you come from, to the texture and friction of the floor you made your trainings upon.  Thousands of dancers spend every day turned out.  Sure, some get injured.  But most do not.

Then I will go to a gym, and meet a personal trainer who will only train people to work toes parallel.  They will even preach turn out as some kind of evil cause of leg pathologies immeasurable. 

How can you present one thing as gospel unless you actually want people to treat you like a God?  So many factors go into creating technique. Instead of our focus being on what is ‘Correct Technique’ it needs to be on what is ‘Good Teachnique’, on an individual, case to case basis. 

The fact is, if we decide to teach, especially teach something like horsemanship and riding, we have to look at the individual horse and human in front of us and adjust our teachings accordingly. But for some people, they can only see the world in black and white.

Like maths.  In mathematics, 1+1 is always going to be 2.  But horses are not flat or two dimensional creatures.  Toes front is not always going to equal superior hip control.  Two rein contact is not always going to equal better collection.  Dressage is not always going to be healthier.  Natural horsemanship is not always going to be kinder, I could go on.

Don and I were discussing exactly this idea.  1+2=2.  I said that with horses, sometimes 1+1 = 47.  Or 3.  Or -278.  They are not formulaic, and we mustn’t teach Equestrianism in this way.

Don gave an analogy I will never forget.  I present the allegory here with her good humor and permission.

To some people, two chairs, side by side, will always be two chairs.  They are chairs because they are designed to be sat on, because that’s what chairs are.  It doesn’t matter if they are made from wood, plastic or metal, to some people who view the world in black and white, they are still only chairs. 

But flip one of those chairs on it’s side, can you sit on it now?  Arrange them in a certain way and you may lie on them, like a bed.  To a skinny person, two chairs side to side could be a sofa.  To a wide hipped person, one chair is only half a chair.  Flip them both upside down and you have 8 poles, for hanging things on.  Pick it up, you have a weapon.  Put a sheet over them and to a child you might have a castle or a playhouse.  Sit on the ground in front of them, you have a table or a desk.
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I call this Creative Perspective Awareness.  It underlines everything I try to do with horses.  To look at a common ‘thing’ with fresh eyes, with creativity, with real life response to what is in front of me.  Learning something from a textbook, and regurgitating someone else’s success, teaching verbatim unbreakable formulas, just seems to be such a wasted opportunity to learn something new. 

I always hated math class anyway.

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Antipodean

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 Confidence…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOX4X4Cc3j0

I was on tour with my dance company recently, a two and a half day journey to Brno, Czech Republic via Vienna, we had been invited to perform at some kind of centenary celebration. 

After the show I made a B-line back to the hotel, ordered room service, and settled down to an evenings work, Spring/Summer is a busy time for saddles and a lot of admin work for me.

Like so many of us, I will often head on over to Youtube in-between client correspondence, writing, general research and sometimes some shopping… for Sanson of course. I settled into a stream of Youtube videos, starting with some of my favourites from Buck, to watch them again and see if I heard it with different ears, saw it with new eyes.

I came across this video in the recommended section from New Zealand show jumper Vicki Wilson.  Now, Australians are not New Zealanders and vice versa, but as fellow Antipodean’s we certainly share a number of similar characteristics.

I noticed a number of things in Vicki’s manner that I related to and a number of things I strongly admire not only in horse people, but people in general.  She had a very strong work fixation.  Vicki was full of facts, and did not hold back on any of them.  Despite vigorously riding, treating and diagnosing horses during this session, she barely drew breath and kept pumping out what she knew in a no nonsense, direct and clear manner.  It is a different mentality from perhaps the Polish or ‘well-raised’ European culture of behaviour I find myself living by. 

Often I am confronted by people who tend to hold back, say nothing, disguise themselves or their thoughts and opinions, and I find that very frustrating.  Aussies and Kiwis are sort of honest to the point of blunt or rude, generally, and many well raised European’s find this shocking about me.  I like people in Vicki’s vein who can just directly address an issue.  They tell you what they are good at without false modesty, but also tell you without self-resentment what they cannot do.  She was result orientated, did not waste her time on audience pleasantries, showmanship or being pretty and beautiful, she barely looked at the audience, she was totally focused on her work.  Vicki’s chiropractic adjustments on these horses to an untrained eye, and even her riding, to someone who is perhaps obsessed with Dressage propaganda, would look rough, aggressive and potentially painful. 

Make no mistake about it, Vicki knows exactly what she is doing.  She just feels no need to dress it up to protect fragile sensibilities, or egos.  A very Antipodean trait.  Made me feel like a proud ANZAC to be honest.  Her riding seat looks like a secure jumpers seat to me.  She changed leads and reins in the blink of an eye.  She was addressing 25 technical elements within 10 strides and did it clean, fast and decisively, so fast you would have to watch it in slow motion to get all the points and then could write 5 pages descriptions on 5 seconds of ride… I could anyway.  This is a FUNCTIONAL rider.  Not a FORM rider.  Something I need another blog to write about.

Her message cannot be more important.  Pain.  She focuses on physical pain affecting mental pain.  I would go one step further and say that mental pain can eventually cause physical pain.  When I got injured in my dancing, it was always something that occurred at a time when I felt bad about my work.  Then, -BOOP- an injury, like my body gave me the exit that my mind was searching for.  My mum would call is psycho-symatic.

Vicki says ‘Your horse did not wake up that morning and decide to be naughty.’

She argues that horses misbehave because they are sore, or in pain.  And it may or may not be the bit, as the first bay gelding had the same symptoms without a bridle.  Once you correct that pain, the behaviour abates.  Some pain is mental also, but I totally understand that Vicki, coming from a sport jumping background, is probably aware of this, but absolutely cannot speak that openly to her sport clients, or in a mainstream equestrian environment, people would throw her out as contrived modern psycho-babble.  But I bet if you got with her one on one, during a treatment, she would say the same.


She definitely alluded to it.  Saying ‘There is still so much memory!’  Movement memory.  Pain memory.  Long after the pathology healed the memory of it stays in the body like a ghost.  And what she does is perform a type of exorcism for that memory through not only her adjustments, but her riding but also her energy.  How can she take an incredibly sore horse, that has the potential to strike, buck and harm someone, and she just takes their whole damn leg in her hands and pulls it every which way and not get hurt?  Experience and confidence!  She doesn’t approach the horse timidly, she approaches very aware, but very decisive, and I think the horses respond in turn.  Her blood pressure and adrenaline is low and her internal monologue says only ‘I am here to help’

This way she can put the horse through potentially dangerous positions, and the horse gives her the chance, goes out on a limb with her and trusts her.  Because her energy represents help, not harm.

I saw it last summer when I had Sanson’s teeth floated.  After asking all around the Alupjarrah’s for who is the best for teeth and barefoot trimming, I finally got the number to a bloke named Mordecai Love (Fabulous name!)  who was the brother of Dallas Love, a lady who ran another Horse Trekking centre a few valleys over.   Mordecai had spent a great deal of his horse career in the USA and apparently when it came to teeth he was a bit of a wizard.  He also trained his sisters horses with a style of western dressage and was famously fickle and hard to get a hold of, having been semi retired from his trimming and teeth gigs.

Well I called and called and called him, texted and pleaded, climbed onto the stable roof to get reception and finally Mordecai showed up one Wednesday about a week before our truck arrived for Poland.  I was expecting Sanson to be sedated, he had never been to the dentist, and can be very reactive to pain, confusion or discomfort.  Well, Mordecai stepped up with the confidence and groundedness of an experienced and confident horse person, and floated Sanson single handedly, without sedation, while absent mindedly chatting with me about what he was doing.  Having probably never been spoilt by the clean and cushy northern European horse sport scene, spending his whole life in remote Spanish mountains or hard American plains, where the horses were not pampered athletes but integrated members of work and life, he worked without confusion, sweat dripping, wide calloused hands treating my horses mouth with a delicacy that would not have crushed a rose petal, and yet somehow holding a mildly surprised, 600 kg, famously dramatic draft horse in place.  I helped of course, but eventually Sanson showed obvious signals of enjoying himself.  After he gave a huge sigh and licked and chewed for about 5 minutes.  His mouth needed some work, and will need it annually for his whole life.  But his first trip to the dentist was kind of like a curious and strange, but overwhelmingly positive experience for him.  This was due to Mordecai’s approach, which I so much prefer to some of the neurotic, over cautious cultures further north of the Med’.  
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I was struck by Mordecai’s ability to do something dangerous, safely, quickly and successfully, not only because he had the right technique, but because he sort of ‘didn’t give a shit’, If you know what I mean.  He just walked up there, knew all the possibilities and just did the damn thing he was asked to do because he knew it was for the horses good.  He didn’t agonise over every glance of the eye, each nervous stamp of a hoof, he just spread his weighted and calm energy over the horse and did his job, and did it fast and well, without sedation or hesitation. 

I am hunting for people like this.  People not ruled by fear, timidity or uncertainty.  Who approach life and horses with confidence and vigour, without the desire to camouflage their excellence.