Yin & Yang, a long journey to truth

This has been hard for me to write.  I have not written for a couple of months because life has been total chaos.  Against my own wisdom I’ve been a ‘Busy Idiot’.  Pushing energy into dumb places for short terms gains.  A necessary task?  Perhaps for that time, but long term?  A poor coping strategy.  So, everything again had to change.

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Three months after uprooting my life, family and business from Poland to Spain, I had to make major changes here on the ground.  These changes have taught me something about balance, about Yin & Yang.  That ancient pagan idea that everything in life comes with 50/50 positives and negatives, advantage vs compromise.  To get one you must take the other with it.  That is the ultimate balance in life.  More subtly, even inside the positive there is a tiny part of negative and vice versa.  It is how the world works.  The last four months have been absolutely demonstrative of this.

Sanson is sick.   He is also healthy.  My incredible equine buddy is Healthysick.  Confused?  Stay with me.

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My Sanson is sick.  My Sani.  Mammoth.  Buddy.  Friend.  Work partner.

Sanson has a history of health problems surrounding his digestion.  Before I bought him and since I bought him, his body has battled with many symptoms.   Digestive disorders in horses are very difficult to diagnose due to the hazardous and expensive nature of scoping internally and the vague nature of their gut microbiome.  There is so much we do not know about a horses insides, and so many differing opinions on their management and pathology.

We do know that colic, or obstruction of the intestinal tract, is the number 1 cause of death in domestic horses.  Knowing this, I invested a great deal of time, energy and money into teaching myself as much as I could about the horses nutritional needs to avoid this very fate- colic.  Sanson has never colicked whilst under my care (touch wood).  In a moment, you will understand how important that is for him.

When I got him, it is possible he had stomach ulcers.  Most probable.  This is what I was informed when I arrived in Spain in 2017 to bring him home to Poland after summer.   I was given sound and fair advise of how he has been managed thus far and what I should do with him going forwards.  I have thanked those responsible for keeping him alive through winter at their own expense even though he was no longer working.  I am beyond grateful.

I was told, that the winter just passed he battled with chronic diarrhea, supposedly caused by a food allergy.  As a result he dropped condition and a long distance ride he and I were scheduled to attend, we had to pull out.  These are not my opinions.  These are facts.  This is what happened.   I know 100% he had quite a bit of sand in his gut, I did the test myself.   I know he needed to put on weight.  Passers by at transit stables in Barcelona, central Germany and Northern Poland -strangers on our way back home two and a half years ago-  sought me out to say this, you know your horse is really thin?  Thought they were somewhat exaggerating but comparing before and after photos now shows maybe they were not.   I will not share the worst of them here, there is no need.  But it is a fair statement to say he needed 1 on 1 attention and not a moment too late, when I picked him up.  

I was and still am beyond grateful for the care he received before I bought him.  I have love and respect what was done for him before I owned him immensely.  I want that to be crystal clear and unambiguous.   Sanson had a start in life which has set him up to be the perfection I enjoy today.   Some key parts of that start in life were not done by me but others.   I still seek them out when I have questions about his care or his future.  But by 2017 it was clear Sanson was a special needs horse that needed a one on one care and lifestyle to flourish.  So they did that for him.  He always has been done right by and is one of those horses lucky enough to never know abuse, neglect or lack of love.

~

Colleagues at stables in Poland and close friends used to mock me.  I would spend 4 hours every Sunday night, locked in the coal furnace room of our stable, despite the encroaching winter, carefully weighing Sanson’s daily meals into individual parcels.  Painstakingly labelling each baggy with instructions for when to feed and how many ml of oil or water to feed with.  To my colleagues, I was an obsessive compulsive helicopter horse parent who eventually would calm down and just give random scoops of whatever was available at whatever stable he lived in- like many others who own horses in Poland.  Relentlessly, from 6pm until 10pm that was my chore.  I devoted myself to healing Sanson through nutrition.  After I was done, but hands freezing and back aching, I would brush him and talk to him in his box.  I would listen to him eat hay, run my hands through his mane and smile.

Has Lachlan done his Sanson Masterchef yet?

My comrades would say.  They mocked me.  They tolerated me. Mocked then thinly tolerated. But they mocked me.  Yin & Yang.

I knew in my heart of hearts that my horse needed this level of attention and nothing less.   The careful transition from grain-centric diet to a grain free diet took 3 months and was no laughing matter.  With such a change, Sanson’s entire gut microbiome, those tricky and fickle creatures, would utterly change.   If I was not careful- he would colic.  The careful detox with Bentonite powders and mycotoxin removers and anti-ulcer chaff bought by the pallet, was no joke to me.  The no-expense-spared-diet and the best hay around was all I wanted.  I was dedicated to this horse that in return gave me his all.  I worked 3 jobs.  On the weekend I drove 280km to be 150% Sanson.

I moved him closer to home and still the feed regime continued.   It continues today.  I weigh every single meal to the gram, then and now.  Nothing is left to chance.  I once balanced his zinc and copper intake by adding 3 grams of powder of each daily, because I read that chestnut horses who fade in colour need more zinc and copper.  Two months later, his colour deepened considerably.  Just 3 grams a day.  Teeny portions repeated every week during my Masterchef moments.   A complex array of carefully researched and resourced equine feeds turned Sanson into a fat, energetic horse now free of ulcers and sandy gut.  Only one thing remained.

Diarrhea.  Mysterious, undiagnosable diarrhea.  Everything about Sanson would be perfect.  Then like a bolt of lightening from a blue sky, explosive diarrhea.

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Through time, observation and research I came to know the triggers.

Social stress; crowded paddocks, new horses or bully horses could trigger it.  For that reason I had no problem removing him from stabling that had social stressors among the horse herd or stable environment.
Grass or grains; either accidentally fed or deliberate, grains or sugary grasses trigger his shit fountains to come forth.
Stress; such as the colossal journey back to Spain which involved a 4 day delay not of my own doing, can trigger it.  Change of seasons.  Training around trainers or riders who yell at or hit their horses, he would get diarrhea.  I researched the best people in the business who train through relaxation and befriended them, studied as much of their work as I could afford.

I thought to myself, maybe he just needs time to adjust to Spain again?  As every morning when I went to feed him I would need to wash his bottom and his legs of dark foul smelling liquid, maybe he just needs time I thought. 

I sourced the best anti-ulcer feed I could get.  I drive hundreds of kilos of it from Fuengirola, 1 hour 45 minutes away.  It is grain free and high quality.  He gets this every day.  I saw moderate short term improvement, then nothing.  No improvement.  Diarrhea Armageddon.

I changed hay to a grain free alternative.  I rejected any bales with mould and fed only immaculate grain free forage in slow feeders which never became empty.   Same thing, tiny short term improvement, 1-2 days mildly sloppy shit instead of diarrhea.  Then no change.

I spent a lot of money on psyllium husk powder to rule out sandy gut- no change.  The diarrhea now was predictable and powerful.  Confusing still because my horse was perfect under saddle, gaining weight not losing and not showing any signs of colic or pain.   Maybe he needs more time.

I waited.  I watched the horses he lived with, belonging to a friend I like and admire deeply, bully him in the paddock, push him off hay.  We separated them at night.  No change.  Even though I risked losing the warm feelings of an admired friend, I considered moving Sanson.

I relented and realised my horse needed a more low energy paddock friend.  I sourced another home locally.  Again by the absolute pure kindness of new friends I and my horse was welcomed to a new home, very close by.  We rode there in 45 minutes at a walk.

I moved Sanson to his new home a month ago.  His new paddock buddy, a white gelding named Chenel is calm and sweet.  Sanson took one smell of him, looked at me and YAWNED!  Smelled him again, looked at me and YAWNED again!  His eyes half closed, he walked into his new paddock, ate hay for 20 minutes, lay down and slept for almost 2 days, with brief interludes to eat, poop or wee.

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Bizarrely in those first two days, his diarrhea totally cleared up.  Jumping the gun, prematurely I bombastically declared the cause of his diarrhea to be Stress.  The change in Sanson was immediate and clear- stress was a contributing trigger and he now felt better.  New relief washed over me, mingled with some smugness over the power of relaxation.

Just as I relaxed I looked and saw Sanson sporadically stretching in weird positions, like a hideous horse yoga.  My colic alarm bells rang, I cancelled two days of work to watch him for colic.  None came.  Poop normal.  I started to relax, but my eyes were not yet happy with what was happening.

On the morning of the 7th day in new home the diarrhea returned with a vengeance.  As bad as it ever was.  I was at my wits end.  I had done EVERY. SINGLE. THING. I. COULD.  In the horse owners manual I had ticked all boxes.  The diarrhea remained.  I could not do it alone anymore.  I had to consider a deeper and chronic medical condition was with my horse.
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I called a vet I trusted.

It’s colic.  No food today and 10ml Buscopena intra-muscular.

Hmm, are you sure?  I do not think this is colic.

No food today.

Something in my gut told me that was wrong.  He had no other colic symptoms.  No temperature.  No sweating.  No pain signals.  A normal horse happy and healthy, who cannot shit solid.   The confusion and fear was real.

I called my mate Amanda, another trainer in this area who welcomed me to Spain with open arms and proceeded to work with me on projects.  Now a close friend.  She gave me the number to a different vet she trusted totally.  I wrote him.

He immediately cleared his schedule and raced out to see us.  The other vet?  Despite my clear begging for further diagnostics, I never got a reply.

This new vet showed up.  Young, horse loving and smart.  He took blood and sterile fecal samples (internal) and performed a field ultrasound.  Sanson’s colon wall was more than twice the healthy thickness and starting to fold in on its self.  He needed to rule out any management or diet related causes within my responsibility to remedy.

He checked the paddock- immaculate, spacious and flat.
He checked the hay.  Clean and dry, good quality.
He checked carefully Sanson’s daily supplements.  Everything was perfect. I had done everything right it seemed.

It is either colitis or Salmonella he said.  We hope it is Colitis.

It’s not.  It’s Salmonella.

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~~~

Sanson has Salmonellosis.  In horses it is a chronic and incurable condition.  Alone it doesn’t pose threat to his life but the chronic symptoms can.  The diarrhea exposes horses to chronic malnutrition and dehydration.  Thankfully the supplements I feed have been fighting this.  However colic in a Salmonella positive horse is almost always fast acting and fatal.  It means I have zero room for error in this horses care.  He cannot colic, period.  If he does he will need emergency surgury within a short space of time and the closest equine Hospital is a two hour drive away and I do not have a horse float (yet).

My vet was emphatic and clear.  Based upon the clarity of diagnosis and his presenting symptoms Sanson has had this condition for a long time.  This was not a new infection, he said.  He has likely had this for years, not months he said.  He was clear that this is a very serious diagnosis.  He was also clear that Sanson still has a chance to live a long and relatively normal life.  He cannot ever colic.  I must be immaculate in his care.  My standard for his nutrition, welfare and daily life must be absolutely uncompromising.

Luckily enough, I was doing that anyway.

The vet said that he is in amazing physical condition despite the diagnosis which surprised him that I have managed this alone so long.  His bloodwork is perfect.  Prior to routine worming, no serious parasitic burdens showed up on tests.  He needs a low stress lifestyle and lots and lots of exercise.  Business as usual… almost.  He said DO NOT play doctor google and ‘Go Crazy’ on the internet because most of what is written about Salmonellosis in Equines is inaccurate and ignorant fear mongering.  I urge any reader to follow my vets instructions, I will not pay attention to panicking readers with patronising and inaccurate advise.   He gave me a link to an American Veterinary website and said that is the only thing to read.  He did a great job in keeping me calm and focused on Sanson’s care.  Because when he gave me the diagnosis my gut dropped, my scalp crawled and I almost fell apart right then and there.  Almost.

The sad part is, he is infectious to other horses.  Horses get Salmonellosis from direct horse to horse contact.  Sanson is not terribly social.  He likes to be with other horses, but has never strongly buddied up to a single horse or herd, has no problem being alone compared to most, and if anything would rather other horses were an unmolesting presence in his life.  Thank god.  He lived for many years with another mare, only her, and was intimately with her for a couple of years.  Sadly before I took Sanson to Poland she passed away suddenly.

We will never know how Sanson got this.  Ever.  I have only speculations and guesses.  Not enough to write about.  Sanson lived with approximately 50 other horses during the time I have owned him, spread out over 3 different stables, none of them present any symptoms.  A Salmonella positive horse, once infected, I am told by my vet will present symptoms within 3 days.  If the horse has no symptoms, we have no diagnosis.  No other horse Sanson has lived with in Poland had mysterious chronic diarrhea.

Ultimately the past is not important.  Neither is the future.  Only the present.  In the present Sanson is healthy (sick), happy and amazing.  He is generous and bright in trainings.   Relaxed and solid under saddle.  Creative, strong and powerful.  His appetite is tremendous and he is nothing short of my miracle horse.

That is my balance.  Yin & Yang.  I am blessed by knowing this horse and his daily gifts for me.  Our relationship and bond, our adventures and training has and continues to change my life and show me the way forwards. He is cursed by this awful incurable disease in which, given the wrong and tragic set of circumstances, could kill him in a single afternoon.  But he is also blessed with an owner who will stop at nothing and nobody, even a close friend, to provide for his needs first.  I am cursed with the burden of checking his tail everyday, my stomach lurching if I see unformed droppings, my adreniline pumping if his anus is not dry.

Incredibly, without his diarrhea, he is an example of health.  He makes chronic illness look good.  This was taken earlier this week:
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This is my balance in life.  Perhaps those that resent my drive, my success and my stubbornness (They exist) celebrate upon this news.  After all my bombastic and robust boasting about my dream horse, some (evil) frenemies might be thinking ha! Serve him right for boasting!.   That is my balance.  I continue to boast about my horse.  Because he is perfect and boastable.

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Everyday with Sanson is special now.  It already was.  Not a single moment with him- ever- since I met him has skipped me by without this overwhelming awareness of how lucky I am to know him.  How he makes me feel inside when we work together and ride together.  It is like soaking in a warm bath after a cold day.  I feel at peace in myself.  Protected and loved.  I know this horse would never do me wrong, ever.  I know he knows who he is looking at when he looks at me.  It is a silent understanding that he offers me that I have never, not ever gotten from a human, ever except my partner Miki and I put a ring on it quick smart!  It is unconditional.  Probably only my mother comes close to replicating the enduring acceptance and understanding.  This horse knows who I am inside.  He knows that I am good, even when I forget.  He reminds me everyday that I am good, that life is good.  That life is worth living and fighting for.  He opens my heart and a river of creativity and warmth flows from it and only being with this horse does that for me.  I love all horses.  But no others have done this much for me yet.   His life hangs in a delicate daily balance, yet she strides through it, through all the changes and symptoms with grace.  My vet says he saw Salmonella positive horses at the Equine sections of Clinical Veterinary Hospital University of Córdoba, that were well into their 20’s.  In rare cases, he said, Salmonella positive horses can suddenly lose appetite, drop weight, and go down very quickly, the infection just overwhelming their system.  Every day that Sanson looks forwards to his meals and hay is a blessing.  That is my balance.  My Yin & Yang.

The main tragedy is he is infectious to other horses.  When I finally have my own farm, and move him at home, I cannot ever keep him in a herd.  I can have him within eye shot of other horses, but I cannot risk my future herd contracting this.  Sanson will be special needs for life.  If this disease ever created unhappiness for him, I will always do right by him.  He is my dream and also now my worst nightmare.  That is my balance.  My Yin & Yang.

He is only 10 years old.  I will pull out all the stops to get him to 25-30 and beyond.  In the meantime, I miss no moment to say,

Thank you buddy.

~~~

Though all of this life has gone on and we moved into a wonderful mountain cabin, a cosy dream home, mostly because our old apartment was infected with black mould, was making me chronically exhausted and gave our cats and smallest dogs bronchial infections.  Yin & Yang.  My old car broke, and it took 6 weeks of rental cars and walking to Sanson before a newer, better, cheaper to run car was bought.  I made new friends who I adore and old friends got diagnosed with terminal cancer.  (That’s a whole other story).  That is my Yin & Yang.

Also, I let go of some work opportunities and gained my dream job.  Taking it means scaling back the possibilities for similar work closer to home.  But in my heart I feel taking this new job is the right choice, with a more predictable income.  I am not a rich man.  Yet to make my bigger dreams come true I need more savings than sunshine and promises can give me.

On the 9th December I begin seasonal work in one of the highest villages in Spain, at a mountain trekking trail head/stables.   It is called Sierra Trails and run by a lady called Dallas Love.  They are doing it about 30 years, mostly with minimal staff, just her, her brother Mordecai and a friend.  They run highly structured and long distance overnight treks into the Sierra Nevada and surrounding wildnerness areas on well bred and thoroughly trained PRE horses.   Last week they advertised for a Groom/Rider and I applied.  I went up and visited for a morning and worked one of their horses (Also a green Breton like Sanson with problems staying calm) and got the job, and shook hands on terms with Dallas.  I have often dreamed of working there.  It was almost surreal shaking hands and smiling with Dallas about a winter of hard work together to look forward to, under the bright shadow of Spain tallest mountain, Mulhacen.

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I am very grateful and happy to have the job.  It allows me to keep all the clients I have, whilst adding high quality horse work to my daily routine, with an experienced and hardworking horsewomen, with a no nonsense attitude.  The chance to work directly with her and be guided by her in exercising her horses to her standards is a fantastic opportunity for me to grow as a horseman.  The hours are flexible and don’t require 5 or 6am starts.  I am about to be very busy and I hope to honour Dallas giving me this opportunity.  Here is their website if you want to learn more about them.

HOME

We have now a new normal.

But now I must dream new dreams.  Then make them happen. 
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For those who want to know Sanson’s daily management practises for his Salmonellosis, read below.

If you know friends with horses with chronic diarrhea that has no explanations, send them this blog and get them in touch with me.  This is incurable but manageable!  You need the right type of vet to diagnose this.

I want to show how I manage this rare and chronic disease daily to keep my horses symptoms in check and keep him alive.

 


SANSONS NEW NORMAL

LIVING WITH SALMONELLOSIS

Step 1:  PERFECT PADDOCK

Poop picked down to zero, daily.  Sometimes twice or three times.  Salmonella horses need absolutely immaculate living conditions.  Funnily enough this is a good habit for owners of healthy horses too!

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Whatever space you’re working with, there needs to be ample room for all horses.  Sufficient space and free from chronic noise or activity stress.  Sanson lives in a very quiet corner of my friends farm, visited only by myself and her family.  99% of the day is absolutely quiet.

Step 2:  SEPARATE AT RISK HORSES

If you have loved up horses and they touch each other regularly, separate them.  If they do not touch each other, they can remain.  But in clean paddocks.  Chenel and Sani like each other but do not touch.  Sanson is ‘dominant’ and pushed chenel off all resources and maintains his personal space well so far.  Attaboy.  If that changes I will separate them.

Step 3:  FORAGE

Provide forage ALWAYS.  Salmonella horses need ad-lib forage in slow feeders to prevent colic.  Colic cannot happen in a Salmonella positive horse.  They will not survive it. 
The forage needs to be grain free (so in Spain that means avoiding foraje) and immaculate.  Absolutely zero mould or rot.  Zero.  Sanson has access to clean Barley Straw in slow feeders

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During the day he is tethered on terraces.  The terraces have grazing of 100% organic non-industrial grasses, plants and herbs.  We are going to prepare a day paddock to have unlimited day grazing on these organic terraces.  This makes a huge difference for a Salmonella horses ability to fight the bad bacteria in their gut, the ability to self select natural non-industrialised or improved pastures.  STAY AWAY FROM LUSH GREEN DAIRY PASTURE!
Consequently, these practises are excellent for healthy horses as well

Step 3:  REINFORCED DIET

We need to help the horse fight the bacteria in their gut, stay in good body condition and stay as healthy and robust as possible.  This means:
– 100% grain free hard feeds
– properly balanced supplements designed for gut health and forage based horses
– anti-inflammatory agents
– regular feeding

Sanson gets daily (split into two meals):

  •  500g TopSpec Comprehensive balancer (From Zafiro Equestrian in Mijas)top-spec-comprehensive-feed-balancer-2694-p.jpg
  • 3 kgs TopSpec Ulsakind Cubes (INCREDIBLE STUFF!  Also from Zafiro Equestrian, Mijas)
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  • 50ml Coldpressed Linseed oil
  • 30g raw unprocessed Turmeric Powder
  • 30g electrolytes
  • 20-40g probiotics (SYNBIOVIT by TRM… the best you can get!)
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  • Step 4:  MEDICATE ACUTE SYMPTOMS
    When the Salmonella bacteria is shedding and causing diarrhea over the top of everything described above, it means the body needs help fighting beyond good diet and lifestyle.  In acute symptoms I will do one or all of the following:
    – 5-10 tablets of Cytotec.  In humans this is a dangerous abortive pill.  The Farmacia here was very suspicious when I first asked for it.  Now, they know it is for my horse and get it for me easily.  Women handling this drug need to be very careful, I wash my hands in alcohol after to be sure.  This drug in horses controls the cell walls of the colon and increases their ability to absorb water, thus stopping diarrhea due to colonic inflammation- triggered by the Salmonella. 75627507_454575735261934_4324157822183931904_n.jpg

    I crush the tablets into a powder, make a liquid, and syringe it to Sanson orally.  First he gets a wee handful of his feed.  Then a 5-10ml squirt of the drug.  I do this in 4-6 rounds until all liquid and powder is gone.  When I did it in one huge syringe he was able to spit or slurp some of the drugs out.  Doing many small doses makes sure he gets everything and wastes nothing.
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    He is a VERY good boy about it, as is his way with me.  He now opens his mouth for me and helps me give him the syringe.  He now never spits a drop.  He stands quiet.  Between portions he follows me and stands waiting… begging almost, like this—

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    In very bad days I will buffer this with 10-20mg of Buscopena done intramuscular via the neck.  This relaxes all intestines and keeps colic away.

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    Step 5:  CHRONIC MANAGEMENT
    Sanson’s body needs abundant healthy and strong bacteria to fight the Salmonella and keep its burden in his system low.  We do this with Probiotics, which Sanson must get for his whole life.  In 3 days my vet got me 5-7 months supply of SYNBIOVIT by TRM.  The same I used to give him in Poland (When I could afford it).  These accumulate in the system over the first month and fight the Salmonella.  I am also looking into other alternative therapies for fighting this such as CBD oil and MMS.  Lifestyle and good grazing helps.  I also sometimes syringe the SYNBIOVIT as a liquid into his mouth to make sure none is missed.

    Step 6:  LOVE YOUR HORSE AND EXERCISE DAILY
    If Sanson is not moving a lot in his paddock he needs daily movement to control gut inflammation.  I do a minimum 20 minutes at a trot or canter every morning.  Consequently, he is getting beautifully fit and full of muscle to boot.

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    There is still much I am yet to learn about this.  This is just our management system so far.  If you have experience with chronic Salmonella infection and successfully managing it long term PLEASE write me!

 

 

Singing Pigs & Person X


Managing expectations.  Why is this important?   As always in these blogs, life is blended with horses because to me, they are the same thing but also; good Horsemanship is basically good life skills.  Balancing expectations with reality can be make a world of difference. 

So many of the lessons horses are trying to teach us are just good life skills that are applicable no matter if you ever touched a horse or not.  In this way even the most base beginner can have something of value to contribute to the landscape of Horsemanship in the 21st Century, if they are someone with unusually evolved life skills!  I hope that gives any self professed beginners or ‘Horse Ignorants’ hope! 

One of my absolutely favourite sayings can be a bit hard to hear.  It is rude, crass and can be easily misunderstood.  At risk of being misunderstood I am going to make a play for it and write it here boldly:

Don’t try to teach a pig to sing.  It doesn’t work and only annoys the pig.

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No doubt the inventor of this phrase was employing humour in order to make a point both blunt and vital.  Accept things for the way they are!  Be aware of your environment and those who are in it.  Do not expect people, horses or places to perform for you in ways which are outside their range.  You will probably piss them off if you try.

The most powerful example of this that comes to my mind is someone I will refer to as Person X.  I use gender neutral anonymity out of respect for this person and their journey, and thus will call them X, merely to illustrate my point.

I was once approached by Person X who employed me to help them in their horses training.  We were keeping our horses at the same stable, which I did not own nor operate but did run lessons and training programs there. After seeing my success with my own horse and with other clients X approached me and started taking lessons.

X was a full time parent of three, the youngest not yet 2 years old.  X was returning to riding after a long sabbatical and so was their horse, a lovely middle aged mare.  This mare was healthy and sweet natured.  She has a good solid conformation and was pretty much your average recreational horse in type and manner of the area- Poland being where I was at the time.  She was neither fancy of breed or movement, nor did she display any outstanding talent beyond being sweet and kind and forgiving and open.  A perfect family pet and recreational companion!  X too, displayed all the objective, logistical behaviours of a recreational horse owner- something I respect very much!  There are many Sport Horses or Working Horses who could be so lucky to be treated so well and so lovingly as most recreational horses!  X was balancing a busy family and work life with horses as the hobby.  Coming 4-5 days a week to the stable because of close proximity but not always staying for very long, sometimes just long enough to give an apple and depart.  When X came with time to spare to work their mare it was rarely for longer than 45 minutes to an hour and in that there was plenty of down time, grass munching, scratching etc.  Total ‘active’ moments never usually amounted to more than 20 minutes.  As a rider, X was of a naturally nervous, fidgety and apprehensive disposition and not terribly athletic, but still game enough to give everything a go. X and their horse would go for slow rides to the forest with some brave yet hairy canters but everything seemed to be pretty low key and relaxing. X genuinely wanted to improve her riding, or so it seemed.  Lucky mare! Sounds great huh?

‘My horse throws her shoulder at every corner!’

‘Sorry, pardon me?’

‘Her shoulder.  She THROWS it out of alignment at every corner.  Can you fix it?’

‘Erm.  Yes but…’

‘See?!  She did it again.  There!  Every corner her shoulder falls on the inside.  My old trainer said that this is very bad for a horse.  We should fix it.’

‘Ok.  Are you absolutely sure your horse is aware enough of her shoulder that you are trying to train?  Often this is just a body awareness issue.  I know that is a non-typical response from a trainer but it does say on my website:  ‘Horsesmanship from a Unique Perspective’ and I live by it!   There is always a logical reason for these things.’

‘Ha!  I am pretty sure MY horse knows she has a shoulder!’

‘Ok.  Well. Can I suggest first some body awareness exercises for your horse which do not create a situation where your horse is always ‘making mistakes’.  We can educate your mare to be more aware of her body.   We can check first all of her training to date and movement basics and then we can work on her sho…’

‘Again!  She did it AGAIN.  See?  It is SO annoying!  She is crazy I do not know what to do she makes me so crazy every time she throws her shoulder and I am trying to get her to hold her shoulder in and she just won’t do it and then she starts running like crazy and…’

‘Sorry but I need to stop you there.  Shoulder placement is something typically refined in horses at higher levels of their training.  Shoulder in and haunches in are not introduced to a dressage horse until medium to upper levels and I do not think your horse is there right now.  I think this issue will melt away if we go back a bit, check all of her basics and then go forwards.  We are just lunging her in circles at a trot right now!  This is sort of a basic exercise.  If she is struggling in a basic exercise the way to fix it is not to practise a more advanced exercise but to check her basic training and make sure it is rock solid.   If a horse cannot maintain that circle at a trot without huge intervention from us with multiple tools or aids, I believe the horse is missing some basics in their foundation training.  You know I will never coerce a horse through tools, gimmicks or tricks.  I won’t take a shortcut and manipulate her shoulder with you today.  Let us slow down and check the basics first.  I might be wrong…’

What basics? What do you mean?’

‘There are 9 basics for a riding horse.  It’s very simple.  A horse should do all 9 in a straight forwards and easy manner without major intervention from the rider.  Personally, I will not start the horse in dressage or detailed movement training until they have shown clear and relaxed mastery of the basics.  The ten basics of a saddle horse are;
1. Walk
2. Trot
3. Canter
4. Gallop
5. Left
6. Right
7. Stop
8. Stand Still
9. Back up”

‘Urgh she did it again… jesus christ.  We should do some gymnastics with her shoulder down under saddle or in groundwork. We should have her on a contact and make sure she is not throwing her shoulder!”

“Ok, well then I am not your trainer for this moment perhaps because I won’t do that to your horse today.  In the future, absolutely.  Not today.  If I work with a horse I want to establish all basic elements under saddle on a more or less loose rein first, before I ride double handed.  At this early stage, if a rein is used I use a single rein when moving forwards, to turn and even to stop, to keep things simple.  Double handed riding comes after mastery of the basics… if you train with me that is!  I try to respect their body and their mouth in this way.  I like a horse to be going under saddle calmly in all basics with minimal aids both in training and out on the trail, before I start introducing real dressage concepts to them and detailed body manipulations such as isolating body parts, like shoulder placement, poll flexion, conflicting aids etc.  I do not think this is an issue of dressage; your mares falling shoulder.  Because you do not practise dressage with your horse currently, you are still riding the basics, which is great! This mare is a recreational horse right now, not in regular or programmed work.  This is an issue of basics not being totally solid, in my opinion.’

‘Hmmm.  So what should we do to fix it?  See, she did it again.  EVERY time her shoulder falls!’

‘First we should stop.  Stop putting your horse in exercises which create a problem for her and for you and definitely stop repeating things that are not working.  Find something your horse CAN do and go from there.  Then we can begin the slow process over this winter to check all her basics…’


~

The rest is fairly self explanatory.  This conversation myself and X had that winter night, under the dim glow of halogen lamps in the indoor riding hall in central Poland was a pivotal moment for me.  I found I could stand with someone I liked and respected and who was willing to employ me and say ‘No’ on behalf of the horse.  ‘No’ followed by another option which stayed true to what I felt was right by the horse.  I stood with X going in circles, our breath was misting up in front of our faces and our conversation was constantly interrupted by X and their non-stop single lunge lining.  X’s mare was getting increasingly upset as she struggled to hold herself together and was soon steaming in the frigid air.  You could see her trying, yet she couldn’t manage to keep her body together through the movement, and almost imperceptibly fell out through her left shoulder at every revolution.  The ground was perfectly flat, competition grade silica sand with fabric cushioning scraps running through it.  The arena was perfectly lit.  The mare was healthy, had been regularly checked by a vet and physio and was free of pathology.  The mare had a full topline, great feet, a saddle that fit and riding mostly bitless.  She was middle aged and sweet natured yet here she was, struggling with a basic- trot.  My speech to X was said clearly and slowly yet X was only half listening to my words as she relentlessly repeated her exercise expecting a different outcome.  

Needless to say- did this mare get the revision on her foundational training I advised?  No.  X went off and got themselves a local dressage trainer who did dressage and only dressage.  I carried on with the other horses in my program.  Within 3 months X and their mare were trotting around the stable, their brow furrowed and reins tight, trying to contain that dumping shoulder, which continued to dump, dump, dump on the inside in 9/10 corners.

I just shrugged MY shoulders, and moved on. 

Don’t try to teach a pig to sing.  It doesn’t work and only annoys the pig.

I wish there was a nicer version of saying that because I really do not want to imply that I am calling X or people like them pigs.  Even if I was calling them pigs, that would not be a criticism in my eyes.  I am a vegetarian since 8 years and even when I ate meat I specifically avoided pork.  Why?  I believe pigs to be incredibly intelligent and sympathetic animals.  When dissecting a human and pig brain the anatomical differences are quite negligible and I have always found pigs to be peaceful, adorable and honourable creatures.  I should be so lucky to have a pig sty in my future garden, to spoil a great fat hog with scraps from my table and belly scratches.  What joy!  No, pigs are fabulous.  But you wouldn’t ask a pig to stand on stage and sing the second act of Madame Butterfly.  It would be inappropriate.  That would not a happy pig make.

When I was consulting with X I genuinely made a detailed assessment of the context of that horse and horse owner.  I asked what were their goals, lifestyle, and background.  What did they want from their horse life and did this match up with their habits in horse life?  You cannot have a highly trained horse without being able to put in serious man hours and possibly invest in some quality coaching with a professional.  I made recommendations suited to the context they presented.  If X presented as aspirational, they were currently at status Recreational but wanted to take their riding to a higher level, ok no problem. I would have had the same response!  Let’s double check all basics and then get busy with lovely details afterwards!  Alas, X was neither willing nor able to modify their own habits, yet expected their horse to perform at a level not appropriate to their own personal input or their horses current training status.

Did I just lose you?  You are welcome to read that last part again if you need.  If not, let us press on a wee bit deeper.   Well done for reading this far!  It is a meaty blog I know but something had to fill my hours on a bus ride to Malaga!

I use this real life story of X as an example because it is the perfect explanation for the classic situation: Horse Life Dichotomy for 21st century; Upper/Middle Class Horse Ownership.  One hundred years ago or more, a horse had a specific career.  They were expected to perform certain jobs and their training was specified for exactly that career.  In this way, the horse and the human have evolved together for thousands of years.  Human civilisation was quite seriously built on the back of the horse. 

War horses were not commonly expected to make milk deliveries on weekends and a bakers carriage horse was not boxed off to affiliated FEI dressage competitions twice a month on Sundays.  Of course, there will have been exceptions to this with particularly adaptable horses that could do many things but as a general rule horses were bred and trained for reasons and purposes that were specific and tailored.  Horses, in my opinion, might have been less confused.

Today, the horse industry has had a total about face from our ancestral heritage.  Thousands of years of Horsemanship clarity has been abolished by the invention of the motor car and other advancements in technology that made the horse largely obsolete in modern industry.  Yet simultaneously, the wealth and stability created by modern industry grew a worldwide middle and upper middle class.  Horse ownership was no longer the pastime of the wealthy and idle, or the necessity of the working class.  Middle class horse ownership was born.  It is here to stay!

A middle class person finds themselves above the poverty line but still aspirational for more (perhaps).  They have just enough time and just enough disposable income to consider investing in a hobby of their childhood dreams, horses!  Riding lessons commence as does investing in new and exciting books and forays into the vast library that is YouTube.  Advancements are made and taste preferences are discovered, English or western?  Natural or classical?  Those that keep going consider buying a horse of their own.  They check their budget and fabulous, they find a livery that works and a horse they like!  Bang, they are now a horse owner!  They cannot be with their horse all day everyday (though they want to), because they are too busy earning money to pay for the whole endeavour.  So they become weekend warriors and evening absentees from their home life.  Horses become bookends in the life of a middle class owner not because they want them to, but because logistics demand they must.   So, what’s next?

These horses are now expected to be beautiful AND have excellent conformation (Believe me the two do not always co-exist).  They are expected to be both calm and reliable yet exciting to ride and forward going but easy to stop always, safety first.  They do Adult Riding Club on a Thursday, Dressage show on a Saturday and next month they are going to a horse archery clinic in the next town.  Every now and then a jumping urge overcomes the owner and the horse starts taking on jumps of increasing heights but on weekends they are expected to be safe in the forest and tolerant around dogs, cars and roads.  These horses and their owners might have aspirations for long distance treks in the summer but during Christmas they are left in mostly muddy paddocks and eat hay and sigh for a solid 3 months, whilst their owners carve the turkey and open presents that voided their horse budget until the Spring. 

Need we wonder why we have problems?

I am not advocating against the middle class horse owner.  I am probably one of them!  I am not advocating against encouraging our horses to be versatile nor am I against horse people with enough mental plasticity to try their hands at many different things with their horses.

I am advocating for the horse.  Horses need clarity.  Confusion is one of the biggest hurdles I see between horses and their owners.  Horses need to KNOW WHAT IS EXPECTED OF THEM.  We need to know what our horses are capable of.  The truth is, if a horse has totally solid basics, after that you can do almost anything with them and take them in almost any different direction.  Sanson has his 9 basics.  With or without my hands, bitted or bitless, in the training area, deep in a forest or on the hard shoulder of an alpine road, he has his 9 basics.  He can walk, trot, canter, gallop, left, right, stop, back up and stand still without much fuss or debacle or overthought.  He has proven that he has these 9 basics consistently, meaning 100% of the time.  From there I have tried with him dressage all last autumn and winter, jumping 1km of fallen trees in forest, 8 hour mountain trek (last Thursday), trick training, positive reinforcement, pressure and release, natural horsemanship, round pen work and more.  We even used to train in a cross country paddock and I am considering introducing a neck rope for bridleless trekking.  All of this he has taken in his stride and adapted to pretty quick.  I would never have done all of that unless we had our 9 basics 100% of the time without any fuss. 

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Want to know how much work it takes to get the basics consistent?  Depends on the horse.  But still, take a number.  Guess how many hours a week it would take?  Then take those hours and triple it.  Then imagine doing that for at least 1 year.  Then you might be getting close to understanding how long it takes to get the 9 basics 100% of the time.

Ok, now I have overwhelmed you.  Fair enough.  But wait, don’t leave yet!  Here is the good news:
For 99% of horse people, aspiring to master the basics and nothing more is the most noble and joyful thing you could do with your horses for the rest of your life!

If you never ride anything more than basics with your horse  who bloody cares?! The high levels of performance are for people who have the aptitude, time and passion to go into professional careers with their horses and those people are around 1% of the horse people population by my reckoning. 

Do not get confused and think that if you are a backyard owner with a single horse that you are LESS THAN or SHITTIER THAN that 1% who can devote their whole lives to horses.  No!  You are your horses hero, Backyard owner and recreational basics aspirant!  If you can devote your spare time to helping your horse have solid basics and if it takes you ten years to do it, fabulous!  Do it like a prayer, like a devotion!  You are giving that horse a life that is ten times lovelier than quite a lot of horses owned by the 1%, especially the horses optioned for professional careers that don’t make it!  You probably saved one of those!  Help them feel solid and safe in their life with humans and don’t you dare feel ashamed of it.  I adore you for it and will champion you for it!

Person X and their mare ticked every single box on the recreational horse context list. Yet X, over the 1 year I knew them, would consistently expect and demand high levels of body awareness and performance from their horse, from myself and from a list of 3 other trainers they cycled through.  I do not mind saying that they needed a reality check in more ways than one.  I came to feel sorry for the mare.  Although she was happy and healthy I pitied her.  Not because she was treated badly- because she absolutely wasn’t- but because she would never find her owner or her trainer balancing EXPECTATIONS with REALITY. She would never be able to find her true self and purpose in her life with humans.  A recreational horse expected to be as good as entrance level dressage horse?  I think she was happier being a fabulous pig in the mud.    

And she really did not feel like singing after all.

The Rollercoaster, The Wave, The Storm and the Silence

I have written about Progress before.  To see what I previously penned about the subject of growth click here:  https://expatequestrian.com/2019/01/02/progress/

I feel like it is time for me to revisit the subject, injecting with it new heart from new experiences.

Change is important to me.  It is the process of eliminating from your life those things you don’t want or need and emphasising the good things!  God forbid I stagnate and stay the way I am now forever!

The last two years have been enormous for me.  The changes that have rocked my world in the last two years, each and every single one of them have been profound and enormous.  The changes that have been snowballing over the last two years really began on a quiet, cold and sunny morning, on top of a mountain not far from where I sit now, in January 2016.  I made the decision to bring Sanson into my life and with it welcome all the necessary changes that would allow that to happen.

Today, I am still making the changes and adjustments needed to accommodate a horse, a horse training and trimming business into my life and to grow it into something that is sustainable and fulfilling.   I have no regrets.  It has enriched my life beyond my wildest dreams!  To get to this place I was visited by mechanisms of change that at the time were confusing, but in retrospect, I can spot the patterns, and give them names.

Along the way I have learned a few many things about the mechanics of change.  I have learned that it doesn’t matter if you are training a horse, learning to drive, moving house, moving countries or changing social circles, the basic rules and mechanics of CHANGE are the same.  These three rules I have affectionately given names that describe what they feel like.  These rules apply to horse training and to life.

My regular clients and readers have discovered, that Horsemanship and LIFE are very much the same thing.  Becoming a Good Horseman requires becoming GOOD WITH YOUR LIFE.

Horse Training is nothing more than assessing a horse, deciding what stays and what needs to go, and then implementing CHANGE for the horse.  If you do not have a sound understanding of change yourself, how do you expect to teach it to a 500kg non-ruminant herbivore built for speed?

You cannot teach, what you do not know.

THE ROLLERCOASTER

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Adrenaline.  The ups, the downs!  The moment when change and growth has you hanging on by your ankles, seemingly an inch from death, screaming for your life… or your pleasure!  It is NOT for the faint hearted!
A horse will test you, push you, often even scare you.  So will your life!  Shall we then hide away for ever? 

They will bring you adrenaline to see what you do with it, can you handle it?  The Rollercoaster involves knowing your limits, making sure you are safe FIRST, and then strapping yourself down and breathing through it.

When I was rehabilitating Sanson to the gallop (not the canter- the gallop) he understood gallop as a sort of  “let’s get riled up and run plus I am also anxious of being left behind” type of deal.  He would gallop, but there was a hint of explosion about it which I felt was not connected to things like balance, power, collection or happiness!  He would gallop, but there was a red-flag for me, something felt off.
Of course, rehabbing him to the gallop involved taking away any restrain-by-pain devices like leverage bits or martingales.  Then, I had to find some flat sturdy footing and just LET GO.  Ask him to GO.  GO GO GO!  This is The Rollercoaster.  There were ups and downs!  Sometimes I felt in control, most of the time I did not.  I took my safety precautions; made sure he was physically and mentally healthy, ensured he understood very well how to stop and turn in a training environment, rode the gallop track several times first at the walk, trot and canter to know intimately every pothole and ditch, then whacked on my helmet and racing fall vest and off I went.  I just held on and let him go.  The more I let him go the more his anxiety around speed and gallop dissipated.  He learned I would stay neutral as he gallops rather than pump him up further trying to extract an adrenaline high from him. I would not pull him up on a leverage bit to stop him, but merely waited for him to think about stopping first and ask me
‘Can I slow down?’
‘Yes of course, if you like!’
It really was that simple.  To go through that process involved some fear and courage on my part, and willingness to be in a scary and fast moving situation where the opportunity for disaster was inches from your grasp and yet you got out the other side with a new awareness of exhilaration!
The Rollercoaster doesn’t want you to meditate on control or peacefulness.  The Rollercoaster want’s you to understand that just because you FEEL like you are in danger, does not mean that you ARE in direct danger!   Change requires a cleaning out, and to get there sometimes a scary ride is on the menu.

THE WAVE

04_klein_pipeline_hawaii_march2011_003799.jpgI have always felt that learning is like a wave.  Learning is a form of change.  Those whom are good learners are those whom are at peace during times of change.
Essentially, the wave comes in and goes back out again.  The waves can be small and innocuous, or they can be tempestuous and devastating.
Have you ever learned something new which totally and utterly destroyed your world view?  It is like a wave, a Tsunami… first you see it coming, then it comes, then it crashes over you and leaves you in the debris of its wake, having created an utterly new world around you.
New information can be like that.  Think of the time you called your vet out to invest a slight lameness issue, you saw it coming.  The vet after inspection orders further tests, their brow furrowed, it comes.  The results are back and your vet diagnoses a career ending injury or illness, it crashes over you.  The vet leaves you sometimes with a care program that is helpful, sometimes not.  You are left to sift among the pieces of your horse life, trying to piece everything back together with this new state of being.
The wave can also be beautiful.  When new information is trying to come into a horses muscle memory sometimes the horse will do it beautifully one minute and absolutely forget it the next.  Do not worry.  All is not lost!  Learning requires things to come in and go back out again.  It is not linear.  It is a wave. The new information comes and goes because it is new and has not been fully committed to memory yet.  Waves can also bring with it a tide.  A tide is a more permanent and lasting change.  The wave is like the every day happenstances, the ripples through your week that bring with it small changes, new information, new abilities.  Before very long, you have a totally new paradigm and it took no more than time and patience to allow the waves of change to bring it in.   
The best waves are the ones that allow you to ride them!  With enough practise, you can learn how to surf on those waves of change, and make change look good and FEEL good in the process!

THE STORM AND THE SILENCE

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These two come together.  The silence refers to both the eye of the storm and the after storm peace.  Sometimes change is just messy.  It is uncomfortable.  It is inconvenient.  Often, Murphies Law applies: everything that can go wrong WILL go wrong.
Last week several things happened at once.  I came down with a summer flu, my car broke down, and Sanson’s digestion became bad again.  All three things in the same day.  Can I fix all three at once?  No.  Are all three easy to overcome.  No.  Can I get through it?  Yes yes yes.  Yes I can.  When the storm comes the only thing you can do is to batten down the hatches, hole yourself up and wait for it to pass.  Because it will pass!  All things pass, especially the storms.
Sanson’s digestion will clear up, both short term once I put him on this new food designed to help him, and long term, as his body adjusts again to the microbiology of this place and climate.
The car will get fixed.  It will cost me, but it will be fixed.  If I find a problem that is too expensive to fix, I will let it go and acquire a new vehicle.  I have zero personal attachment to that car or giving it a second, third or fourth lease on life.    I will get over the flu.  In fact I am already over it.  I must be willing to sacrifice some time to my healing but it is possible to do.  How lucky I am to have a safe and comfortable home to get better in, and an immune system capable of fighting it off- there are plenty in this world whom are not so lucky and a flu is not a simple thing for them to overcome.

Once you are past the storm there is a moment of silence.  In that silence your job is to do NOTHING.  Breathe.  Reboot.  Try again.  Rebuild.  Everything might be different now, for better or worse.
The Storm is here to teach us something about chaos, but also to remove us from the picture while dramatic changes take place.  The Silence is here to allow us to observe the changes.
When you introduce a horse to a new herd, a new home, at some point you need to open the fence and step back.  Here comes then the storm.  Anyone who has watched a new horse enter an established herd will know how chaotic it can be.  Trust the horses.  Most horses do not like stress and fighting and will find homeostasis pretty soon.  Your interference would be akin to walking out into a serious storm and trying to make it stop… you cannot.  It would be dangerous.  At some point, you need to open the gate and step back. 
The same with training.  You need to set the horse up for change, apply the information, the cue, the aid, and then step back.  Allow the horse to access the information and go through the storm.  When the horse receives the information it may not always be clean, beautiful or sensible to observe… it can be messy and awkward, but it is important that you can be a place to allow that to happen. 

After, when the storm of new information has passed the horse will look at you.  It is then that you step back and do NOTHING.  Breathe.  Reboot.  Try again.  Everything might be different now.

 

 


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“Look, but Don’t Stare!” Lessons from the Past Self.

It is something I find myself saying a lot lately.

‘LOOK!  But do not stare!”

The difference is huge.  The difference rests somewhere the the realms of fixation, stress pathologies and pain addiction.

Horses strongly oppose pain.  Pain comes in many forms, from the obvious kinds like physical injuries and the invisible kinds such as mental and emotional pain.  Some people even go so far to say that you can have spiritual pain, that is a place I do not think all my readers are ready to go to yet!

I was with a lady and her horse the other day.  At the appointment was a friend and colleague, another trainer in this area of Spain and we are working together to help this lady and her horse.

Her horse is a typical case of neglect and abuse seen here in Spain.  He had a very rough go in his life until one year ago when he was bought by this lady, a loving, caring and compassion British expat.  She is new to horses and set about carefully learning what she needed to know to provide a life for this horse that keeps him happy and healthy, as well as learning the ropes of riding.  Her aspirations are to enjoy the Spanish Campo (countryside) together and that is all.  Absolutely appropriate for a horse with such a background to aspire for a future of gentle and peaceful exploration.  Other horses should be so lucky!

I was invited by my friend to attend the meeting because we suspected that this horse and owner team would benefit from a combined approach of two like-minded yet unique trainers.  I was very happy to attend, what a wonderful situation of collaboration!

I listened to the story of this horse and ticked all the boxes;
– History of abuse
– History of neglect
-Was easy to work with in the beginning
-Recent situations caused the horse to spook and bolt ending in an accident
-Recent turn of events have created ongoing issues, seemingly too big to deal with alone.

It all corresponded with a past blog I wrote, an idea I have long held in my mind.  Traumatised horses, once you peel back the layers of abuse, often have underlying emotional problems residing in them.  It can be confusing and bewildering to an owner to watch their beloved companion go from Sweet and Calm Rescue to Rampaging Spook Machine, seemingly in a matter of months!

I am here to say that this is normal!  This is also healthy!  It is a matter of the horse slowly performing an ‘Exorcism’ upon their memories.  Think of all the times in their life when they were terrified, but their abuser forbid them to act upon it, they can now act upon it.    All the times in their life when the horse felt too much uncontrolled energy or emotion, and was met with only containment at the device of mechanical pain of a harsh bit, tie down, strong kick or vicious pull, that horse is now allowed to feel that energy and emotion fully.  It is the ‘unbreaking’ process.  Putting the horse back together.  The healing.  The healing can often be ugly to look at, comparable to crying or hysteria in humans.

It makes sense that when a traumatised horse finds a softer place to live, with an owner who will not trap, contain or shut them down, that they totally regress and finally act upon all those trapped instincts.  It can be like a Pandora’s box.  Once you open it, a whole host of emotions and behaviours can explode out!  It can take days, weeks, months or even years for this ‘box of stored trauma’ to empty itself.  I have seen it happen with my own horse and with others.  The length of time it takes to pass its course depends entirely upon how deep are the wounds upon this animal, the skill of their handler in navigating this confusing minefield of trauma pathology and the individual character of the horse.

It makes sense because this is a healing mechanism I have put myself through many times.  Like a lot of horse people, I have a past which is not always a happy story to say the least.  When I finally began to discover that I was unaware of these past hurts, and how they were influencing my life day to day in a negative way, I began a vast research in emotional pain pathology and healing mechanisms.  I have found that the same general rules seem to apply to all mammals.  So when I look at a horse who is going through something tough, I can empathise with them.  I know innately the way they FEEL.  Because in the end it is a feeling, not a thought.  An emotional experience is not intellectual, it is quite physical.

Once you pass through this fire, the other side is an amazing place.  Healing!  I don’t want to be all butterflies or rainbows on you, but truly, I PROMISE you that the other side of this ‘Emotional Exorcism of Trauma’ is wonderful.  There is trust.  There is safety for both sides.  There is an understanding and a love between the human and their horse because that horse knows who is responsible for their healing.

Ahh!  Maybe I just lost a few people!  You would be surprised how many horse people absolutely refuse to partake in such ‘wooly’ discussions of ‘magic and emotion’.  For me there is nothing magic, mysterious or intangible about this stuff.  This is basic emotional law.  Look at the work of Dr. Panksepp on Mammalian Brain Emotional Theory.  All the science is there.  It is very concrete, recognised in the scientific community and what is more we can WORK with this science in Horsemanship!  Throw it dismissively out the window as ‘Post-Modern Horsemanship mumbo-jumbo’ at your own risk.  Leave your prejudice aside and you may be surprised what the horse can show you.

Humans however are slightly different!  We have the Emotional Mammalian brain, that we share in great similarities with all mammals.  But in recent Millenia we also grew a pre-frontal cortex.  This pre-frontal cortex or ‘complex modern brain’ that I colloquially refer to likes to make plans, perform assessments, and analyse.  This part of the brain is also associated with reward based learning and behaviour inhibition.  Check these scholarly articles:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0278262604002866
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1364661310002561
https://www.pnas.org/content/104/12/5181.short

Plain talk:  humans can get addicted to feeling bad!  Just like a drug, if you go too long without that addicted high, you start tapping your arm searching for a vein and looking for a conspirator, a dealer to help you get that high.  You tell the sad story again, someone else frowns and nods, hugs and consoles, and there you go, there is the comfort you were missing.  But it lasts only a moment.  Unaware to you, the same person who empathises with you also labels you as ‘damaged’.  There can be an unspoken detachment prevalent in most forms of empathy.  Some may not agree with me.  I speak only of my experiences in human behaviour after living in several countries, working in multicultural communities for over ten years.  The same person who empathises with you, if not a trained professional, may also be thinking  ‘Gee I am glad I do not have this problem’.  If someone empathises with you, and offers you a potential solution to consider- this is different.  This may be altruism.  Someone is trying to pull you up, to heal you.  If you are someone who is absolutely not prepared to let go of your negative energy, that would feel patronising, not altruistic.  For this reason, I am very careful when listening to people telling their historical pain stories.  I prefer to redirect them to the present moment, and maybe to the future, or if not- say almost nothing at all and just listen.

People get addicted to feeling bad.  Just stop and think.  Do you know of anybody that seems to enjoy complaining, and does it with you regularly?  Can you think of anyone who constantly talks about abuse that happened to them in childhood and perhaps uses it as an excuse for less than excellent behaviour and choices today?  Can you think of anyone who seems to enjoy repeating the same sad story over and over again?

I can think of horse owners who’s horses bolted with them maybe 5 or 6 years ago and they allow that memory to hold them back from certain activities today.  This is a red flag for me.  I understand if something awful happened with your horse 1-3 months ago and it still makes you worried.  But several months or many years ago?  You cannot hold a horse ransom to the behaviour they displayed years ago.  The same you cannot hold a human ransom to behaviour they displayed years ago particularly if they have shown you a clearly defined progression beyond that behaviour today!  There must be allowance for forgiveness.  Ride the horse you have today is a phrase I often repeat to myself.  I allow the horse to surprise me, for better or worse, and try not to label it a concrete way of being.  Whatever shows up in the horse might be there for a moment, for a season or for a reason and I am just glad the horse is contributing to the conversation! It is a miracle that they communicate with us!

Yes, just like horses, a traumatised person is equally in need of a healing.  The difference in healing between the horse and the human is this;

BASIC HORSE HEALING
HORSE:  I am traumatised, here- this is my story!
TRAINER/COACH:  Thank you for showing me.  Here, let me release that feeling for you.  You don’t have to keep it any more. 
HORSE:  Wow.  Thanks. I am glad I let that go.  I feel better now.  What is next?

BASIC HUMAN HEALING
HUMAN:  I am traumatised, here- this is my story!
COACH/THERAPIST:  Thank you for showing me.  Here, let me release that feeling for you.  You don’t have to keep it any more. 
HUMAN:  Wow.  No thanks.  I would rather hold onto it.  I need the attention I get, when I tell this story, how will people know I exist if I don’t?  I don’t know how to feel good.  So I will stay with feeling bad because it feels familiar and I seem to get attention (reward) and comfort (reward) when I tell my traumatised story.  If I stop telling and repeating my story, where will I get my attention (reward) and comfort (reward) from? 

Of course, these above examples are HIGHLY simplified and of course individual variances occur.  You get the occasional horse that takes longer to let go of a trauma mechanism, and then you get the occasional human that lets go of a sad memory pretty quickly and easily.

But the example is clear enough.

Look at your past.
But be careful not to STARE at it!

If you start to stare, you enter into fixation.  Fixation is looking for the payback, positive or negative.

If you see a horse get ‘locked’ onto a scary stimulus, be very careful.  They are emotionally ramping up and building.  It can be insidious because usually a horse who is ‘locked on’ has been traumatised in their past, or been hardwired through their character and lifestyle to lock on, freeze and build.  This building can result in explosive and often highly dangerous behaviour.  Such an issue is not fixed through trying to train the behaviour.  The issue is fixed by stopping the behaviour from existing through carefully practised emotional management Horsemanship techniques.

These techniques are surprisingly simple and straight forwards.  Sort of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when she learned that she had the tools she needed to go home the whole time, the Ruby Slippers.   Often the tools you need to get the thing you most desire have been with you the whole time.  You just needed the right person to tell you about it, at the right time. 

Once you recognise the problem, you can stop staring and start LOOKING and then actually SEEING!

Once you see the problem, it is easy to let it go.

Can you let go of your past easily?  Or is this something you need guidance with?

If you need guidance with your past with horses, if you want to stop telling that obsessive story over and over again, to move on with a safer and calmer Horse Life, write to me.  I can help you!

The Filly, The Mare and the Good Story of Stress

We have ALL been there.  Myself included.

In fact I fight with it daily!

Doubt.  Self doubt.  A noxious gas that creeps into your lungs, your mind and your heart.  One day you are a confident, easy going person, sure of your choices, confident in your actions and going about your business with clarity and ease.

The next thing you know, you’re sitting at home scared to leave, because if you did go out what might happen?   You find yourself unable to make a choice, because you’re scared to do the wrong thing.  What if being scared of doing the wrong thing is the wrong thing?  What if I am doing more damage by inaction?  The vicious cycle starts.

Horses have a way of amplifying our faults.  Whatever ‘Thing’ it is which we have a problem with and need to work on, simply being in the presence of a horse will bring that ‘Thing’ to the surface.  There is a really good explanation for this phenomenon.

Horses hate tension.  They absolutely avoid- if they can- stress, fear, trouble and problems.  Which is funny because so many of our horses seem to actively choose to be troubled around us… at least that is what it feels like sometimes. Right?

What if you are wrong!  Your horse is not a dickhead.  Your horse is being a horse.  He feels what you feel.  He also feels what youdo not knowthat you feel!  Read that again if it twisted your mind a bit.  It’s very straightforwards!

It has nothing to do with them trying to wrong you!   It is not personal.  It is biological.  Horses are not TRYING to make your life more difficult.  Even those horses labelled as ‘naughty’, ‘cheeky’ or ‘a bit of a shit’, when you really get passed all of that human judgement that troubled horse if left to his own devices is mostly an alright kind of guy.

Of course horses have characters, some more spicy than others.  Spicy is a new word I use to describe horses since now living in Spain.  I love a SPICY HORSE!

Horses are hardwired to sense tension in their environment.  Once they sense tension, they will display that tension.  That tension may or may not originate from their personality.   Why?  How?

Imagine a herd of wild horses.  Imagine open pastures, true wildnerness and non-domesticated horses roaming unchecked as nature would have them.  Imagine a herd of about 15 horses.  Mares and their foals, a few yearlings, that colt who is almost too old to remain in the herd and will soon be pushed out to find a bachelor band, and a stallion.  All are spread out over a couple of acres of grass and grazing.  Suddenly, a young filly by the edge of the group catches a smell in the wind.  That smell is not from a herbivore, it is a carnivorous scent, a predator maybe.  Horses are prey and do not have time to consider maybe in such a circumstance.  Bang!  The fillies posture changes from long and low, breathing deep and grazing, to head high, eyes wide, nostrils flared, body tense.  Ready to move.

Like dominoes, the herd members, many of whom she has been with for her whole life, and those members been with each other for life, particularly the mares, immediately feel that filly’s change in tension and they mimic her in kind.

Many herd members had heads deep in grass, blissed out horses grazing to hearts content and could not see that filly’s posture change.  But they felt it.   Once they felt it, they mirrored exactly the same alert and aware posture of the filly too.  They do this to be safe.  If a friend senses a threat, it could be a threat to them too!  I will say that again:  if a FRIEND senses a threat it might be a threat to them too!

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Your horse might be sensing your stress, your emotions, your tensions, because they see you as a friend… not as an enemy!  But SO many horse people take it the other way.  Their horse behaves or ‘feels’ badly, and they take it as a sign their horse dislikes them!

If they saw you as an enemy they would not want anything to do with you.  If they know you are gentle, kind and ‘one of them’, they then allow your inner state to mirror their outer state.  A horse absorbing their humans ‘negative’ energies is a sign of the growing connection, the bond.  The important part is that the horse is FEELING the human and responding to what they feel.  Training what we FEEL is important in this case.  This is why I relentlessly say that I train with Emotions not Behaviours, though behavioural change is the ultimate result.

If you had a smart trainer, they would wrangle the pair of you to start reflecting each others POSITIVE energies, instead of negative.  But so many trainers are taught to shut down these systems of connection, so their teach this to their students as well.  Because when I horse displays such mirror emotional behaviours is CAN be unsafe… for a short while.  Few that come from a traditional training background (I hazard to say!) have seen what happens if you ALLOW the horse his FULL EXPRESSION, for better or worse, and wait for the storm to pass.  Few from tradition know what is on the other side of that.  Many have felt it, but do not know how to articulate it to their students and are scared to do so.  So they stay quiet, it was a private journey for them and a special horse.  Their students remain in the dark with their struggle and continue to think behavioural ‘correction’ is the answer.  Whilst broad rivers of unaddressed emotion run unchecked through their relationship with their horse, silently damaging their heart for their horse.  These ‘secrets’ should not be only for those who have struggled and survived.  I do not believe that we should encourage the struggle more than we have to.  Just give people information that they need to feel better!

This is the part I need to be careful and where I often lose people, because I start to dabble in an area that for many feels like some kind of vague magic or superstition.  It’s not.  It is biology.  Whether you believe me or not, many horse folks with more experience and brains than me seem to agree, that horses can SENSE the emotions, energy or state of tensions versus relaxation of their comrades without even having to make visual confirmation.

I believe it is a sense that humans do not understand because we are schooled as children to eliminate all of our instincts.  This is why children have such a natural ease and understanding with horses.  As adults, we can ‘re-learn’ our instincts.   Instincts also translate into horse-sense or feel.   Indeed, hundreds of schools of Horsemanship deal with exactly this topic:  FEEL

Returning now to our wild horse herd, the Alert Filly, nostrils flaring can still smell the carnivores scent in the grass.  Now, a rustle in the grass not far from the herd matches with the direction the wind is blowing the carnivor’s scent from.  A young horse, The Filly doesn’t have the experience to know what to do.  Hollow yet dynamic, she trots high headed and full of extra energy into the centre of the herd.  In her anxiety, she catches several other yearlings with her wheeling them off grass and towards the herds center… but where is the centre now?  Now, the herd is disintegrating into early stages of panic.   Some older horses who got caught in the foray, but are stiffer, slower to respond are none the less equally worried and some stumble among the chaos.  The Filly told her herd with her tension that there might be a serious problem, prepare to flee.  They all heard, sensed, saw and felt her alarm!

An older mare, has been observing this ‘change of emotional status of the herd’ and been paying attention.  The Older Mare has been through this before.  If you have smelled the carnivore, herd the carnivore, probably that carnivore is either very young and bad at its job, or not an immediate threat to her or her family.  It is the predator you never knew was coming that you need to be scared of.   In that case, she knows that her herd is mostly healthy and ready to run with barely a seconds notice… biology is on her side.  If worse came to worse, she knows she can kick or bite, and stand her ground if she really must, especially for her foals.

The Older Mare stands her ground.  Taking loud snorting scents through flared nostrils. The ever increasing tension through the herd brings all members from peaceful grazing to tense movement, they wheel and adjust and stand behind the mare, her stillness is a sign that she is still thinking… not yet panicking.  The herd craves a calm, thoughtful presence to guide them when they are scared.  The Older Mare is this for them now, they stand behind her, mimicing her alert and still posture.  Through doing nothing, the mare has brought a dangerously mobile and chaotic herd to an organised standstill.  She continues to smell, to wait and observe… what is that scary scent and noise in the grass?  Are we in danger of predators now?    She adjusts her head, wanting to assess the potential threat.

Out of the grass emerges a juvenile fox.  Just having gone out on his own, the young fox is certainly not big enough to be a threat to her herd.  He is curious, but not hungry.  He smells of meat from the dead carcass of a rabbit he scavenged the night before.  He is tired and hunting mostly for a den to sleep and be safe and start his adult life.  He scared the horses through his presence, but is not interested in them.

Ah, the mare has indentified the fox.  He is small.  He is lethargic.  No threat, at least not immediately.  The mare moves her herd away, just to be sure!  Not because the young fox is a direct threat, but because his presence makes her herd tense.  Tension, the mare knows, is not healthy for her herd.    Death is the ending of life quickly.  But stress is a slow death.  Stress would make her herd stop eating, drinking or behaving normally.A predator comes and goes.  Stress comes and stays.  She moves them away from the travels of the fox, so her herd can relax again and return to normality. 

I believe that Horsemanship is now moving in this direction.  A lot of trainers have evolved way past the Prey vs Predator theories of behavioural conditioning and have gone deeper into understanding the deeper tensions, stresses, fears held by horses and humans alike.  Understanding how deeply held problems, that the horse or human may or may not be aware of, and how these forces interact is an incredibly interesting and powerful way of working with horses.  It has personally brought me some amazing moments and great personal satisfaction.

Plain talk:  if you are a stressed out person generally, you may not be fully aware of HOW stressed you are.  Just like a fish is not consciously aware of the water they live in- a stressed person does not always know how deep, high or wide is the river of stress they have built their life upon.

Put that person in the path of a horse, and the horse will ABSOLUTELY feel that stress too.  Your body is sending stress signals to the horse.  Increased heart rate, breathing, sweating.  Your smell, the quality of your voice.  The quality of your movements, especially your unpractised movements or casual movements.

Sadly, before the stressed person even put a hand on a horse that horses knows if that person is sending out radio signals of:

HELP!

ARRRRGGGHHHH!

IM SCARED!

or if that person is broadcasting signals of

HAPPY

CONTENT

I AM OPEN

Upon this fact alone, Horsemanship techniques can succeed and fail.

It can be a difficult truth for us to admit; ‘ I am not aware of the energy I bring to my horse’.

Before I lose you, to any guilt or shame you might feel, if you think you fall into that catagory, the good news is, YOU CAN CHANGE ALL OF THIS!

If you are brave.

If you are honest.

If you are willing.

YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR INNER STATE!  It is a simple process.  Not complicated.   Please, when I say simple, I do NOT mean easy.  Changing yourself is difficult.  It is mountain climbing for the soul.  The degree to which you will succeed depends on your fitness and how much you enjoy climbing that mountain!

Perhaps we should be interested in helping ourselves be less stressed, less fearful less neurotic just for the sake of our own health and well being.  Personally, I would not really do this just for myself.

I would do it for a horse. I have done it for a horse.  For more than one.  In fact, each horse I have met has given me gifts.  These gifts from the horse show me EXACTLY and PRECISELY what it is I need to work on inside myself first, in order to succeed with them.  Impatience.  Sadness.  Apathy.  Stress.  Fear.  Indecision.  Confusion.  Ignorance. Just a few of the lessons individual horses have brought forwards for me!  I thank them for that.  I honour them for that.

Horsemanship is a journey of working on yourself.  Then the work with horses after that is really very straightforwards and can be full of such joy!

Letting go of the chaos can be hard.  Chaos might not feel ‘good’ but it feels familiar.  Better the devil you know, then the devil you don’t.  For this reason many are too scared to let go of their negative emotions, stress and behaviours.  Because they define themselves by these inner states… they do not know who they would be without them… empty?  Empty of emotion?  Many enjoy the struggle.  They need stress to feel alive.

What would happen if we just let that all go?  If we sought for a way forwards with ourselves and with our horses that does not involve going from one crisis to another?

I am very much on the cusp of this myself and it is SUPER exciting and the results are BLOWING MY MIND!

The awareness I have of my inner states, identifying what doesn’t work anymore or belong in my future and letting it go.  The horses are like;

“Oh!  Hello!  I see you now.  I can see you clearly.  So, what are we doing now?’

Ready, set, go!

Such a simple and childish phrase.

READY SET GO!

Many of us learned it from our earliest days in kindergarten when racing our friends, a healthy level of competition mixed together with fun.

The whole aim of this philosophy READY SET GO is to check with your friends, competitors or comrades, before you all begin a known activity;
‘Are you ready to begin?  Are we all starting on an even footing in fairness?  Do we all have what we need to start?  Ok, NOW we can go!’

Can you imagine if those same games as children did not start with such a simple and fair beginning?  Can you imagine if you joined a group of children who wanted to have a fun race together, and before you had gotten into position, properly prepared yourself, or even knew what was expected somebody yelled GO and the race began?

Would you feel that it was fair?

Would you have hesitated for a moment, wondering if you should participate or not, because you are already behind everyone else?

Would the race begin in an orderly and balanced fashion or would the sudden shock give rise to potential chaos and misbehaviour?

Would you have a good chance to succeed and begin you race in balance and strength?

Would you want to play with those kids again?

Now imagine those same children, at the end of the race, turning to you and saying things like,
‘You’re lazy!  Why did you not begin when we said GO? You’re not very smart!  You should be paying closer attention.’

Next time you might pay closer attention to those children, but with a suspicious heart, a distrustful attitude and hold yourself in a constant state of readiness because you never know when they might surprise you, and you don’t want to be punished because of their lack of fairness or preparation.

Now imagine I am no longer talking about children or humans, but talking about horses. 

Did you have a penny drop moment?  Do you now see common problems with a new perspective?

Time and time again I see it with riders and trainers, even very experienced ones.  They JUMP on their horses with an aid, or request for a transition.  I talked about it in a lot of depth in my blog ‘Cocoon’ ages ago but here I get to the point in a more blunt way.  The common problem looks like this:

Horse is going along, walk for example, horse feels good, presenting no protest to the rider, the activities or anything, just a calm horse doing his job.  He looks committed to the walk, mind and body fully focused on the walk. ‘Walk= walk’  he thinks.   Upon his back is a rider.  The rider has a tensed face of concentration and is clearly doing her best to ride this horse correctly.  BOOM.  Suddenly the rider has done something.  As an observer I am equally surprised as the horse… what just happened?  BOOM it happened again, much before I was able to recognise the first…. BOOM, once again.  Horse swishes tail and after 5-6 tense steps of walk, likely hollow or confused, a stilted trot appears out of nowhere.  GOOD BOY!!!!!!!  Says the rider.  Pats on the neck.   The horses eyes seem to vaguely take in the praise through their confusion, but do not seem 100% on board with the situation.  Despite their confusion, the horse perseveres, because this rider on their back is otherwise totally amenable to them.  The horse thinks… I will give her a chance, benefit of the doubt.

This same horse might in the same day be labelled as lazy, heavy to the aids, stubborn, stiff, unwilling, unfocused the list can go on.

I wonder what would have happened if someone had remembered their childhood games of fun and fairness and given that horse a chance to PREPARE

Of course what I am talking about is PREPARATION.  I do not talk about ANTICIPATION.  Anticipation is the negative side of preparation, it is a nervous state of anxiety where the horse stays in anticipation of the riders aids because the rider frequently surprises them or fails to prepare them, so the horse must stay ready so they don’t have to GET ready.

I have a bridge for the horse when I ride.  A clear connector between point A and point B.   It starts first as a feeling in my body that I create.  This feeling says something like I am getting ready for a change, can you get ready too?.   If the horse is not broken, not shut down, not dead behind their eyes, without fail they will all feel this change.  They are hardwired to respond to shared physical feelings.

Once I have generated a ‘change state sensation’ I will say often out loud:
‘Are you ready?’
Or simply ‘Ready?’.
Already the horse is brighter, more aware and more concentrated on me.  Already the transition, when I finally ask for it, will be cleaner.

Then I ask for the transition.   On many horses, this works without fail, to gain an effortless transition without emotional worry.

I also use this bridge when checking out a horses emotional status about a behaviour to discover any history of discontent with certain activities.
For example, if a horse has a bad history with canter; people pushing them, whipping them, cantering them out of balance, or any other general abuse and trauma that horse might not feel very good about canter anymore.  They might canter beautifully in groundwork, but under saddle that horse might have a bunch of surprises waiting for me, if I surprised them first.  Bucking, shying, bolting, balking.  Do I want to discover that horses bad behaviour when we are already cantering and the shit has the potential to hit the fan?  No.  I like my life.  I value my physical safety almost as much as I value a horses right to clear and balanced emotions.  I will check how the horse FEELS about the canter BEFORE I ask for canter as a behaviour.
‘ Ready?’, I say at the trot.
‘Nope, nope, nope.’ Says the horse shaking their head and even offering a violent and shuddering half halt at the trot.  Clear enough information that they are NOT ready to canter.  Not emotionally or physically.
I may ask this horse once or twice again, to get ready.  I am asking them to think about the canter, and observing what they think and feel about it.  If I do not like the emotional state they offer me about that idea, I do not ask them to actually canter.  I wait for sunnier skies and a better expression.  Why force them into it?  I am not a sport rider who MUST do anything.  I am here for the horse and the horse only.

With my horse Sanson I can now say the verbal cue without making a physical change, and he knows.  With him I can also make the physical change without the verbal cue and he knows.  Sometimes I never have to ask for the transition because he guessed ahead, and because I had him prepared, he had the trot ready for me.  I have taught him how to prepare himself, without my intervention.  Going on from last weeks blog about the Three Modalities of Leadership, this is something about being in the state of ‘The Guide’, as opposed to ‘The Gardener’ or ‘The General’.   It is one of those I only have to think about it and he does it! moments.

READY.  SET.  GO.

Try it!  Stop shocking your horse.  Give them a few seconds of space between the idea of a transition and the actual transition, and watch their expression change!

The General, Gardener and the Guide

I just got back from mucking out my stable and paddocks, a time many horse people know is the perfect time for reflection and thought!  Some of my best ideas came to me when engaged in simple repetitive activity, like long distance driving, poo picking, or trail riding.

DISCLAIMER: LONG POST AHEAD! 

I have broken my own little tradition, I had until now labelled all my blogs with a one word title, a challenge to myself to be precise and concise after a lifetime of being told I speak too much, write too much and think too much.  Perhaps condensing my thoughts and ideas into a brief title was a way to help people understand me?  In some cases, this was very useful.  It is also not being true to myself.  My brain works in detail, and processes complexity quite quickly.  Often I can come to a surprising conclusion much faster than is commonly acceptable and for this reason many people who know me personally, can find my ideas jarring.

Nevertheless, detail is one of my few gifts that is unique to me.  I should not be afraid to use it.   If you have a short attention span, or find that any blog over 400 words is too long, this is the point I will lovingly invite you to check out.  Those that remain with patience, curiosity and an appetite for detail… welcome to my world!

This blog I have wanted to write for several weeks.  Delayed because I have since moved countries from Poland to Southern Spain.  Including a 3500km drive, with my fiance, our five animals and of course my horse.  It has been stressful and scary like I have never experienced before!   The dust has more or less settled for now and though I want to write about our big life change soon, this blog is overdue and it is time to write it.

I want to introduce to Horsemanship practise:
THREE MODALITIES OF LEADERSHIP

– The General

-The Gardener

– The Guide 

But first, let us together commonly understand LEADERSHIP

When I say the word Leadership in relation to horses it can be a trigger point for many.  Some see the word ‘Leader’ fall from the mouth of a horse trainer, especially a male horse trainer with a habit of wearing a wide brimmed hat and they are triggered.  Triggered frustration and distrust by memories of those rough old cowboys, with paternalistic tendencies, telling ‘little ladies’ that they are spoiling their horses by not being a ‘strong leader’, criticising them to be more dominant or assertive.  Many horse people, especially women, are vocally outraged by coercion and aggression and rightfully so!

If you fear I may be one of those old school Horsemen, please don’t worry!   I may wear a wide brimmed hat but a paternalistic cowboy I am not.   I come from an artistic background and my desire to wear a wide brimmed hat has everything to do with being practical for the type of work I do; waterproof, sweat soaking (wool hat), sun shading, warm in winter, cool in summer, shielding eye contact from nervous horses etc.   Donning a wide brimmed hat has nothing to do with trying to be a dominance loving cowboy wannabe!

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A patronising cowboy I am not, despite my love of wide brimmed hats.  Ladies (and gents) you are SAFE here.  PHOTO:  http://www.fedupfred.com

As I write this I am smiling and laughing a little to myself!   Sometimes I have found myself putting on a baseball cap when meeting a certain type of client… because I guessed they would likely not trust me if showed up in my favourite wide brimmed hat!  They label a baseball cap and jodhpur wearing horseman as ‘one of us’, and a wide brimmed hat and wrangler wearing horseman as ‘one of them’, or the reverse, depending on what kind of stable you’re walking into; Classical versus Western, Dressage versus Recreational.    All that ‘Us versus Them’ costume analysis is rather boring and irrational.  I wish people were less shallow about surface symbolism and identity bias… but alas, we live in a world where costume is an everyday fact of life.  We all put on clothes in the morning and whether we like it or not the clothes we choose are a statement about our attitudes and practise.  Sometimes even I must follow unwritten social rules!

Leadership has NOTHING to do with dominance.  Dominance is a word I have never used with a client or in regards to a horse, because I don’t have to.  I never have to dominate the horse.  The horse never feels the need to dominate me.  Dominance, I feel is a form of aggression, impatience in communication and of dark fear, it has no place in hopeful horse training.

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Dominance is a abusive form of false leadership.  PHOTO: onelordonebody.com

So… do we even NEED leadership in horse training?  My short answer is, yes.  The long answer is, yes… but how?

The Three Modalities of Leadership is a concept in horse training I borrowed from a certain school of thought in regards to child rearing.  There may be some who don’t agree with me and that is absolutely fine.  I am not trying to convince or convert anybody.  I am presenting a point of view.

Each Modality of Leadership corresponds to three highly generalised states of behaviour and emotional display in horses.  In many cases individual variances absolutely will apply.

For the same horse, at different points in its life, the leadership he/she needs will look, feel and function differently.  Being able to give the horse the TYPE of leadership they need at the right moment, is a really important skill to master.  Get it right, and you have flow and easy development.  Get it wrong and you will come up against some trouble.

THE THREE MODALITIES OF LEADERSHIP IN HORSEMANSHIP 

THE GENERAL
This state of leadership can be easily misunderstood.  If your horse needs ‘The General’ I am not advocating for you to become an overblown Hollywood Cinematic General in some shoot-em-up action film, screaming at his soldiers and barking violent orders.  NO!

The General does NOT use dominance.  Not the Good General.  He doesn’t have to!  The Good General walks into the room and it is instantly understood by everyone that this person does not need dominance, because he has no fear, he is effortlessly understood and has the ability to create clear boundaries without violence.

Boundaries are essential.  Not only for simple safety, but to establish all basic communication parameters for both horse and the human.  We need to understand each other.  If we don’t have a common ground, how can understanding occur?

Just like with children -especially young children- if you never set a boundary, teach them the meaning of YES and the meaning of NO, the child eventually becomes spoilt and miserable because they have no idea what is expected of them!

Same rule applies with horsemanship, in my opinion.  Without being abusive, we can set clear boundaries for the horse.  They need to know non-violent, non-abusive forms of discipline in their life.   A life without non-abusive discipline is disorienting and confusing.   Even ‘passive discipline’ such as ignoring bad behaviour and rewarding the good, is still a form of discipline!
I use the word Discipline here with a NEW understanding… it is not about obeying commands or punishment.  It’s about knowing the difference between right and wrong.  It is the mutual dedication to horsemanship, the mutual dedication the human and horse have towards their time spent together.  Honouring each other and giving BOTH parties, the horse AND the human access to safety, understanding and communication.   Discipline is a clear two way street.
Confusion from a lack of boundaries can lead to all kinds of awful things, from panic and anxiety, to aggression, to the worse thing of all… indifference.

If you are able to be The Good General and say NO to a horse, then your YES becomes so much more meaningful.  Being the ‘Good General’, you teach the horse basic life skills for their interactions with people.  Like how to be an easy horse to handle so they can have an easier life with or without you.

Horses who never had a Good General, who lack basic life skills and basic education, can become spoilt and unmanageable.  A spoilt horse is not a happier horse!  An absence of boundaries is not a kindness, it is a cruelty to the horse through neglecting  your horsemanship responsibilities.  Nobody enjoys saying NO to a horse.  But sometimes tough love is true love, and accommodating a horse who is choosing behaviour that is non-productive is not being kind and loving towards that horse.  This is a subject too many Positive Trainers are absolutely afraid to talk about, lest they be labelled a dominance loving (hat wearing) cowboy (or girl).

For example; would it be appropriate to teach a child about Classic English Literature before they have mastered the alphabet and children’s books first?  With horses, I have found it is inappropriate to teach them dressage elements before they understand LIFE basics first, both in ground handling and in their first steps under saddle.  I have seen horses who know Spanish Walk, or lateral leg yields but struggle to understand transitions from stop to walk, or stop in general and have absolutely no concept of ‘Stand still’.  This is a horse who needs a Good General!

Simplicity before Sophistication.   The Good General teaches these basics, with kindness, with absolute and simplistic language and with clearly defined borders of acceptable and not acceptable choices and behaviour.

THE GARDENER
To be a leader in the form of The Gardener is a bit more fun to talk about, because it is one step up from The General.

The second Modality of Leadership, The Gardener, applies to a horse whom has had a solid education in basic life skills: they can be caught and haltered, can be lead safely without force or fear, they stand nicely and calmly to be groomed and cared for, they accept all basic horse management practises, from vet and farrier visits to understanding the purpose of fences and gates and trailers and saddles and bridles.  This horse can also be safely and calmly tacked, and ridden around through most basics, essentially forwards, backwards, turning and standing, safely but without much quality yet.   This horse might not be very sophisticated right now, they may not be highly educated, but they are a good citizen.  More times than not, they are well behaved and calm with their emotions.  It is now appropriate to be a Leader for this horse in the form of The Gardener.

The Gardener teaches the horse the ways of the world.  They say to the horse;
‘Come here, let me show you something.  If you take this element, and do right by it and plant it.  Provide the right conditions, and wait, it will grow for you.  Once it grows you may harvest the bounty and use that bounty to built yourself up, and feed your future!’

This is a time of growth, of learning, of curiosity.  It is a time to teach the horse not only tools for their toolbox, but to teach the horse how to make their OWN tools… if you understand my meaning.  This is the process of learning how to learn.  It is a fertile time of discovery.

The Gardener still says to the horse basics such as ‘This is Yes and this is No‘ but sophistication is slowly introduced.  Sophistication means you can put conditions on a boundary.  For the first time you can say to the horse, Yes there is a boundary here, but we can make an exception in certain circumstances and move the boundary if we need to, so that we may grow!

For example; If a green and untrained horse nuzzles you vigorously, rubs you with their nose perhaps quite strongly,  pushing you off balance, or perhaps makes an exploratory bite at your clothes or skin, as The General we may say to them -without violence- No.  That is enough.  Don’t try that now.
The same situation, but this time not a green horse, but a horse who has had excellent basic life skills training.  This horse is a good citizen.  They understand yes and no.  If this horse comes to you, and puts their head on your shoulder, even vigorously, or wants to play with your clothes, and they do it nicely, we may smile as The Gardner and say to our horse, ‘Normally this is a boundary where I would say NO, but I see you are well behaved, you are being kind and gentle… so we may laugh and play and enjoy each other here.  I can make an exception IF THE CIRCUMSTANCES ARE RIGHT.’  Similar behaviour: nosy and playful horse, two totally different leadership needs!  Being able to distinguish the difference is a skill that comes only through observation, experience and a lot of gut instinct.

In the above example, if you behaved as The Gardner to a horse who needed The General you are essentially placing an unfair burden of responsibility on the shoulder of a green horse which was NOT their responsibility but yours.  Many horses cannot abide by sophisticated and flexible rules if clear ones have not yet been fully digested or understood.

The Gardener is a leader that really does so much for the horse.  They bring them through all the middle levels of education.  It is the trainer I miss the most in the Horse Industry these days!  We see plenty of Generals, and plenty of ‘Guides’ (the next level) and not enough Gardeners!  Many want to try and dominate, control and manipulate the horse (General).  Just as many want to pick ONLY the ripe fruit, the most fragrant flower, wanting to ignore the dirty parts and have ONLY elegance and beauty and sophistication (Guide).   Very few are willing or able to get on their knees in the dirt and BE WITH THE HORSE as they learn how to learn, how to grow and how to succeed.

THE GUIDE
This last state of leadership is almost everybody’s favourite.  As The Guide we have passed far beyond the early days of creating boundaries and establishing common ground.  We have progressed through learning how to learn and understand growth mindset, understanding how to be patient and follow the process.  As The Guide, the trainer has earned the ability and privilege to step back!  To step out of the horses way, and allow them to perform the job, the movement and the work you have so carefully dedicated thousands of hours to show them.

As The Guide in Horsemanship leadership, we show the way, and then let them do it unmolested.  If the horse asks us questions -and they will ask questions because questions are essential to growth and The Gardener has already shown the horse how to grow-, we answer them.  We do not then perform the answers FOR them, we allow them to figure it out.

The educated student knows how to implement the answers by themselves.  The Horse has learned AUTONOMY, by the time they need The Guide.  Autonomy means ‘self-government’.  The Autonomous Horse absolutely does not require The General.  To be a General to an autonomous horse… even the Good General… is rude and offensive to an Autonomous Horse.   It is inappropriate to show clear boundaries to an Autonomous Horse because they ALREADY KNOW THEM.  No drill sergeant is needed here, not even a kind and effective one.  No.
The Guide has to step in very little, and only at the most critical and tricky moments.  A very good Guide knows exactly when to step in and when to step back and allow the horse his/her space.

Perhaps those of you who have stayed with me to read this far in (and well done for that and thank you, not a small task as this is not a small read!) can remember a horse in your past that was so good you only had to point in the general direction of a known activity and they calmly and excellently did the rest themselves.  You stayed with them to enjoy the journey and the ride.  You were by no means a dumb passenger, because this horse is not indifferent or broken!  Yes, this horse feels alive, vital and energised!  But at the same time you are soaking in this horses confidence, experience and vast knowledge of their life with Horsemanship.  This horse has been beautifully educated and is still able to receive instruction and be educated further still… no horse is ever finished in their training, the training merely changes Modalities.  The difference between the horse who needs The Guide and the horse who needed The Gardener is that the horse you merely guide knows already how to learn!  They understand their place in the world and have comfort and security with their humans.

It is always an exciting time with a horse when you feel their needs change and you realise it is time to introduce a new Modality of Leadership to them.  I am always on the watch with horses to upgrade their Leadership and only go backwards if I really must, if I discovered a hole in the training and must go back and patch it up.

Watch a horse who needs The Guide be ridden by The General and you will watch something uncomfortable and ugly.  Watch the horse who needs The General ridden by The General and you will see flow and harmony and understanding!   Often a horse can display In-between States where all three modalities of Leadership are required by the trainer even in the same training period!  This horse is in a state of revolution and growth and will often switch between testing of boundaries one minute, to confusion of the a new idea the next, to performing effortlessly known tasks, sometimes even in the same minute.  It really depends on the individual!  It depends on how expressive they are, their character and their background.

I have said it before, but I say it again, working with horses requires a flexible mind and ability to adjust in a micro-second, without fear of making a mistake.   We need to be able to make a confident judgement call about what the horse needs, moment to moment, and provide accordingly.

Leadership is about meeting the needs of those who need you.  It is not about control or manipulation.

One day I wish you all the pleasure of riding a fine horse whom has come through all Three Modalities with you, The General, The Gardner and the Guide,  as you enjoy the thrill of being merely their humble companion going forwards together.

Not sure where your horse sits on the Three Modalities of Leadership?  I have developed unique training methods designed to address exactly this issue.  Contact me to arrange a private consultation. 🙂

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!

Trust

trust
/trʌst/
noun
1.
firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.

It is so important to me.  Without trust, there is nothing.  Nothing can be done, nothing can be achieved.  Nothing can be risked or changed or grown without trust.

If you want to work with a horse, you have to earn their trust.  Some horses are more trusting than others.   Some horses, may never trust a human fully, if they had enough reason to see people as un-trustworthy.

I work very hard to earn a horses trust.  I cannot begin to count the hours it takes to earn it, nor the hours it takes to maintain it, but let me make a rough try at it.

Let me use Sanson as an example.  I have known him for 6 years but owned him for two.
In the two years I have owned him on average I visited him between 4-6 days a week.  let us say I visited 4 days a week to be conservative on average.  When I am at the stable, I do not simply pull him from paddock, tack, ride one hour then leave.  I spend as much time as I can.  On average about 3-6 hours.  let us stay with 3 as a conservative average.

3 hours, 4 days a week.  52 weeks in a year.  Times by two, thats 104 weeks.  Let us take out about 6 weeks for holidays and sick days, again as a conservative average. 98 weeks.

3 x 4 = 12.

12 x 98 = 1176.

One thousand, one hundred and seventy six hours as a conservative minimum I have spent with my horse just in the last two years.  It is most likely more than that.    That is about 49 entire days spent purely with him.

In my mind, it is not enough.

It takes thousands and thousands of hours to gain the full trust of a horse.  There is no half stepping, no short cuts and no special trick to get it faster.  Sanson trust me pretty well, but still, I can see room for improvement.

What you can accomplish or not, with the horse is in direct relationship to the amount that horse trusts you.

I believe trust is more important than techniques or methods of training.  If techniques are so important, how come that you can have two people, with the same horse, on the same day, doing the same technique and getting totally different results?  One may argue that one person performs the technique objectively better than the other.  But I have boiled down certain techniques until they are so basic in their mechanics that anybody can perform them correctly… and yet I can get one response from the horse and someone else gets another.

This element is the thing that most interests me in horses.  That ‘thing’ that goes being what we can see, hear and touch and moves into the metaphysical.

We can call that many things but I believe TRUST is its foundation.

The horse has to trust you, that what you are asking is true, helpful and good.

And the person has to trust the horse that they will make it.

For me personally, it takes me a long time to fully trust another person.  And another person can easily destroy the trust they earned with me.  I wish I could be more forgiving and more trusting but unfortunately, too often people have given me reasons to the contrary.  If I know you, and you have said one thing to me and another thing about me to someone else, and I find out, I put a strike through your name until further notice.  Should I be more easy going?  Probably?  Do I have good reasons to have strong boundaries with people, yes.

When people tell or show you who they are… BELIEVE THEM.  Believe them the FIRST time.  Do not wait until the betrayal happens the fifth, sixth or seventh time.

So when I meet a horse who has a problem trusting me, a problem acquiecing to a simple request because they just do not believe I am taking them somewhere they can manage… I understand.  I understand how hard it can be to let go of your boundaries you built to protect yourself.

I also understand how good it feels when you find someone you can trust, someone who you know has got your back and how much more generous you feel about them, how much more willing you can be for them.

Please ask yourself, how willing is your horse for you?

 

Will your horse go somewhere they are not confident about, but will go there anyway, because they trust you when you say, ‘You can do it!’

 

Spirit

Check out any kitschy or cliché horse movies or children’s television shows and the word spirit will appear regularly.   Prior to employment of this word the horse in question will have done something extreme, such as a rear, or a strike, a buck or a kick and is often accompanied but those cheap, canned neighing sound effects.

“He is high-spirited!”  Wrote a scriptwriter who may or may not understand the horse.
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It is a word people tend to shy away from as we get older.  As our abilities with horses progress we become focused on technique, upon our training and discipline.  We consider the method we choose to apply and the horse becomes the catalyst for the method we chose on their behalf.  Words like spirit, have no place in such a grown up reality.  It is far too ‘Woo’ and naive in its genesis.  By the way, what we used to call ‘high-spirits’ we now have a slew of smarter words for, thanks to our education.  What we once called the spirit of the horse we now can categorise in a variety of different ways, the vernacular will depend largely upon your discipline of riding, your country and your culture.

You may think this is all just semantics.  But I believed Maya Angelou when she said,

Words are things.  I am convinced.  One day scientists will be able to measure the power of words.  You must be careful of the words you use.  Because they will get into your wallpaper, your upholstery, your clothes and eventually into you!”

maya+angelou.jpg

The words we use, both our internal monologue and those we are brave enough to speak out loud, are an accurate reflection not only of our expectations, but of what results we will get.  If you call a horse crazy, that is what you will get.  If you call a horse stupid, that is what you will get.

For me, spirit has a deep meaning with horses.  I am not a religious person but I do consider myself spiritual.  Horses are like a spiritual practise for me.  When I work with them or spend time with them, I find myself entering this expansive, timeless awareness where everything is both quieter and more amplified at the same time.  Working with them I am able to meet with my authentic self.  This ‘self’ is the one that is devoid of ego, anxiety or conscious thought.  Through being with horses I am able to shed the spirital cloak that this life has burdened me with and I am able to become myself in the purist sense.  This maybe be an uncomfortable overshare for some people.  But generosity is the seed of connection and I am trying to send this energy out there into the world… and hope it connects with others like me.

With horses, I enter an almost medative state.  Which is why I so much prefer riding alone and being with horses in the absense of other people (for now).  My words come slow to me because verbal communication pales in comparison to the whole body communicative experience that is horsemanship.  Words absolutely fail to encapsulate the minutiae of what can pass between a horse and a human if you shut up long enough to allow it.  A whole essays worth of meaning can pass between the human and his horse in the matter of a few seconds.  Whether or not you can pay attention to that and apply meaning to it, is your responsibility.
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I am not afraid to say that a horse has a spirit, in a spiritual sense, just like a human does.  I believe that it is not only possible to use the metaphysical world in horsemanship, but I believe it is the key difference between quality results and results that are purely mechanical.  Mechanical results with horses lack a special quality that becomes more than the purely tangible but the artistic and interpretative.  The top horsemen and women of today, I believe understand this… whether they are at liberty to admit it or not, is another matter.

Say to a sceptic that your horsemanship has a spiritual significance and function, and you will lose clients faster than the horse flies of August find fresh stable scrapings.  But you may also encourage others who feel the same to come out of the woodwork.

Indeed traditional ‘horse breaking’ is intended to do just this.  To break the spirit of a horse.  I know what this feels like.  I had a ballet teacher who openly admitted to me when I began training with him that, and I quote verbatim;

“I need to BREAK you.” 

As he said this he mimed cracking a stick over his knee.  He was tall, black haired, eagle nosed, very German, with dark brown eyes that in reality were black.  I will never forget the chilling way he lowered his gaze and held my eyes unblinkingly as he said this, a sinister smile spreading across his square features.
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He then embarked on a 10 month mission, from 9am to 12 noon, six days a week, to break my spirit.  In hindsight, though this treatment gave me superior mechanical function which allowed me to find professional work as a classical ballet dancer, he didn’t break my spirit but he did mortally wound my love for ballet.  He training also broke bones in my feet that required surgury to fix and nearly ruptured the tendons of my knees had I not insisted on sick leave.

Before this ballet was like horses are to me today.  The center of my universe.  It was the first thing I thought about in the morning.  And the last thing on my mind when I went to sleep.  After that year with this teacher, that love never returned.  I do not hold resentment to my teacher for this.  Quite the opposite.  I believe he is in his heart a good man, but he was teaching me the only way he knew how.  Through dominance, aggression, spiritual and mental warfare and intimidation.

There is a ‘new school’ of horse training which I believe has the same effect on horses, although the methods are totally different.  Both result in a horse who is disconnected from their spirit, and by spirit I mean their innate character, purpose, energy and expression which was their birthright.  Not all abuse is obvious.  And sometimes I respect more a trainer who is ‘ugly’ than the other type I am about to describe.  Because at least the ‘ugly’ trainer is open about what they are doing, one can clearly identify them and easily avoid them.  The other is far more insidious and far more dangerous.
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I speak of the manipulative trainer.  The wolf in sheep’s clothing.  This person is experienced, educated, well spoken and highly recommended.  This person has a loyal following.  A following of people almost cultish in their devotion.  This trainer, when you watch them, will rarely be seen as being openly violent.  But I do believe they are being emotionally violent to the horse.  The abuse is invisible, long term and very real.

What is worse, the slap on the face, or the person who manipulates you over time to slap your own face, as they watch? 

Such a person will tolerate and accept the horse only through a certain prism of behaviours and expressions.  If the horse deviates even slightly from these accepted formulae then the retribution is subtle, swift and finite.  The horse learns that he can only have peace and acceptance if he shows the human only one side of himself.  He must hide his authentic power, potential, thoughts, opinions and energy from the human.  Because that human wants to see only the pretty, the (bio)mechanically ‘correct’, the easy to witness emotional states and the parts of the horse that make them feel safe, secure and successful.  Spirit?  What is this now but a long forgotten memory of innocence?

If he is ‘calm’, ‘obedient’ or ‘correct’… the trainer gives carrots, praise and encouragement.  If the horse shows something equally important to the horses development, such as anxiety, fear, or rage, they get a smack with a stick, a slap, a firm NO.  NO, do NOT show me that.  I don’t want to see it.  Sometimes these difficult emotions scare that trainer or human so much that their embark on a journey of horsemanship where they NEVER even encounter such states in a horse.  But these are the same horses that are ‘perfect’ most of the time, and then abandon their rider when the rider needs them most.  They are the same horses who take the human to a certain level and then fail to reach their utmost potential.  These are the horses who eventually need coercion to progress rather than communication.

I have witnessed the effects this has on a horse and it feels like riding concrete.  The horse has ONE GEAR.  One mode of expression and energy.  It is like driving a car that has first and maybe second gear and that is ALL.  The same horse actually NEEDS a stick to get going.  The horse learned that if they showed the human their TRUE energetic potential or SPIRIT that they would be manipulated and disciplined back inside a box which allowed this trainer to feel safe and successful.
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This is not my modus operandi.  I welcome ALL forms of expression from the horse.  I am the same when I work with people.  Dancers who have worked with me on a choreography can attest, that I fully welcomed that dancer if they became frustrated, angry or annoyed either with me or with themselves.  If their ‘difficult’ emotion was directed at me, it was valuable information for me to properly understand the needs of this soul, and therefore provide for them authentically going forwards.  If the difficult emotional was about that souls unhappiness in themselves, I knew that I was likely the only safe place they could find to express this, without being alone.
IMG_3283The result was ALWAYS a dancer/horse who was more willing to be GENEROUS and TRUE with me.  More willing to be creative.  Keeping the door open for ALL expressions, though made my life more difficult in certain moments, always gave a better quality of rapport, and results later.

The manipulative trainer, no matter how nice they appear on the surface has a deep mistrust, loathing and confusion for creativity.  They do not want surprises.  They do not want to be confronted by reality.  They only want the nice things, the pretty things, the things which feed their ego and percieved sense of success.

Have you ever sat on a horse who was never openly abused, but who you felt to be ‘lazy’, without energy or without the willingness to contribute with the human?  These horses seem ‘far away’.   I have counted to this date three sticks per horse sometimes.  One for ‘each shoulder’ of the horse apparently, held by the rider and one lunging ‘aid’ held by said trainer.  All three sticks apparently necessary tools to get the horse to simply trot in balance.
animals-little_fat_ponies-little_fat_pony-pony-horse-riding_lesson-nthn114_low.jpg  I have never found a stick to be a long-term training need or solution.  If I used them it has been for safety or for development of my energy and were always thrown into the mud at the soonest possible moment.  If you have to hit your horse with a stick to get simple transitions, or worse merely hold the stick as an open threat to obtain basic communication with a horse then there has been a serious misunderstanding somewhere.  You call the horse lazy?  Maybe the amount of effort and work it takes to understand that horses energetic needs is too much for you, and it is much more expedient to use a stick.  How lazy of you.

There are no shortcuts to equestrian excellence.  In this sense I am old school believe in time, persistence, courage and patience.

A horse with a broken spirit is not always the sad drooping creature in a kill pen.  Or the shaking and abused creature you ‘saved’ from previous owner.  Sometimes these creatures can have their spirits taken away slowly, peicemeal soul crushing.  Overseen and encouraged by manipulative owners and trainers, who are more concerned with how there are perceived by others, than they are about their horses deep inner world.

I belive this so fully that I am willing to admit that it is highly possible I have slid into this pitfall myself at times. I am humble enough to admit that.  I am aware enough to BE AWARE of this potential that all of us have.  I have a contract with myself to be aware of this potential at all times and through this awareness make hundreds of tiny choices that avoid this reality.

If a horse shows me their ‘spirit’, I never feel afraid or worried about this.  No matter how hard it can be to witness.  So long as the boundaries for the horse and human are safe, and we are both physically protected, I allow all modalities of expression in the horse.  How else would it be possible to obtain the WHOLENESS of the horses trust, love and partnership?

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