Protection

This might become a bit personal.  This is a topic that I wish I understood less intimately. When it comes to self-protection, I have TOO MUCH life experience for my age.  Considering I was not born in a third world country, but into the middle class of a first world country, and have travelled the world living my dream there is a very clearly defined flip side to that shiny coin, and I all too infrequently talk about it.

I won’t write home about the dark stuff.  Unless I really need help.  Objectively people see me following my passions and that is true, but they are not in the trenches.  They have not been there for the battles.  And they did not see how much grit it takes to try and forge a life in another country on your own terms, and not someone elses.

I have been exposed to too many situations which have aroused my survival instinct into overdrive.  This has given me a highly developed, over sensitive ability to protect myself when I need to.  But it also makes me highly reactive.

Since leaving the dance world last year I have been doing my best to lay low.  I have been going out of the house only for work and rarely just for pleasure and reduced my contact with people down to the bare essentials, only the nearest and dearest.  I say frequently that my life at this time is my man, my horse, my pets my home and my business… that is all.  No parties, no holidays.    I do just enough to bring money in the door, to keep a roof over my head, food in my fridge, taxes paid and gas in the car.

I am not trying to be famous.  Let me say that again for those who need repition to take me seriously, I am NOT trying to be famous.  I am not trying to be a superstar.  I am trying to be myself and live my life to the fullest, and to help people who ask me for it.  I am trying to develop my talents into a craft and make a living doing it.  I would do it for free if that was possible without becoming homeless.  But just like everyone I gotta eat.  And part of this means putting myself out there.  Some reading this might not believe me, and that is fine.  To some people, the fact that I have a website with photos of me and my horse all over it, is enough for them to say,

“Look at his ego!  He must want to be some kind of big shot.  Look, he is wearing a cowboy hat.   He is living a fantasy”

If someone had asked me two years ago that I would have a website with MY photo all over it, on Sanson with blogs, and I was wearing jeans and a cowboy hat I would have been the first to say ‘Bullshit’.  Ask my Mum, since I was a child I was hard to get a photo done except when I was in ‘performance mode’.  I have walked away from performance life and am rather jaded by it now.  I just follow the pull of my gut instinct.  If my gut says yes, I just do it.  It has never lead me wrong, but it has lead me to confront a few wolves in sheeps clothing.

Nobody has directly said these things to me.  Maybe because they know my response would unequivocally protect me from their shallow judgement.  Nobody HAS to say these things openly for them to affect me.  Like a horse, it is enough that they feel these things and like a radio, I can pick up their signal.  I can put it together, and already know.  The same gift of non-verbal communication which lead me into a dance career and now leads me into horses, is the same gift I can use to test my safety in an environment with people.

And lately… I am not convinced that I am totally safe.

I do not have to have someone hit me over the side of the head to know I am not welcome.  I can feel these things, sense them, deduce them.  It takes just an ounce of common sense.

I woke up this morning, heavy.  The first awareness that hit me as I opened my eyes was exhaustion.  Not a good exhaustion from my busy schedule or previous days work.  Exhaustion from where I am.

“When am I going to find a place where I can fit in and just be at peace with people? I am tired of having to explain myself to people.”

It has been a long time since I had this support group around consistently.  If I am being really honest, not since before I arrived in Poland in 2011, can I remember having a consistent group of people I could bet my next paycheck would have my back.  I had glimpses of these groups… but they were fleeting.  Being an artist is a transient life experience and the machine churns through people at a rapid rate.  Just as I would start to feel like I could trust my inner circle and someone would leave.  Or someone would betray.

So when I meet a horse who has been through several owners, several trainers, several homes, and they just do not know what to do anymore... I get it.  I totally GET it.  I look at them, rub their cheek and say I know.  People suck hey?  I am not like them.  I’ll stand by you if you let me.

I do not like the feeling of needing to protect myself.  To have duties to attend to in an environment where I feel hostility, or secrets, or unexpressed lamentations, but needing to walk through that environment, get my job done, and go home and not feel like I need a 20 minutes shower to wash the bad energy off me.  I don’t like that.  But I have been in that situation.  So what do I do?

I protect myself in a number of ways.
– Changing the frequency of communication to people.
A) Blocking out people I have a bad gut feeling about.
B) Reaching out to those I think I can trust, or wish I could trust
– Avoiding places where people congregate and stay together in groups.
-Choosing times of visitation when there are likely to be less, or even better, NO people around.
-Focusing directly onto my job or my work and not opening myself during activities.

Now, replace me with a horse.  How is this any different from a troubled horse?

We think we are so different to horses?  There is the prey-predator distinction which is well documented and should be studied and understood.  But what about the primitive brain?  The ancient mammalian brain?  All mammals share a basic primitive brain structure that is more similar than it is dissimilar, and this part of the brain is responsible for emotion.

I believe horses are complex creatures who share complex emotions with humans.  Dr. Panksepp does a great job of categorising these emotions down into easily identifiable blocks, but it would be folly to follow those ‘blocks’ as gospel when dealing with any living creature.  I have seen horses express emotions that are so complex that even I could not totally understand.  What if horses have emotional conjugations that are totally alien to a human?  What if?

I totally respect a horses desire to protect themselves.  Because I recognise my own instincts when they show theirs.

Believe me, the horse who feels the need to protect himself is not always the one who is running like crazy, high tailing it to the horizon escaping.  Protection is what you turn to when escape is not an option, and fighting is also a non-option… and yet you are not afforded the chance of absolution or healing or understanding or reconciliation, so the last resort is self-protection.

And there might be someone right under your nose who feels the need to protect himself when around you.  Two or four-legged.

Are you paying attention?

Truth

Truth can be hard.

Hard: meaning a certain amount of finality.  A total immovable and insurmountable awareness that gives you no wiggle room for something otherwise.

A hard truth, a type of honesty that cannot be manipulated, explained, excused or danced around.   Smoke and mirrors cannot distort it.  You are almost coerced into confronting it.  It is not comfortable.  But the old adage is true, the truth will set you free.

My favorite equine author and a horseman I admire greatly, Mark Rashid, has a fabulous book called ‘Horses Never Lie’.   I’ve read it several times.  Even the title, Horses Never Lie, is a hard truth.  It is a final and simple statement.  The consequences would be devastating to the dishonest, and gives wings to those who allow it to wash them clean of pretending, allow them to take a deep cleansing breath and grow and gather ability in truth!

Yet the few times when ‘non-horsey’ people asked me what I was reading, and they saw the title, their response was everything from an uncomfortable raised eyebrow followed by hasty retreat, to an unfortunate comment…

‘I bet they do.’
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I believe Mark to be telling the truth.  I think ALL horses are honest, always.   A universal truth.  I believe horses are unable to respond to anything that is not true.  Dishonesty confuses them, they have no concept of it.  How they feel is how they behave.  They never say to you one thing, and then do another.  It is something I love them for.   It is one of the reasons I and so many others, crave their company over the company of most people.  We can trust that our horses will always be honest with us.

One of my earliest lessons in horsemanship my mentors sat me down and told me,

“You cannot lie to the horse.  If you are sad or angry, but choose to slap a smile on your face, or try to pretend you are not feeling how you feel,  you  will  irritate and confuse the horse and keep them away from you.  Emotional dishonesty will cause the horse to not want to be with you, work with you or respond to you.  You do not have to be perfect, you just have to be honest. “

My experience has proven this to be true.  Without getting too personal, I have had some really dark days, when I came to my horse, or others, and he wanted nothing to do with me.  Remembering what my mentors taught me, I took a moment, sat myself down, took a breath and thought,

“What is going on with me today?  What unrecognised emotion is stirring in me today?” 

Once identified it was usually some uncomfortable truth that I was running from.  Like sadness, anger, frustration, chronic exhaustion etc.   So, I would simply bring that clearly and openly to the horse.

It should be said  at this point  that I have had these experiences with more horses than just Sanson, including some pretty awesome Polish sport horse mares many years ago.  Sanson is my horse, but he is not the ONLY honest horse.  Even those cheeky, naughty ponies at your local livery yard are being honest.

Instead of attempting to hide how I felt, I would openly admit it to the horse.  I would verbalise it if I felt safe to do so, safe meaning no people around. 

“I am feeling really broken today.  This is how I am.  I am imperfect.  I am emotionally vulnerable today.  Please be gentle and forgiving with me”. 
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The horse would always respond.  Whom moments before had turned away from me in disgust, they would sigh, blink, and calmly follow me from the paddock.  The horse who tried to exit the arena with me would stay with me no matter what I asked them to do.  The horse who would be urgent and nervous would now feel connected and manageable.

Horses do not need perfection!  They need honesty!  To be CONGRUENT.  Everything about you from the hair on your head to the tip of your toes says one, clean, clear direct message:  I am: —–.  I feel:—–.  I do:—-.  No smoke and mirrors.  No cover ups.  No distortions….

No manners.  No social graces.   No trained behavioural responses.   Just authenticity!

So I have a big problem when I see horse people who prove themselves dishonest, or who assign dishonesty onto a horse.  A common phrase my fellow horseman and sadly also myself have resorted to when we are out of our minds are:

“He is just taking the piss!”

Meaning; he-knows-what-you-want-but-is-trying-to-trick-you.  The horse is trying to lie to you.  You see it all the time in for sale adverts SUPER HONEST MARE.  SCHOOLMASTER GELDING, HONEST AND BOMBPROOF.

Well of course they are bloody honest.

If the horse knows what you asked them to do, but is not doing it, it is for a GOOD reason.

They are not ready.  Or more subtly, they would like or need more time.  A need is not yet being met.  Needs are needs and cannot be avoided and there are no short cuts.  Their nervous system is perceiving the request of the rider as a danger to their safety… like asking for a jump to high.
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Sometimes a horse CAN do something, but needs convincing that they can.  And afterwards they realise it is no big deal.  Like the first trot poles.  Some horses I have seen refuse to step over a flat trot pole.  They can do it, they need encouragement.  They need to trust the human.  They need to understand what the process is, and that everything is ok.  They are not taking the piss.  But maybe you are?

Sanson for example can often stop when being led.  Some might call this stubborn.  Baulking.  And it is to a certain extent.  But this is also part of his ‘re-starting’ I have done with him.  Sanson- as an individual really NEEDS and LIKES to process his environment very thoroughly.  He pays attention!  He pays attention to you, that shadow, that smell… that memory of that place right there.  He processes things in great detail.  I know this after paying great attention to HIM over many years.  Hundreds of thousands of hours of time spent with him, observing and analysing every inch of this horse I adore, getting to know him.

Historically, when he was led anywhere by something who was just going through the motions, someone who was not paying attention, or someone who didn’t give him time to process his environment, he would get in trouble.  He would spook instead, even to the point of running people over, once putting someone in hospital.  So, he learned that he will get rushed through things, that people with a certain ‘absent’ awareness cannot be trusted to meet his needs, and his only coping mechanism was to rush himself.

Until he met me.  I didn’t rush.  When I lead him, I had eyes in the back of my head.  Like those spooky teachers at school who knew who was acting up when their back was turned.  I would watch every step he took and either comfort him before he spooked, or set a clear boundary before he spooked.  I would say NO to him.

Me:  NO Sanson.

Sanson:  What? I am about to die I don’t have time right now….

NO.  You don’t run me over.  

But I need to so I can survive

I deserve to survive also.  Trust me, that hissing hose will not kill you today.  

How can you be so sure. 

Look at me.  Do I look like an unsure two-legged to you?  Go on.  Try and run me over.  I will show you how sure I am that you won’t. 

Hmm, I would like Plan B please. 

Walk. 

What? 

Just walk.  Follow me.  Good.  See?  You’re ok.  I got your back buddy.  But you DON’T run me over.  

I feel better now.  Thanks. 

No worries.  I will always give you time to process things, before you feel the need to spook.  Alright?
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When I got him home with me I went back to basics.  His rushing was dangerous for him and for me.  Especially now he had flat sandy trails and moderate temperatures with which to spook for longer and further with.  In the past you could just point him up the mountain until he ran out of breath.  He is large, not tall,  and yet powerful. No bit known to man can physically stop him when he panics.

I showed him that he now has time.  I will give him time.  If something bothers him, I allow him to stop.  So he does.  Instead of bolting he will now freeze.  Stand still.  Smell it.  Look at it.  Then he asks me; ‘What do I do?”.  The answer is usually, ‘Just walk’.

I had a Parelli Natural Horsemanship follower once admonish me for this, telling me what I had done with Sanson was not natural, because I had taught him that behaviour.   I smiled, said it was natural because he offers these behaviours himself (stopping when worries instead of bolting) of his own accord, without a cue from me!  I had changed his emotional response to fear.  I did not micro-manage that behaviour with a carrot-stick, clicker, or carrots.  Just plain, boring, time and honesty and life experience.  You CAN change a horses nature.  If their natural response to something does not work for them or for you, CHANGE it!  We get one life!  Why suffer more than we need to?

It can be frustrating when I am leading Sanson through the barn and he wants to stop and smell EVERY bucket, smell the newly gelded horse whom we are not supposed to allow to go nose to nose with other horses yet, or stop in front of other riders or strange lights because he is aware of the confinement and the potential for danger.  It can be annoying.

But, on the flip side, it means he is one of the best guide horses you can get.  He will ALWAYS go in front and lead the other horses.  Because he is not blundering mindlessly through his environment but pays attention to everything, he is able to go out in front and make new trails, even with more experienced horses behind him.  Especially when the human in the saddle is someone who has proven trustworthy and honest time and time again!

One of my biggest challenges with him is to get him to just relax and not worry and just go forwards in a simple way.  Which is why trail riding is one of our best ‘training’ tools.  Just relax and go forwards in a simple way.
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Another horse person might say that he is taking the piss, being crazy, or being stubborn.  No, he is being honestly himself.  The only way he knows how!

With people, I find this hard.  Let’s think of children.  How many children do we know have the habit of speaking an awkward truth at an awkward time, without perceiving how awkward adults found it?  The child doesn’t know or care about the adults social graces, the child just observes what is, and speaks the truth.

Horses are the same.  I is no secret, horses and children have a natural attraction to each other for this reason and more.  Many people as children find the company of horses easy, but when returning to horses as adults, find it harder.  What happens to us as teenagers that breaks this connection?

I believe that as teenagers, when we enter education that is centred less around play, discovery and growth, but instead on career, competition and corporation, we are taught to disconnect with our inner child.

Part of this disconnect means learning active dishonesty.  In another word we can call this active, ‘functional’, dishonesty;

PROFESSIONALISM

POLITENESS

MANNERS

CORRECTNESS

To some, professionalism requires the active participation of emotional and sometimes even factual dishonesty.  How many of us who have ever participated in customer service wanted to tell a rude client to go FUCK themselves (excuse my language but it is just a word and can also be used beautifully), but could not?  How many of us wanted to tell their supervisor that they were fucking awful, incompetent and patronising but in the name of PROFESSIONALISM could not do anything but smile, acquiesce and comply?   How many of us had to wish a customer a great day when they did nothing to deserve our kindness?

How many of us have participated in being POLITE to people who did not earn it or deserve it or who actively gave you reason to defend yourself from them?

What are MANNERS except for the denial of your inner emotional state, to allow others to feel more comfortable around you?  How is the denial of your needs in the service of others anything other than inviting abusive narcissist into our midst?

I am not advocating that we become abusive.  There is a big difference between honesty and abuse.  We can be honest without being abusive in how we communicate.  It is not difficult to do and you do not need to train in NLProgramming to do it.

I have had experiences were clients would tell me one thing, and then immediately afterwards go and do the EXACT opposite.  They did this, I guess, to appear POLITE, have good MANNERS and be CORRECT to me.  I would rather they just told me the truth and spared us all the hassle of navigating their chaos.

This is why I like horses.  If I screw up, they tell me immediately. If I am congruent, they stay connected to me.

But, and this is a big but, be VERY careful of horses that had the chance to connect with someone very honest.  In some cases, they will not tolerate your dishonesty afterwards.

I’ve seen what happens to these horse/human pairings.  Picture this: The Owner, whom myself and the horse can see is in an emotionally agitated state (Anxiety, confusion, ego and more) a painful smile on their face, behaving calmly, nicely, politely to the horse.  And their horse? Last week would just look the other way and comply but with a slight vacancy, a hollowness in their expression.   After exposure to an honest horseperson, now looks at their owner with full force and says NO!  No, human, your energy and your behaviour do NOT match.  I will NOT.  Fix yourself, and come back to me when you’re fixed! 

Sometimes those owners fix themselves.  Usually they do not.  They then return to mechanical horse training.  The root of their problems left unaddressed.

And that is a hard truth.

And I do not require anyone criticism on that statement.  🙂

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Strange

It is a word I hear a lot.

People look at my horse at a distance and think he is a normal chestnut flaxen draft horse, until they get a bit closer, look at the lines of his anatomy, the length of his hair, his movement, his character and suddenly it is clear; this is not a normal draft horse.  Their brow furrows, head tilts.

‘Strange.’  They say.
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I take my saddle, a custom treeless/flexible saddle that I am constantly altering, changing and adapting.  Put it on my horse and ride out without too much drama.

‘Strange.’ They say.

I start to move in the saddle.  My body is flexible and moves with detail and finesse after 25 years in dance.  But my legs also turn out in the saddle, because of dance.  My spine is hypermobile, and my balance can change quickly and with plasticity.   I rarely fix myself into forced positions because ‘Somebody told me so’.  I was trained as a rider with a unique movement technique my mentors called ‘Harmonious Seat’, but what it really means is that I rarely get out of balance, if I do (and it happens) I feel it right away and correct it.  I don’t bang onto my horses back, but I also don’t brace to my stirrups like an amateur endurance rider.  I even had a well known and respected trainer of rider biomechanics ask to film me in the saddle because I have never seen someone move in the saddle that way.  But this was not a compliment, this person had ulterior motives and turned out to be rather destructive for me personally and professionally.  But I have ridden all types of horses from Gypsy cob stallions, to three year old warmbloods, to 29 year old Arabians, to 10 year old PRE’s, and the horses rarely struggle to carry all 74kg of me, no matter the riding conditions.

‘Strange.’   People say anyway.
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People ask what I do with my horse.  Am I Natural?  Sport?  Jumping?  Dressage?  Recreational?  I don’t know how to answer them.  Horses are a way of life to me.  I don’t call myself or my horse purely Natural Horsemanship ‘trained’, but he wears a rope halter and yields his hindquarters from merely a glance.  I don’t call myself or my work sporty, but yesterday I rode 3 hour loop through the forrest, 1 hour 45 minutes of that at a trot, canter or gallop, across rough roads and terrain and I didn’t get tired, and my horse did not feel heavy or sluggish, nor over excited or fractious.  I don’t call myself a jumper, and would not ask my horse to jump in the arena, but we never hesitate over a fallen log.  I do not call myself a dressage enthusiast, but Sanson can make elastic slow sitting trot on a contact and head carriage, and on good days both haunches in and shoulder in, and we start a bit of Spanish Walk since the fall.  So people ask me to define myself into one box and I say, that I am both All Of It and None Of It, at the same time.

‘Strange.’  They say and walk away head shaking.
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I braid Sanson’s heavy and thick mane, to protect it from breaking, and sometimes flop it to its non-natural side and braid it in place, to slowly correct the ligament damage its weight did to his topline.  People watch and think I am a horse hairdresser, not a horseman, but I say without irony that I would rather cut it off.  Some people might never speak to me again if I did!  A critics perception has me defined as an egoist in regards to my horses looks.  Though I like him to look good, I frankly find his mane a pain in the butt, and I know both of us would be happier if I hogged it and I am considering to do this for the summer. When I braid, I never do it the same way twice.  You can find a mess of braids rarely seen in the Showing Braids Handbook.  It’s ugly, but functional.

‘Strange.’ They say, smoking a cigarette and staring me down their nose as I struggle with silicone braid bands.

I have a pretty thick skin to critisism.  Not thick like an Elephant’s is thick- born that way.  It is thick like scar tissue.  My skin is thick because, like many of us, I have had my fair share of bumps, bruises, pecks, cuts, bashings and smashings emotionally and socially.  This has done nothing to make me desensitised, but just given me a strong protective barrier around my sensitive inner thoughts and feelings.  These days it takes a lot to get me riled up.  I am very comfortable being seen as strange.  I made my bed and I happily lie in it, an Australian living in Poland is going to get looked at askance on the regular!   There is a small but merry band of people who seem to cheer me on and accept me for who I am.  An even smaller band of people who see that my uniqueness has something of value to them, and they try to learn from it occasionally.

I can no longer call myself a horse trainer.  I will not call myself a horse trainer from now on.  Why?  I would call myself a Horseman.  Horses are my life now.  I do not micromanage their behaviour by repetitive practise of techniques, though I do that as well, but through time and activity with me the horses get better.  The more time they spend around me, either doing nothing or doing something, the better they get at being themselves, and doing things for a human.  I have a repertoire of techniques I go to, but I was taught that  technique is what you go to when you are running out of inspiration.

Primarily, I am inspired by horses.    I only go to a technique when I have to, it is not my first port of call.  Most of the time the technique is irrelevant but the horses seem to understand me anyway.  Watching back videos of my training sessions from my second-hand GoPro, I can see how little I am doing externally.  Comparing this with what I FEEL in those same moments, what you see is just the tip of the iceberg, and I can understand why people feel confused when I can do something with a horse without much effort, and all the techniques and performance in the world on their part elicits a zero response from the horse.   It is not what you do, but how you feel when you do it, I try to say.  ‘Stange.’  They think.  It cannot be that simple?

The horses I was trained on, if you were not honest, if you didn’t ride them from your energy or emotional openness, they would simply stand still.  They were the perfect example of a non-mechanical horse, and they rejected mechanical riders.  In the same day they rejected a mechanical rider, with a rider who had trained emotions and was energetically available to the horse, they could gallop from a standstill, and trot loose and slow without a bridle or reins.
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Buck Brannaman is an inspiration to me.   His daughter Reata is also phenomenal.  They come from a practical heritage of Horseman who did a job all day, everyday with a horse, rather than riding them for an hour in a riding arena in spare time.  I have never seen somebody ride so beautifully or get such movement poetry out of a horse under saddle before.  He did this quickly and without emotional trouble from the horse.  I hope to have enough money to see him in the UK again this summer, but that might be a hard call.  He said something at that clinic years ago I will never forget.

“HORSES DON’T LIKE HORSE TRAINERS.  IT IS DEMEANING TO THEM.  TRY TO WORK WITH  YOUR HORSE.  TRY TO GET THEM WITH YOU.  ASPIRE TO BE A HORSEMAN”
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Until now I used the word trainer, not for my benefit, but because it enabled other people to catagorise me, so that can understand who I am in a simplistic way.  I allowed them to make a definition of me that did not feel true to who I was.  They then decided if I am valuable or not.  I can now see this was my mistake!  I mislabelled myself, so that others could use me or have a limited understanding of me.  I should therefore not be surprised when I get USED or MISUNDERSTOOD.  This is a pathology I brought with me from my previous career.  I was a tool that other artists were able to use, and sometimes abuse, and define on their terms, not mine.  I think I am healed of that now.

So if you want to go ahead and call me ‘Strange’, you are welcome to.  Because I might be watching you carefully, and judging your approach as much as you’re judging mine… or not.  Who knows.

Call me strange if you want.  But maybe to your horse, my type of strange might not be a bad thing. 32739223_10155180243442000_5867624388097998848_n

Winter

Winter is tricky.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just clickbait Facebook scrolling fodder, it is real.  Winter is SAD.

Here in north eastern Europe, the realities of winter are particularly gruesome.  Global warming seems to be slowly denying Poles the harsh winters of yesteryear.  If we get days of below -10 they do not seem to last for very long.  Whereas in decades past, it was acceptable to have week in week out -20 or similar.

This has not really made a horse life easier.   Yes; it might be a bit warmer, but it is also a lot wetter.  The good thing about snow is that things are sort of ‘dry’, and the ground is firm.  One can ride out in snow without too many problems.

Mud.  It is hard to describe how much I hate mud.  I really, really hate it.  When I get my hands on my own bit of land, I do not care how much work or money it takes, I will eliminate mud at least from all major traffic or standing zones for the horses and the people.   I don’t expect to eliminate it entirely, especially on small parcels of land.  But mitigating its presence on all functional spaces is a serious priority for me, I don’t care how many tonnes of pea gravel that takes!

Mud comes when the ground is degraded to the point that it loses its ability to control water content and hold itself together.  Some area’s of ground will deal with water better than others, but all ground, if subjected to enough stress, will eventually succumb to mud.  Just like the earth, some people stand up to winter better and some stand up to it worse.

And it is now February, which is officially the hardest month to get through, in my opinion.  And I almost immediately noticed the changes.

People are heavier.  People are sadder.  Just like the ground after heavy rain and trampling, horse people in particular are up against it and their energies can get muddy.  In working with horses you must inevitably work with people, and I have noticed the change.  A lot like mud, if you don’t want to get beaten down and succumb to the sadness of winter, you got to be smart and avoid situations and predicaments which expose you to harsh conditions.  If that means going to the stable earlier or later than you would like, so be it.  If it means not going to stable at all, so long as your horse is taken care of, so be it.  If that means saying no to things you used to say yes to and vise versa, so be it.  Self care is the priority.

People are heavy with the darkness, the gloom, the hard conditions, short days and long nights.  Our body clocks are screaming at us to hide, hole up and hibernate, but our rising bills and expense recovery from Christmas holidays forces us out into the world, into traffic and heavily air conditioned work places.  It only serves to put people on edge, and feel a base line of stress and trouble.  Our immune systems are in constant assault from the elements and increased contact with pathogens from confined spaces.  The world is a smaller, darker, harder place.   The horses too.  So many of them are frustrated.  They are out in these hellish conditions all day, or cooped up and deprived of stimulus when not.  The horses get frustrated too.

I have had it easier than some.  I was born in a sunny country and although Melbourne winters can be cold, it is nothing like this, which is like Melbourne winter gloom on steriods, after an espresso.  It is rather shocking and powerful. Still, I find this time of the year very tricky.  Every February, when my head is swirling with winter chaos, I look up at the clouds and say to myself… ‘It is February’, just to remind myself to not take how I feel right now too seriously.   It is so hard to lose oneself in the quagmire of winter.

But if I compare how I feel now, to how I felt last winter, I am really grateful with the difference.  So far, I am much happier, healthier and finding it better to get from day to day.  I am not without troubles or stresses, but unexpected trouble in my environment doesn’t send me into a tail spin very much, if at all.  I know I am burnt out when I lose the ability to roll with the punches.  And if you choose to be an Australian living in Poland running an equestrian business with a niche ethos and unique placement, you can be very confident that the punches will come thick and fast, especially in the winter.  But so far, I am rolling with them.  If something unpleasant shows up, after that first moment of ‘Oh god why?’, I am very quickly getting to a place of ‘Thank you’.  I smile and ask myself, ‘What is this here to teach me?’.

As always, I let my horse be my safe place.  Being with him and working with him brings me such joy.  His name could not be any better, Sanson, an old Spanish name meaning Son of the Sun.  He is like my little fluffy, fatty portable Spanish sunset.  Beautiful and confronting and grand and warming and reminding you to be grateful and happy and present and positive.  It is the sun I miss most, and the blue sky.  I hate the mud most and miss the sun most.  Today, driving through the bleak colourless forest, I saw the outline of the sun through a haze of cloud, and a little bit higher up, a few wispy streaks of pale, watery blue.  It was enough to make me smile.  I missed it.

Staying positive.  It is something you gotta work at.  It is a full time job, staying Winter Positive.  It would be so much easier, to get drawn into the chaos and let it take you over.  Even if it means being an island in a tempest, you have got to stay positive.

I am seeing too much of it.  People who are good, kind and loving souls, who have succumbed to the heaviness of the season.  Usually walking into things bright eyed and bushy tailed, they now walk with head bowed and have sadness behind their eyes.  It is sad.  Others might seem to be coping well, but then make a blunder out of character, something thoughtless or stupid, simply from not being all together with it.  Under the normal set of circumstances, the locals here will be with these winters for the rest of their lifetime, and nobody has discovered a system, yet, to fight this or beat it?  Some type of social awareness campaign to mitigate the damage and keep people going through these hard times, until spring comes?

I have to get a running start at winter.  Otherwise I am just a mess.  I have to let myself rest when I need it but be able to distinguish rest from hibernation and snap myself out of it.  I gotta remember sunnier times, good moments and hunt for people who feel the same!

It can be chaotic.  Imagine a busy stable in winter during ‘peak’ hour.  Throw in conflicting training ideals, a couple of sick horses, over worked and understaffed managers and more than a large language barrier, you can imagine the type of situations I come across.  But in all moments I am trying to remember what I am doing this for.  Sanson; Son of the sun, my southern horse with the sun in his bones, come hell or high water or MUD, I am doing all of this for him.  Because in order to help Sanson I have to help myself first.  And for that I am endlessly grateful.

Block

Fear.  Ego.  Dishonesty.

These are the three elements that I believe are the biggest obstacles all horse people need to overcome.  These three things, will always serve to keep the horse away from you.    I believe these three elements are universal and apply to almost every aspect, style and technique of horse handling and training.  And if they are active within you, they will become blockages.

These blockages will show up in many ways.  It can be lack of improvement or perceived progression.  It show up as a lack of consistency with your horse; they are calm and responsive one day, nervous and reactive the next.  It can even be more insidious and subtle… such as, the horse doing everything their handler or rider asks of them, but there is a constant wringing and swishing of the tail, a hardness or worry around the eye, or an overall expression of tightness, concern, confusion or frustration.

I believe that if an aspiring horseman are able to overcome these three destructive elements, it will unlock their true potential and a new wave of flow and learning and development!  Like pipes that once unblocked can flow pure and clear, or a dam that once destroyed allows the river to flow again, if you can set aside these three destructive elements in your Horse Life, then no matter WHAT method, technique or style you set out to learn, the horses you meet will have a much better chance of responding to you positively, and you will have better chances at success… no matter what success is to you!

FEAR
I have discussed it before in my blog ‘SHAKE’.  It can be like an animal, a monster and it can be totally overpowering.  All horse people have felt fear around horses and if they tell you they have never been afraid of a horse… they are lying!  Horses are large and powerful creatures and especially at the start of ones journey with them, they can be confusing, and confusion is a twin sister of fear.
Fear can also display as anxiety.  Anxiety is not necessarily fear of what is happening right now, but the fear of what COULD happen, sooner or later.  Both horses and humans can feel anxiety.  It shows up a great deal in traumatised horses and traumatised people.  Coincidently, traumatised people can sometimes be attracted to traumatised horses for this reason!  As they seek a path of healing, if they do not have the right guidance and support then they can end up with a rodeo and disaster!   An anxious horse plus an anxious human will result in either true and powerful healing, or compounding of fear, as the horse and human find that their anxiety has sufficient grounds to exist… as eventually the horse will scare the human or vice versa and …’Ha!  SEE!  I told you there was good reason to be anxious!’.
None the less, fear is something that will do nothing but block you, if you allow it time to grow.
If you think fear is part of your horse life, do not ignore it.  You actually have to recognise it and own it.  When a client of mine looks like they just experienced active fear I will always ask them,
“Are you scared?  Did that scare you?’
Usually they will answer ‘No.”  Which 9/10 is dishonesty, which is another Element of Blocking that is not productive.  I will always then say;
“Are you sure?  Tell me the truth.  Did that scare you?”
“Actually, yes, a little.”
“Good.  Repeat after me.  ‘That scared me.  -Horses name- I am scared now.  Please be gentle with me”.
By actively owning up to your fear you abolish the power of both fear and dishonesty and what it is doing to you.  Fear likes the darkness, it loves secrecy and lies.  Drag it out in the open, identify it.  And use it to your advantage.
How do you ‘use’ fear?  Summoning up bravery!  It really is that simple.  Take a breathe.  Acknowledge the fear.  And then try that thing anyhow.  Be brave!

EGO
This is probably the least discussed and my most disliked of the Elements of Blocking. It is everywhere.   In every stable.  Every method and approach and technique and school of horsemanship, there will be Ego.  Now, I am not talking about confidence.  Which I like!  Confidence is important.  The opposite of Ego, contrary to popular thought, is NOT modesty.  Modesty is a false affectation.
Modesty, functions like this; You KNOW what you’re worth, value, ability and skills are… but you deliberately LIE about it to others, so that they do not feel threatened!  Modesty is a mechanism taught by those who have a pathological Ego, and they teach it to others so that they can control others through Shame.  No!  Modesty is not the solution, because modesty is a form of dishonesty.
If someone asks me what are my strengths, I have no hesitation in telling them without shame or false modesty exactly what my strengths are.  But in the same breath I will also describe my weaknesses.  I believe that if someone asks you ‘What are you good at?’ You better have an answer!  Because you can bet your bottom dollar, that a horse is going to ask you the same  questions sooner or later.  E.g.
“Human, why should I trust you?  What do you have that I need?  What are you good at?”
I have seen even gentle horses ask their humans this question and they got no answer in reply.  That human was probably manipulated to become MODEST by someone with an out of control Ego, once upon a time.  Therefore when the horses asks the human for an answer they get nothing but a stunned silence in reply.   It will result in the horse leaving you… totally uninterested.  But unlike some humans, horses usually give you a second chance. And a third, fourth, fifth….
Ego is confidence that lacks honesty.  Ego is used to cover pain and pain is a form of fear.
PAIN
Pay
Attention
Inside
Now!
Unacknowledged pain and fear can too easily morph into ego, when that person is unwilling or unable to take a deep and honest look at themselves, inside.
I had a client recently who said something interesting.   I advised them to stop using carrot treats in training, for one week, because I felt that they were using them as a crutch to avoid getting to the bottom of the issue, which was a patchy, shaky framework of trust and communication between them and their horse.  This was a conclusion I had come to after EIGHT MONTHS of regular work with this client, slow, careful observation of them together.  And finally I had to admit the truth of what my impressions were, and calmly told the client this;
“Your horse doest trust you completely, and neither understood your communications always….  For one weeks homework, no treats”.
Treats can get big results really quickly and then tend to plateau.  They can also make the horse over focused on treats, rather than concentration on the human and co-operating, listening and communicating with them. I am not communicating with this human but they have carrots and if I do a series of things for them I will get carrots and this will cause the end of this training.  I was angling for something slower, a rebuilding of trust and communication from the ground up.  Something I hoped would result for a better future for the client and this horse.  The clients response?
“Oh no!  My ego is attached to treats!”  
What can I do in such a situation?  Nothing.  As the old saying goes, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink.’
I am not saying treats in training is bad, I use them occasionally myself.  But in this circumstance I advised a one-weeks break from them, to give the client a different perspective in working their horse without over reliance on treats, and Ego shoved the idea back out the door, before it had a chance to even get settled!  It is a huge pity, because I really like that client and consider them a friend too.  It was a pity to see them controlled by Ego when in fact they are a sweet, kind and smart person with tremendous internal strength.
Ego will throw out things, without trying to understand them.  Those things can be equipment; saddles, bits, bridles, shoes etc.  It can be entire methods, trainers and sometimes sadly… even the horse itself.

DISHONESTY
This one is rather simple and self-explanatory.  The inability, failure or non-function of seeing the truth.  This can be objective environmental and external truth; what the horse does and what that means.  Or internal truth; what the person does and what this means.
Dishonesty can come as a result of ego or fear.  Or both.  As you can probably tell, all these elements and inter-related.   Being honest with one’s self can be really hard.  And ‘challenging horses’ are often those whom are the best at delivering difficult truths to the humans they are in contact with!  Horses that people call ‘Easy’ are often those who either do not, or have given up attempting to tell the truth to people.  Easy horses can often be sad horses.  Broken, over-trained or frustrated… but compliant.  If you met a super honest horse, and a super expressive horse, they will be telling you the truth left, right and centre.  Good trainers will seek out such horses, so that they can be challenged into a better state of function with horses in general.  Because difficult horses are REALLY good at throwing down Ego, encouraging courage in the face of fear, and delivery honesty, where honesty is needed.

The point of these three pillars of blockages is not to eliminate them entirely.  That would be unreasonable.  The truth is, all of us have these elements within us.  But are they active, or inactive?  Destructive or passive?

Which one of these three are you feeling the most at the moment?  How do you try to work on them?  Or maybe your horse is doing that for you!  IMG_0692

Judge

cropped-expat_equestrian-logoblack-11.jpgLet’s wipe the slate clean.

Let us imagine that we were a machine, and our only task was to observe and take down information.  As this machine, we were unable to attach value, understanding, meaning or emotion to what we see.

What would you then notice from your horse?
What would you then notice from your world?
What would you notice of the horses and riders around you?

Now compare the objective information with your value system.  Don’t listen to others, what does your gut tell you about what you see and feel?

Wipe it all clean.  Re-construct your reality, if your old reality is not helping you or your horse.

Often we as horse people can labour under our judgements.  Our horse does something, we attach a judgement, a meaning and a value to it.  That judgement may or may not be serving us or the horse in a good way.  When it becomes clear that this judgement is not serving us, two things can happen.  We double down on this judgement, like a dog with a chew toy, and pull back harder on it harder to prove ourselves right- often at the horses expense.  Or we stop, take a breathe and reassess EVERYTHING we have done to date.  Do you need to do it like this anymore?  Is it good, useful or beautiful?

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The fact is that the world around us means nothing unless we attach value to it.  And here is the kicker: we can attach ANY value to things that we want to.  Why not?  It is our life, our reality, our memories.  We get a choice!

Just because it was a tradition to do something a certain way, does not mean it should always be done that way.  Most rules can be broken.  Even hard and fast rules that seem finite can and should be bent if the situation requires it.

Step by step, simple technique based training, that offers your horse ‘prescriptions’ can be so problematic because it dangerously oversimplifies the complexities of inter-species human-equine collaboration!

I remember meeting people, at saddle consultations, who had plenty of opinions on my ‘strange’ saddles and how they are not good for horses (I work with flexible tree saddles).  Meanwhile, in my opinion, their riding left much to be desired, balanced, stiff, un-coordinated, heavy handed or ignorant.  Their horse was full of what I felt to be anxiety and despair, and both the horse and rider exuded an overall atmosphere of unease and unhappiness.
The same moment as they attempted to admonish me for representing these products and my methods in working with the products, I smiled.  My smile was inside to myself, because if I had smiled at them openly they may have read it as hostile.  I smiled to myself and felt protected.  Because I knew of a paddock full of horses, included my own, with healthy backs and happy attitudes, all working under these saddles supplied by me. I knew that their judgement had everything  to do with them and absolutely nothing to do with me, at all.  So I blessed them, built a wall around them, and left them as I found them.  So I can go forwards without their baggage.

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Same goes for horse training.  I have encountered other trainers who have openly and directly criticised my work as a horse and rider trainer.  The same moment they said this, I smiled inwardly and felt protected.  Because I know of Sanson, a horse whom people with 25 years experiences with horses, were unable to work with safely or successfully, until he met me (who had zero experience with young horses prior to him).  Sanson who is happy, healthy and safe horse today who loves learning.  Milord the aggressive gelding made mindless by sport, who I slowly brought back to riding health and contentment over the course of a year, who rides is owned by my friend and colleague now who rides him bridleless.  I know of Spice, a mare who looked to me in a crisis to help her when she got into a wreck that involved 3 meters of tangled chain and a salt lick.  Alaska, the mare who couldn’t turn or stop and who learned to do this with me in one ride. Shakira the mare who usually shied and or reared when mounted, but not when I mounted.  Bianka who can work with me safely with concentration in a tent in a windstorm but not with her owner.  Poldek who just this week refused to let two farriers and the man who feeds him twice a day every day for the last six months catch him from his paddock, but who put his nose in his halter for me when I showed it to him.   I could go on!   I actually don’t feel the need to prove myself to people who have already set themselves against me.  I will let my work speak for itself.  And if others want to work with me based upon that, great!  If not, great!  I am not attached to the outcome.   Not every horse person will be the right client for me.  But my ability with horses is sacred to me and I am not ashamed of myself to say that directly.

gallop

Judgement.  What makes people go out there and lash out at people?  Is it hormones?  Insecurity?  Anger?  Resentment?  Trigger-pathologies?  They don’t know how to reach out in a healthy way so they lash out to get the healing or attention they deeply crave?  I have no answers to this, only vague notions of what might be true.  But people tend to be much harder than horses generally.

Catch yourself.  Wipe the slate clean.  When that little monster in your belly wants to jump out your throat and attach a finite label onto something, a label which is an ultimatum that puts you, the horse or someone else into an inflexible box… stop yourself.  Throw some balance in there just for a change and ask yourself…

“What if I could be completely wrong?”  

What if my horses anger is not directed at me personally, but at how they feel about their life and themselves?  Unless you keep your horses at home, 80-90% of our horses life… we are not there!  The answers are often hidden from us for this reason.  Unless your horse was home bred and has always lived at home with you, you do not know what triggers your horse might have to bad memories from their past, that you might accidently trigger.

Everything I say to a client, despite how confidently I say it, I always have an internal awareness that I could be wrong.   I am ready to be wrong.  But I confidently try what I feel to be right.  I also have the same attitude with my horse when I train him alone.  I always keep in mind: I might not get what I want when I ask this. This does not stop me from doing it, or saying something clearly to a client, but I always temper my approach with the possibility that change might show up at any moment.

I am ready and willing at any moment to ball up that concept and throw it to the bin if another understanding of the situation presents itself which is stronger or more convincing. IMG_0650

Spooky behaviour is not always fear.  Aggressive behaviour is not always anger.  A horse not doing what you want is not always direct disobedience.   What if there is something going on that you do not have the education, awareness or ability to comprehend or understand right now?  What if the answer will take years to show up?  What if  the horse is thinking something that you will NEVER be privy to, and that is why they did not acquiesce?

The benefit of the doubt.  Innocent until proven guilty!

It is vital that you have judgement with a horse.  But ask yourself; are you in active control of your judgement?  Is your judgement creating something better for yourself, or is it creating more sickness with you and your horse.

Wipe the slate clean and try stopping yourself before you jump to conclusions.  Question yourself.

Judge yourself before you judge the horse.

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Progress

Progress:

  1.  a forward or onward movement (as to an objective or to a goal) ADVANCE

2. gradual betterment

 

This is what we are all hoping for.  If we are not disabled by disease or depression, progress if what pulls us out of our beds, into our jobs and into the saddle.

A human-like mindset often leads us to believe that progress is linear.  Training is to progress forwards like a linear graph goes upwards.Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 15.21.10.png

When the line goes up, the horse is doing better.  When the line goes down, the horse is doing worse.  Over time, we compare the differences.  If they are doing worse, than we need to do better or do something different, and if they are doing better, then we continue doing what we are doing, and change nothing.

If we do not know what to do, we visit a trainer for a kind of ‘prescription’ of what to do to fix it, memorise the solution, and practise that with our horses.  When we hit another problem, we go back to the ‘training doctor’.  To me this is a sickness orientated approach to training, rather than a health and wellness approach to training.  I want to train each horse and client to eventually NOT need me.  Rather than reliance upon me for ever.  Neither do I want them to be reliant on a single technique or tool.  I want them to be able to succeed, no matter what.

To a certain degree this linear outlook is useful and promising.  Being able to simplify things can certainly help a lot of people and a lot of horses.  It encourages an objective mindset and a result orientated approach.

This can also be dangerous for many people and for many horses.  Horse are not machines.  People are not machines.  Progress is NOT linear.  This is what history has taught us.  Progress is not about going forwards, and only forwards.

Progress goes forwards, sideways, up and down, and sometimes around in circles.

  Look at America right now, many of us thought that as soon as Obama got voted into office that the United States had left behind its deep history of racism rooted in slavery and prejudice?  We thought the world had changed, and we were not going back.  Eight years later, a fake-tanned reality TV celebrity with a shady business history and zero Political experience was voted into the most powerful political seat in the world.

What?  Progress is not linear.  Sometimes you go forwards.  Sometimes you go backwards.  That is part of progress.   This is what dance taught me.  Some days I would come into training and things which were easy yesterday are impossible today and I do not know why.  But eventually, overtime, those inconsistencies melted away, seemingly without trying to ‘fix’ it.   By just attempting those things in as many different contexts as possible, I gained the confidence and experience to be able to perform those things with ease and consistency.  Usually I danced better when I stopped trying to ‘train’ myself but just focused on DANCING.

So many of us are confused.  Without pushing any kind of left-wing agenda here, progress is not linear and many of us feel cheated when we discover that it is not.  We were taught in schools that once you passed all the exams and tests, that you moved on to the next level of difficulty and so on and so forth.  Many schools of horse training also encourage an identical formula.  Follow my method and graduate through the levels to become betterMemorise this technique and your horse will become better and so will you.

But not everyone is better off after their education than they were at the start.  Many people start school as happy, balanced 5 year old children with a positive outlook on life, and then 13 years later leave high school tired, battered and bruised, perhaps disillusioned with their experiences.
Many horses begin their trainings as happy, healthy weanlings, who can perform high level movements by themselves in the paddock through the pure joy of being alive and moving.  Fifteen years later they find themselves in a riding school, sore backed, only able to move when whipped, punished or admonished.
Maybe we know more ‘things’ after education but do we feel better about life?  At best, it is a crap shoot.

When I started high school, I loved to read.  I consumed books with a ravenous hunger.  Reading came easily and naturally to me and it was not uncommon for me to chew through several books a month.  After high school, I no longer enjoyed reading.  It took me three years to buy a book and read it start to finish for pleasure again.  I had been forced in High School to read books I would never normally choose of my own free will, and not only read them but analyse them and then WRITE about them with some kind of educated excellence, make arguments for or against the issues in the book etc.  The problem was, being forced to analyse a book you don’t enjoy is not good medicine and does nothing to improve your reading skills or improve your desire to want to read in the future.  With me it had the opposite effect.  After school I should have enjoyed reading MORE, not less, if education is truly linear.  After school I had to re-learn my childlike love of reading.  Many horses I meet, display pathologies from linear training approaches, and I try to reconnect them with their childlike joy of movement and being.

To translate this phenomenon into the horse world.  Lets look at certain classical methods of biomechanical training.  We train a horse to form an outline or a posture with their body, ‘because it is good for them’.  These postures, positions and exercises are designed to work for all horses, to improve their physical fitness and strength, to make them better movers, healthier horses and better horses for us to use.  Some horses genuinely benefit from this training and quickly progress to high levels of training.  Probably these horses also were pre-disposed to be excellent in this training anyway.  Conversely, many horses are ruined in such training.  If these postures and positions are supposed to be evidence of a ‘correctly’ trained horse, how can we explain the ENORMOUS prevalence of injury in dressage horses classically trained?  Why then are so many classically trained horses able to do incredible ‘things’ during a dressage test but freak out at a flapping flag, a loud noise, or cannot walk through a real world situation with their rider without fear or anxiety? Why are so many highly educated horses unable to be motivated without having a stick or spur hit, smack or poke them?

Progress is not linear.  Often it is very, very messy.  It can be confusing.  It can be overwhelming.  To me, progress can look like this:

randomEuclidean.png

Horses and humans are not machines programmed for a single linear purpose or motivation.  We can be motivated by thousands of things.  The minutiae of motivation is vast and complex and beautiful.  To me, the really good trainers are the ones who are aware of this huge beautiful mess, and don’t try to ‘control’ it, but neither do they get in there and contribute to the mess.  They are like an Architect of Chaos.  Not trying to stop the flood, simply creating irrigation, somewhere for the water to go where it can be useful and productive.

They have a sort of detached sense of wonder.  Like a zen master might.  They realise that the world is a chaotic and beautiful place.  They have no sense of their destructive ego, therefore they realise that it would be arrogant to believe that a single being can control or contain this huge chaos.  They detach and observe.  They reshape, redirect, give boundaries, and learn more than they instruct.

Then, they pick a single, dominant theme, and decipher just that theme.  They observe many things, but pick one thing that needs the most attention at that moment and work on making just that one thing better.  They accept the fact that they could be wrong, and accept that they may or may not have the outcome they wanted.  It is all simply information.

Progress is not linear.  It is 3D.  It is a three-dimensional object, and developing the ability to translate the bigger picture into a simple, productive action that makes sense to the horse and human is a huge mountain to climb.  The degree to which you are able to succeed will depend on how much you like to climb!

A mountain is a three dimensional object of incredible complexity.  Anyone who has ever done even amateur mountaineering, understands that false summits are real, what you think looks like the top, is just a false summit, with another false summit behind it and it is easy to feel lost, tired and confused.   But how to people manage to climb these huge, complex, dangerous objects and reach the top?  One foot in front of the other!  Repeat that.  And repeat it again.  A complex issue, with a simple solution.  Take thousands and thousands of small steps.  If you have to go backwards, it is simply to find a better way forwards.  If you cannot go forwards, it is not a failure, it is just a lesson in navigation.

This is how I see horse training.  A complex and beautiful creature, co-operation gained through completing thousands of small tiny, invisible victories.

This can be hard for many horse people.  We have been sold a linear view of horse training because it is easier to market, easier to sell, and faster to comprehend.  It is easier to give somebody a 1-2-3, step by step method, written down in a book, with clearly defined signposts of success, than attempt to explain the huge complexity of the context of a horse.

It is easier to say, “follow this recipe to get the result you want” than say the truth, for example ‘Your horse needs a better diet (complex), they are not a horse with enough innate talent to perform dressage at a high level because their anatomy is set up in such a way that certain techniques will work and many will not, so you must now be a rule breaker and create a training program just for your horse as an individual, where many traditional rules don’t apply (complex), your horses lifestyle has created behavioural pathologies in them which automatically exclude them from performing the things you think you are supposed to perform with them (complex”……. I could go on.   Easier to have a Sickness & Treatment mindset;  Horse + Rider = Problem.  Prescribe step by step solution= problem solved.  Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.

My mentors always tell me to think less and feel more.  And despite how wordy my blog is, when I am with a horse, my world is a silent place void of much conscious judgement, and just progressing from one state of ‘feeling’ to another.

Needless to say, I have chosen the hard way.  There are several hard rules to abide by, and I do make those clear when they are needed.  There are even several clearly defined techniques I follow when the horse is in a place which makes it appropriate for them to follow them.  But I am not a trainer who has a step by step program they memorized, and then I simply teach that to my clients and instruct them to memorise it too, then buy the book, the DVD and the magic tool, regardless of who they are or who their horse is.

It is a hard path, but it feels like the right thing to do.  So that is what I am going to do.   Instead of ‘Promoting the Method’, I try to just promote the horse.  Both the horse as a species and understanding general rules, and your horse as an individual who may or may not follow those general rules.

And if this doesn’t work, that’s ok by me too.

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Lost

 

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Ever lost your way?

Today I did.

Got in the car with plenty of time to reach a client at a stable on the city limits, I must have visited this stable more than 40 times over the last 18 months for various reasons.  I have never had any major issues getting there really.  I was using my GPS for security most of the time until I switched cars three months ago, and the power point in my ‘new old’ car is broken… meaning my GPS is useless unless I bring a fully charged battery pack with me, which today I did.  For some reason, this battery pack did not work with my GPS.  I don’t know why.  A perfect storm was building.

Somewhere between my waking up and my too-hot-to-drink-yet-black coffee, I missed my usual turn off the intercity to the region where this stable is located.  No worries, I am also familiar with the other route.  Also, the regular route is inundated with heavy road work since the last six months and taking the way around might actually save me time through the construction work.

Good got through that.  10 minutes pass.  Hang on?  I don’t remember that park.  15 minutes.  Bugger, where the hell am I?

I had to call client and apologise and reschedule I was so damn lost.  I still do not know how I got lost.  And my ‘smart phone’?  An old hand-me-down with a busted navigation.  Absolutely my fault.  But I was going to a KNOWN location.  I KNEW where to go.  But I got severely lost.  The stable is 25km from my house and I did a 73km round trip today.

It got me thinking as always about horses.  They get lost sometimes.  They get lost even on things that they KNOW.  Things they have practised many times and have proven mastery.

But then sometimes, like a bolt of lightening out of a blue sky, trouble will arrive.  The horse struggles with something easy and familiar.  What does their rider normally do?  Reprimand.  It’s annoying to us perhaps.  We get frustrated with them.  The horse is probably already upset that they find themselves lost.  They do not know where they are nor how to navigate that moment.  It could be a trot-canter transition.  It could be a soft feel to the rein.  It could be walking past that scary gate on the corner. Doesn’t matter.  They are lost.  Are you going to be able to help them find themselves?  Or is your reaction going to drive them further away from the moment?

This is the kicker:  If you load pressure onto the horse or worse, heavy or hard emotion on the horse- against them- when they are troubled or lost, you have successfully ruined what could have been a wonderful opportunity to guide and soften your horse through a tough spot.  It could have been a teaching moment for both of you to develop a new level of trust and connection.  But if you get mad at your horse when they get lost, confused or resistant out of the blue, what you created is fear in the horse, the horse will then be sacred of becoming confused.  Then you have very quickly a severe pathology and a negative spiral.  This will take you to bad places real fast.

If someone was in my car with me today and began yelling at me when I got lost… I might have cried. Really.  Or yelled back.  I would have become very upset with them because I did not WANT to get lost, but for whatever reason today I just did.

I knew that what I needed most today was to go back to basics, return to HOME and try again next time.  Go back to something simple and basic.   To many things were working against me today, together with me being a bit over tired after getting home late the day before.  A perfect storm.  Know when to get in, when to get out, and when not to get in at all.

Think about it, next time your horse presents with a bit of resistance or confusion, in something they ‘know’.  They are not being a dick.  They are being a living creature.

Almost one year ago, I got lost with Sanson in the forest.  I began to panic, it was Christmas eve and dark was settling and I had spent 45 minutes trying to find my way, and realised I was lost.  Well, I dropped the reins, and said one word to my horse:  HELP.
Five minutes later I was walking into my stable.  Fact was, I was no more than 200 metres from home.  But my disorientation visually caused me to lose my way.  Despite the fact that I was closer than I had thought I was, to what I wanted and needed.

I swear the longer I spend around Sanson the more I become like him and the more he becomes like me.

Home

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A small four letter word.  So many levels of meaning.

Miriam Webster Dictionary gives us several contexts to consider:  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/home

home

noun

\ˈhōm  \

Definition of home 

(Entry 1 of 6)

1aone’s place of residence

2the social unit formed by a family living together

3aa familiar or usual setting 

1relaxed and comfortable 

2in harmony with the surroundings

3on familiar ground 

 

Definition of home (Entry 2 of 6)

1to or at one’s place of residence or home 

2ato a final, closed, or ultimate position bto or at an ultimate objective 

3to a vital sensitive core

 

Definition of home (Entry 3 of 6)

1of, relating to, or being a place of residence, place of origin, or base of operations

2prepared, done, or designed for use in a home 

3operating or occurring in an area that is a headquarters or base of operations

 

homedhoming

Definition of home (Entry 4 of 6)

intransitive verb

1to go or return to one’s place of residence or origin 

2: of an animal to return accurately to one’s native area of place of birth or origin from a distance

3to move to or toward an objective by following a signal or landmark 

4to proceed or direct attention toward an objectives

 

I am not a linguist, but I found this fascinating.  I am an expat.  This means that I choose to live in a country not of my origin.  There is a good reason why I have called my business Expat Equestrian.  It defines me, and I have always been a sucker for alliteration.  As an expat- or an imigrant- HOME has a very unique setting in my heart.

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I come from a land down under!
The most common question I get when I meet a Polish person for the first time:

“What are you doing here?!”

or

“Why Poland?”

Fact is, I was not sitting in Australia and dreaming about Poland.  I was dreaming about Europe, about a career which I have seen abandoned and more specifically I dreamed about finding a place in the world where I could be 100% myself.  Really what I wanted was a sense of belonging.

I did not fit-in back ‘home’ in Australia.  I did not fit in anywhere.  I had my friends, but they were not easy to find and once I found them I held onto them tightly.  I felt restricted by the culture of my country.  Nothing against Australia, really I would feel restricted by cultural normality anywhere!  But as an expat I am the ultimate free outsider.  I do not belong to the native culture, but neither am I connected with my ‘home’ culture on an everyday kind of way.  The result is, I am free to make my own choices about who I am, how I relate to the world and how I relate to others.  As a result, I am able to live an authentic life on my own terms.  I have an everyday kind of peace.  I can sit on public transport here in Warsaw, with people talking about their everyday drama around me and because it is not my language I can easily tune out and read my book.  Back in Melbourne, I cannot tune them out no matter how hard I try, unless I blast music or have earplugs.

I am able now to live my life through my instincts, and reinvent myself if I have to.

Home, is Australia.
Home is my apartment in Warsaw.
Home is a place inside myself where I can find hard truths, answers to my life’s struggles, direction when I feel lost, and a sense of peace and belonging, that I can carry with me.
Home is where my partner is, when I am with him, I feel at home.

Home is also where my horse is. 

Home, as a word, can be a noun: a name, but it can also be a verb and an adjective.  It can describe feelings.  Feelings are the core of quality horsemanship.  Can you feel?  Do you feel?  Are you awake to your environment? Do you feel of and for your horse?

When I sit on my horse, in our saddle, I feel at HOME.  I feel like I belong there.  I feel this way on almost any horse now.  If I sit on a horse and I do NOT feel at home there on their back then something between me and that horse is wrong, and I get off them.

There were moments back when Sanson first arrived in Poland from Spain, when he was struggling with his life transition, that when I sat on him I did not feel at home.  For whatever reason, I had not passed the point, and Sanson was not in a state to accept riding… he was struggling just to be a horse and needed space and energy for coming to terms with himself.  Accepting a rider was far from his mind when he was now no longer skinny or in pain from ulcers or standing alone all day in a small corral, but did not know what to do with his new fresh body that had access to space and a large herd to live in.  Horsemanship was a distant memory for him when there was deep snow on the ground and his body was cold and stiff from standing still in the frozen mud all night.   So I refrained from riding.  I slowly identified things which were stressors for him and resolved to solve them, one by one, as my budget allowed.  I worked on our relationship and our bond.  I worked hard to earn his trust and help him through things.  I took no shit from him when he attempted something unsafe, but never with violence or coercion.

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A rainy day ride last week with friends, feeling like I could live in the saddle and need nothing else

For several months if I rode it was for 2-10 minutes.  I did a LOT of groundwork and support in his diet and care, and just waited for Sanson to come HOME to HIS body. 

Nowadays, we are clocking 6-7 hours a week in the saddle.  And I can feel he is able to do more.  I feel at home there on his back and I feel safe.  He is at home in himself.  And we can share each others bodies like they were belonging to both of us.  He lives in relative peace, in a herd of four horses he likes and who like him, and he does not have to compete for food.  His feet are doing better, and he is more familiar with his body and with his new surroundings.  I have more time for him, and it seems the more I visit him, the sweeter he feels.  Having said that, I accept the possibility that this may not always be so, but for now, we are in a good place together.

The same in groundwork.  If you are relating to a horse or in contact with them, without riding, and you do not feel at home there… get out!  Go somewhere else!  Do something else!  Do not ignore that feeling.  Problem is, the person who is not at home with their horse is probably also disconnected with how they feel- their feelings are in chaos- and they can find no discernible clarity in their mind to listen to those cues from the horse and take steps to protect themselves.  It is then the horses responsibility- as a creature of immense intelligence and emotional sensitivity- to express to this chaotic person in no uncertain terms ‘You are not welcome, at home or in a state of belonging here.”.  The result is a rear, a kick, a bite, turning and walking away.  In some horses even a tightening of the eye is their signal.  Did you see it?  Are you paying attention?

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https://www.gabineurohr.com/index.php/problem-horses/obelix/120-difficult-horses-obelix-a-little-black-guy-in-trouble (Photo from this great blog, have a read)

Home is not a fixed place.  It is not immoveable.  It is a dynamic and flexible idea that can both offer you a sense of belonging, stability and safety, whilst also providing a foil for exploration, discovery, courage and novelty.

I feel at home with my horse, but this sense is not a feeling of laziness or stagnation or a sedentary outlook determined to ‘staying where I am’.  It is dynamic feeling and full of possibilities and movement.

Just like the homes we all grew up in, and the storylines we all have from childhood, NO home is perfect.  There will be times of happiness and harmony, and times of struggle, confusion and doubt.  But it is sill home.  Such as I am with my horses and with other horses too.  There are moments of gallops in the forest with no reins, physical aid free transitions, and incredible moments of softening and learning and discovery, and there are times of refusal, confusion, fear and doubt from both me and Sanson and other horses and that is ok!.  That is life, such as it is.  To be at home is to honestly accept the full range of experiences that come with it.

If you cannot accept the whole host of emotions that come into horse life and horse work, then you should take up something else which helps you get your physical activity kick.  Tennis.  Swimming.  Cycling.  To engage with a horse is to engage your emotions because the horse is ALWAYS engaged with their emotions, unless they have been broken.  And if I meet a broken horse, my first job is to put them back together.

 

Home is where my horse is.
Home is where my heart is.
Home is where my hope is.

Relief

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relief

/rɪˈliːf/Submit

noun

1.

a feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress.

 

Pressure and release is a training method that is in wide use and acceptance.  Particularly in western riding culture, you see a lot of pressure and release cowboys all with slight variations upon the theme, but the essence of the concept is this:

Pressure is applied to the horse until the desired response appears from the horse.  Once the desired response appears, you release the pressure.

I watched Buck Branaman take a green colt through the first stages of pressure and release over a three day clinic a few years back.  The horse he was riding came from an English riding background, where pressure, both from the legs and the reins, is not often released, more commonly it is applied and remains applied in varying forms throughout the ride.  I believe that what I saw him do at the time was quality horsemanship.  He didn’t release the pressure once he saw the desired response from the horse, he released the moment the horse THOUGHT about the desired response.  In the end, the horse was performing for him things in a state of total softness an absence of pressure.  It was beautiful riding!  There was a floating quality in the reins and legs and the movement of the horse that I had honestly not seen before. But this is a skill that takes years to develop.  Reminder to ourselves though, mere mortals, even the master was at one point a beginner!  Gotta start somewhere. CSP_8564.jpg


I use some pressure and release methods myself.  The goal of this is to eventually work with the horse in the absence of pressure.  The horse has released or reached or softened for you before the pressure was even applied.  There are trainers who refuse to use these methods at all.  I guess to some, putting any pressure on their horse at all is something they cannot come at peace with.   Each to their own.  But I believe that horses can learn to cope with pressure.  Some horses do better with pressure and some do poorly and need it introduced very carefully. I believe some horses can cope with pressure better than most humans can.  Why?  Because horses live in the moment and so long as the pressure did not flip over into a traumatic experience, they forgive and very quickly
move forwards.  

Which brings me to my point.  Do you understand the difference between PRESSURE & RELEASE… or are you using PRESSURE & RELIEF?  Or even worse, PUSHING-PULLING & RELIEF.  One will help you and your horse.  The other will destroy both the horse and your connection with it, and with some horses, they may take matters into their own hands and destroy you too.

Do not confuse release with relief.  If the horse is relieved after your pressure is released, then you need to take a long look in a sharp mirror.  It is possible that the pressure applied felt abusive to the horse.  If not abusive, than rude, rushed, inappropriate, confusing or unclear.  If they felt relieved after you applied what you thought was ‘pressure’ than the pressure you used for some reason built and created anxiety in the horse.  So instead of leading them to further peace- the ultimate goal of pressure and release- you are just installing and creating anxiety in the horse.

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I would probably point out at this point that pressure and release seems to work best in the hands of very calm people to begin with.  The pressure must originate from a very soft, calm, steady and grounded person.  If pressure has its root in a human with an anxiety streak, you can best believe that the horse can feel that, like tuning into the wrong radio signal, or touching an electric wire, the horse will absorb the anxiety of the human rather than the understanding of the signal that was being applied, as a line of communication offered by the human.

Perhaps critics of pressure and release, the ones who cannot come to peace with putting pressure on their horses, are originally struggling with anxiety in themselves?  In that case I would understand why they would prefer and advocate pressure free horse to human training.  For them, as a sufferer of anxiety, pressure and release would indeed be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst.  Probably that person needs more calming in their life. Not more pressure.  I can relate to that.

Personally, I really like DOING things.  Despite what my recent blog Nothing might appear, I really enjoy being active, so long as the activity is something I love, understand and can do of my own free will.  I find activity relaxing.  I think some horses are the same.  I work hard to build peace and bonding with my horse from a quiet place.  But when Sanson and I go for a ride out, particularly when we ride out alone, oh boy can we really go and cover some ground!  We are adventurous, we take risks, we chill out, we heat up.  All of it. I ask a lot of him.  I use pressure, and when the response is ready in him, I stop asking.  And sometimes no pressure is needed, we just have the same idea at the same time and do it together at the same time. 

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But I am pretty tuned into him and when I feel even the potential of anxiety, I bring it all right back to the basic beginning, which is PEACE and CALM.  If anxiety is building, oir present I never reprimand, scold or increase the pressure.  If he is doing things like calling out to other horses, or telling me he doesnt want to go somewhere, I know my job is to get him with me mentally before I can get him physically.  He really is an excellent reminder to me, to keep my standards high, because he really doesn’t accept mediocrity in me, and I don’t accept it in him either.  It is like he says to me ‘Hey I know you are having a bad day, but you know me better than to lead me from the paddock like a busy robot.  Are you with me?  I won’t come with you out of the paddock if you do not have an open heart with me.”  
You may think I am crazy, but it happens all the time.  The moment I soften back up, he just comes along.

 If anxiety is present, I never escalate.  Adding pressure onto an overwhelmed horse is a one way ticket to a Rodeo Disaster.   I stop right there, work through that hard spot until relaxation and contentment returns.

Anxiety does no good for anyone.  If someone out there can write me and explain the function anxiety has beyond redirecting us in a different direction, then I would gladly hear it.  But anxiety is a sign that you got off track with your horse, that you need to stop what you’re doing, and go a different direction.  

Short point.  Go ahead and try pressure and release methods.  But it is our responsibility to use pressure like one might wield power. 

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Absolute pressure corrupts absolutely.  There must be an inbuilt hand break in the feel of your pressure to the horse.  The pressure you use must have space for the horse to be aware of the pressure, whilst also being aware that they can give you negative feedback- a No- if your pressure tips over into the realm of the unreasonable.   You have to be able to audit your hands, your legs, your seat, your requests and be sure, absolutely sure that you are to be trusted to use pressure, just like world leaders are (in theory) tested to be trusted with their power.  Although sadly, we see now that this is not always the case! 

The more your horse trusts you, the more pressure the horse may allow you to use with them.  But wield it carefully.  Not all horses will respond to pressure the same.  Some horses want and indeed need a lot of pressure to accept leadership, but some won’t have a bar of it.  Listen to the horse and consider their needs first.

Pressure can easily slip into coercion.  Coercion rarely slide back into pressure.  Release can easily appear as relief in a horse and the two are not happy bedfellows. 

If in doubt, use less.  Film yourself.  If you don’t have a trainer who you can trust to tell you the truth, rather than telling you what you want to hear, take your phone and film your next training.  Send it to me if you want.  I’ll send you my perspective, pro-bono.  What to you might have felt like a reasonable request, if you watch your horse with some perspective, might not appear that way.

But then again, it might. 🙂

 

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