Gut

 

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I would like to define the difference between intellect and instinct.

There is new research claiming that our gut is like a second brain.  Our gut holds over 100 millions neurons.  The centre of human intelligence is not only in our pre-frontal cortex but it is in our whole body. 
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Further reading on the subject

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-fallible-mind/201701/the-pit-in-your-stomach-is-actually-your-second-brain

https://blog.bulletproof.com/second-brain-in-gut/

https://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/blogs/scientists-find-second-brain-gut

Have you ever met someone and though everything appears to be normal; they smile, speak well, knowledgeable, presenting as trustworthy, but while they speak to you, or moments after they leave you, there is an uneasy feeling in your stomach?  A clenching, a churning, and jolt of discomfort in your mid-section that radiates down your body to your feet, causing you to feel less grounded here and now? 

That feeling is not to be ignored. 

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Have you ever gone to a riding lesson, or a trail riding centre, and presented with a horse that for whatever reason, gives you that same uneasy feeling?  A mild but unavoidable surge of adrenaline, like you might have to fight for your life at any moment, or that there was potential that this horse was too much for your right now.

That feeling is not to be ignored.

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Have you ever come to your own horse, and had a feeling that something was not right? They were standing, breathing, eating, blinking, but something in your gut told you something was wrong.

Never ignore that feeling.

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It is that internal red flag.  That little jolt of genius to your nervous system that attempts to alert your brain to impending threat, or danger.  A red flag is nothing else but a red flag… it does not mean anything else, except a red flag.  The problem is when we try to be clever, our intellect attempts to beat down our instincts.  Fact, traditional education is wholly designed to disconnect a teenager from their childlike instinct and connect them with intellect- to make us more clever but less ‘feeling’.  Neck down dead adults.  Our bodies mere vehicles to take our brains to a meeting.

 

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What your intellect will tell your instincts about that ‘red flag person’:

“ Oh no you are mistaken.  Mr. So and So worked with this person many times and swears by them.  They have thousands of fans on their Facebook fan page so they must be wonderful.  Their mentor is a successful person and they have many clients.  Look how they are smiling at you?  Look what nice words they employ, of course they can be trusted! “

What your intellect will tell your instincts about that ‘red flag horse’:

  Listen, you have paid your money and ticked the box ‘Experienced rider’ on your disclaimer.  You want to embarrass yourself and ask for a different horse?  Don’t let your fear or primitive urges make you look like an amateur to other people.  Shut up, smile, tell everyone how pretty the horse is and get in the saddle.  Just hold them on a strong rein contact and don’t lose control…’

What your intellect will tell your instincts about your ‘red flag signal’ from your horse:

“Don’t be dramatic.  Do you want other people at your stable to think you are an hysteric horse owner?  Your horse is fine.  See, he is doing everything you want.  No, ignore that tail swish he is just being naughty.  Remember that instructor you had when you were 10 who told you to use a stick on a ‘naughty’ horse.  Use your stick.  Do it.”

In my personal experience; That person turned out to be a traitor, a backstabber and a narcissist.  That horse turned out to uncontrollable at best and dangerous to you at worst.  And my horse had been bitten by a hornet on his sheath which had swollen to twice it’s healthy size.  Had I listened to my gut I might have avoided a bit of trouble.

Listening to your gut is so important when you work with horses.  Not only is it the key to avoiding danger, but if you found a way to actively harness your instincts it can lead you to positive growth and successes that your intellect can only dream about.

I have met many people who were super clever and well educated, but looking past their nice words their horses were standing in a filthy paddock, nearly floating in mud, ribs showing and nose dripping with green gunk.  I have met seemingly ‘ignorant’ horse people whose horses gleamed in the dull light of a cold day, and called to them when they saw their human from across the farm. 

Your instincts are the seeds of your talent.  Not education.  Education can certainly bolster your instinctive talents, and educating yourself is a vital part of any skill acquisition.  But education and skill acquisition alone is not enough to reach your full potential.  It won’t lead you to answers out in the real world when you a presented with a real challenge you have not rehearsed for.

There are thousands of methods when it comes to horses.  Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, Vaquero in the Dorrance tradition, classical dressage, Art 2 Ride dressage, straightness training, pair bond training, natural horsemanships and its hundred of counterparts, western, english, baroque, cavalry, liberty, R+ and R-, jumping, eventing, biomechanics, Academic art of riding I mean I could go on and on.

But if you found yourself in a real world situation, for which you did not rehearse for, it is not your intellect that will save you and your horse.  It is your emotional control, your gut instinct the ability to problem solve and think on your feet.  It is your gut which can think creatively and establish a resolution and an answer to the situation at hand.  Your second brain can do this in a fraction of a second.  It can respond instantly, because it is paired with the nervous system.  Your cleverness is sluggish in comparison.

Here is an analogy I have used at a few trainings recently.

You put a metal pot on the stove, to boil.  The hot becomes quickly very hot.  Your hand accidentally touches the hottest part of the metal.  Here are two responses based upon situations I see in many horse-human interactions.

The horse person operating from micro-managed, highly educated, clever, the ‘instructed’, and ‘I-Follow-this-technique’, response:
Hmm.  Something does not feel right.  That pot is hot.   Let me ask my instructor if it is correct that I assume that the pot is hot.  Yes they said the pot is hot.  Let me think what I can do to fix this.  If I remain with my hand in contact with this pot, my hand will surely burn, perhaps even second or third degree burns if I do not change my position.  Gee that is now painful.  Ok.  Let me now contract my left bicep muscle, at the same time I will take a half-halt on my wrist, no not like that, a correct half halt with excellent use of my core muscles, let me engage my thighs first… there, that is the half halt my wrist needs right now.  Ok now bending to the left to safely avoid the danger, I shall now elevate my right shoulder, engage my diaphragm at the right moment together with opening my left hip to co-ordinate with my left hand so that my body may open away from this mistake I have made and I may then resume the contact once a free and willing openness is in front of me…..

You get the point


The horse person operating with a healthy gut instinct;

Automatically snatches hand off the hot pot before any conscious thought has time to emerge. No thought given to quality of the movement.  A natural response to a real situation.

This example might seem silly but honestly, I am really not exaggerating, the first example is truly how I see so many people riding their horses.  They work very, very hard to truly disconnect their instincts and talent from their technique and then years later desperately try to reconnect the two!  But the very journey they took to technical mastery is the same journey that precludes them from awareness of their instincts.

This is where the ‘natural’ comes into play for me.  Those against natural horsemanship as a term will say there is nothing natural about riding a horse and I may or may not agree with them depending on the perspective they are speaking from.  But for me natural is about interacting with horses in a way in which does NOT pervert the natural instinctive responses in both the horse AND the human.  I try to work with a horse and riders nervous system, not against it.  I try to reunite a horse person with their innate potential, and help them develop that and flesh it out, rather than dictate a specific method to them, whether it is suitable for them or not, and expect them to master it.

How many dressage horses have you seen that struggle to walk in a straight line unless they have a rider apply about 15 different aids on them and carry a dressage stick- sometimes two!?

How many jumping horses have you seen that can clear 150cm in their sleep but when with the same rider, they absolutely refuse to walk past a trash can that is sitting 2 meters out of place of its regular placement.

You cannot rehearse life.  You cannot rehearse talent.  You can develop and strengthen it.  But you cannot practise it.

That is not to say that I think someone can do something difficult the first time perfectly, if their instinctive talent allows it.  That is not the case.  One needs experience. 

EXPERIENCE.  So different to rehearsal.

If I compare it to my life as a dancer.  Rehearsal would be the morning training or the rehearsals that proceeded.  And Experience would be the actual performances we had to perform.

I was able to do things on stage in performance that I could never do in rehearsal.  One of my last performances as a dancer I performed a perfect quadruple pirouette, finishing on balance on stage during a show, whereas in the studio when rehearsing the same moment the most I ever did was a double. 

Instinct is more than just that primal urge which helps you avoid danger, though that is also really important.  It is also the key to your success.  It is the concentrated form of your essence as a living creature. 

Try turning off your brain next time you are with your horse and stop being so clever.  Go deeper, do a deep dive with your feelings.  There might be answers there that will surprise you and surprise your horse! f8c0b95cf76bc6261fa58aafb4bf6162.jpg

Nothing

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Compulsory viewing for all horse people.  Please watch this documentary.

I watched this for the first time many years ago and it had a profound effect on me.  I saw other horse people who felt the way I did!  I felt that traditional training and horsemanship had seriously lost its way.  Why had so many forgotten why they came to the horse, usually as children, in the first place?  What happened to joy, togetherness and just being together?  What happened to creativity and play?  Why are horses no longer dancing with us?  This documentary showed me that it is possible to forge a new way forwards.

I have since found and read the published works of each of the trainers depicted in this documentary.  Each of them so different!  But each of them contributing a unique and authentic perspective on horses.

Klaus F. Hempfling has several books and lots of Youtube videos.  Training with him in Denmark would require me to remortgage my home, it is SO expensive.  A specially designed One on One three day workshop with him costs over 8000 Euro.  That is not a typo, that was one eight and then three zeros.  But, each to their own I guess.  Watching his work online I can understand his price.   His published works are also excellent.  He has a background in theatre and dance just like me, and spent a lot of his life working in Spain with Spanish horses too.  At 46.10 m  on the documentary ‘The Path of the Horse’ he says:

”   So the first thing, coming home, understanding something from horses, from the world from authenticity, is to lay down to relax and stop DOING something!   Because we are doing too much, we are doing too much, we are doing too much.  This is the first entrance (into contact with a horse)  “

When I read this it was hard to describe the profound effect it had on me.  At the time I was deep into my work with dance and it felt like no matter what I did, it was never enough.  That I was never good enough, could never do enough, was not enough!  That I felt worthless, despite how hard I was working to please people and to feel just a small amount of peace in my work.

Hearing these words out of the mouth of someone with a comparable background to me caused a tidal wave of relief to wash over me.  It was like confirmation of something I had just felt intuitively, but had not had the courage to express openly yet.  It gave me PERMISSION to stop.  Stop trying so hard –  Start being myself!  I humoured the possibility that who and what I was, was good enough without additions.  It offered some hope that one day, I might be found in a place where I wouldn’t have to constantly explain myself to people, or work like a dog for scraps off the table, be ignored, put aside, unsupported, used and pushed around.  I began to hope that one day I could just be myself and be ok.  Maybe more than ok- it would be the key to my success at least with horses, and maybe with more too.

I see it all the time.  People come to their horse and start doing something.   They do a lot.  They expect their horse to perform and to give and give and give.  But what is the human giving back?  These horses sometimes have some understanding of their activities and sometimes not.  But there is always a state of action.  Do, do, do!  Don’t stop.  Don’t refuse.  Cruel horse people will abuse the horse to get it to perform.  More informed horse people may simply resort to begging.  The sensitive souls will just get scared and over think the whole situation, making them less effective.

Recently I was helping my friend Amy with her horse Onyx.  Onyx is a recently gelded PRE Andalucian horse.  He is jet black and adored by Amy who started him under saddle and rode him for a few years without major incident.  Not long ago she moved him to a trekking centre to get some work on him, where he would receive different riders on different days and take them out onto the surrounding mountains.  He struggled with this adjustment and shortly after beginning his new job he got into a habit of rearing up.  Not in the cute trick-training sense when the horse is asked to do this.  He would rear up  during the ride, before the ride, unasked by the rider.  He even scared a client to the point where she had to finish her trek prematurely.

Onyx was just an unhappy horse looking for some relief.

Amy saw that his new job wasn’t the right spot for him and moved him back home with her other Hispano Arab gelding.  But the rearing habit remained.  She told me over beer and tapas one night that he continued to rear each time she mounted for riding, but would then be an absolute gem as she rode him out.  He had also become hard to catch.  Her friends and family called Onyx crazy, but Amy knew her sweet horse was still inside somewhere but wasn’t sure how to proceed, how to help him through.   She admitted to being a bit stuck.  I offered to help and give her a different perspective.  To solve a problem that you are stuck on, sometimes all you need is a fresh pair of eyes.

Some horses rear out of a ‘play’ state of mind.  I call it Stallion Play, for want of a better term because mares do it too.

 

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But not Onyx.  Some explained the rearing as Onyx, recently gelded, responding to surrounding hormones of the many mares on the farm, after living many years without many mares around him.  But to me, that did not explain why the problem remained when he was moved back home, living with only another gelding, and only touched by his beloved owner who first trained him.  This was not an accidental response to his environment.  Other than stumbling in the paddock or similar, there are no accidents with horses- everything has a reason, a cause and an effect.  I saw this an Onyx having developed a dangerous emotional pathology.  I did not believe that he wanted to rear.  He was rearing because he felt like he had to.

I saw an anxious horse.
I saw worry.
I saw confusion.
I saw hurt.
I saw a possibility for true healing.

Onyx was a sensible and sensitive horse, who wanted to understand the world around him before he offered a response to his environment.   My guess was that he found himself in a situation where he felt trapped, and he couldn’t go anywhere except UP to escape it.  Up had become his tool to cope with worry.  Worry about confusion.  Worry about losing his balance.  Worry about feeling trapped by his rider or his work.

There are many tools, techniques and methods used to ‘cure’ a rearing horse.  I did not use any of them.  I just asked to see Amy in normal activities with him, what she would normally do.  The moment I saw her ‘normal’ take him off track- I stepped in to communicate to Amy on Onyx’s behalf.  To be clear, Amy is an incredible horse woman I admire greatly.  But I have an unusual knack for seeing tiny things some horse people do not see, or they see them and don’t attribute meaning to them.  I am coming into horses from a totally unusual direction so I can see parts of a horse and their behaviour that normally go unchecked.

She was able to catch Onyx quickly and with a gentle soft approach, no worries there.  She was able to tack him, as he closed his eyes and snoozed- so I knew this was not a fear about being ridden.  He actually seemed to relax and soften MORE when the saddle and bridle went on, like a horse does when they look forward to going on a ride.

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But the moment she look him to warm up and longe I saw his expression change.  He did not so much as trot, as he ran into a faster movement to stop himself falling over.  So I ticked ‘Balance’ as a box he needed ticking.

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In this case I solve balance by asking the horse to move with a simple impulse on my behalf and then leaving them alone when they do move.  When I say leave them alone I do not mean I fall sleep and disconnect, I mean that I just stay there with them as a presence of support, but I will not nag, push or micro-manage the horse.   I do not ask much from the horse except that they show me what their movement is on that day.  Just like us, they have good days and bad days, I want to give them a chance to work through things on their own.    If the horse was totally green, it may need more intervention or a stronger leadership from me directly, but if the horse is more or less settled and matured, I believe they should be able to self organise and self motivate.

I do not escalate the pressure on the horse once they do move, until they are clearly moving balanced on all four legs.  If I escalated forwards pressure upon the horse when they are not balanced I am effectively pushing them over the edge of a cliff, and this can frighten them, or even irritate and annoy them.  Each horse will have their own unique way to tell you that they are at their ‘forward movement limit’ for that day.  It is imperative that we are aware and listen to the horse.  Once the horse shows signs of self-organisation (Good rhythm, stretching, movement without anxiety) then I can increase pressure, to change the movement, go faster, or go slower.  Balance has nothing to do with speed.  And speed has nothing to do with balance.

I asked Amy to refrain from a ‘chasing’ mentality when lunging.  Just stay there in the centre and watch Onyx move.  Onyx needed to see that you were present but not pushing him, so that he had space and time to get himself together.

Imagine someone waking you up, and rushing you out the door before you had a chance to put your clothes on- and then asking you to stand at work naked and work perfectly.  Could you do it?  If you could, you might be someone I would avoid!

I asked Amy to move Onyx simply for a couple of revolutions and then bring him in to stand with her and DO NOTHING.  If any activity is chosen, rub on him, love on him, tell him he is the best.  He needed reassurance- not discipline.

“Do nothing?’  She said.

‘Yes.  Nothing.’

Not a nothing-take-out-your-phone-do-your-taxes-have-a-coffee-break-nothing.  An active, concentrated, meaningful NOTHING.  Stand with your horse, ground yourself in this earth and just breathe.  Be aware of your life, your environment and this present moment.  It should be like a meditation.

Onyx took a deep sigh and slowly blinked. Amy rubbed on him and smiled.  Talking to him in his ear like she would have done when she backed him, which was obviously a good memory for Onyx- his backing.   I know horse owners who would be envious of the polite way Onyx stood still to receive his saddle, how he did not bloat when she girthed him.  How he closed his eyes and leaned into the bridle as she slipped the snaffle bit into his mouth.  His backing was a positive memory for him.  His issue was specific about certain moments when being ridden or mounted.

To take his mind away from elevation, or rearing, I asked Amy to carefully kneel down in front of him, and bring his head down to her level, and love on him some more with a lowered head.  Something not to be done on certain horses with safety or boundary issues!   With Onyx, who was experiencing anxiety, it was appropriate.  A horse with a lowered head is physiologically incapable of producing further stress hormones and releasing them into their bloody stream.  That is just science.  Monty Roberts has long since proved this- more then 20 years ago, that the higher the head carriage a horse has, the higher their adrenaline and cortisol levels are.  Amy did so, and Onyx half closed his eyes and took slow deep breaths, as Amy just loved on him some more.  This was healing the hurt for this horse one breath and blink at a time.

Before a horse rears they have to elevate their shoulder, their withers and their neck.  I wanted Onyx to move out of that mentality before the rear happened.  I was not so much curing the actual rear itself.  I was just providing Onyx his needs so he wouldn’t feel the need to rear in the first place.

I did none of this with my hands.  Amy did.  I just provided suggestions, which Amy followed if she wanted to.  This was important because her and Onyx knew each other and had a connection.  A connection stronger than what I could have offered Onyx that day.  Me offering direction and Amy doing the action was was the best choice to be effective for that day.  After all, I was leaving Spain the next day.  It was Amy who had to succeed with this horse- not me.  It is not about me.  It is about the damn HORSE.

‘You need to do more nothing together.  Active nothing in a training environment.’

“We hang out in the paddock together loads…’  Amy offered.

“Yes you need to bring him into his training environment.  The place where he is normally DOING something, and bring him tacked and everything and just do more nothing with him.  Build up slowly the activity but only if he can do nothing with you first.  Ask less of him.  To you trotting in circles is easy, but never over estimate where a horse is… let them show you where they are.   Until his balance improves, ask less”

We went through a similar procedure a few more times and got ready to mount.  As Amy was adjusting the stirrups she said,

“I can already tell that he just won’t rear.  I bet he won’t do it today!’.  And laughed, typical was life with horses.  When you sort of need them to present you the problem so you can solve it, the problem dissolves!  But that was my goal, I didn’t want Onyx to show me his problems- at all, ever!  I am not interested in perpetuating his struggle.  I am interesting in getting on with life in a positive and productive way!

This was important to me, because it told me that Amy had stopped operating from a mindset of ‘What I am supposed to do with my horse‘ and changed into the mindset of ‘What does my horse feel like and what is he likely to do today’.  She was working now with her intuition and gut, rather than with her cleverness or ‘education’.   Which happens to be the topic of my next blog.

We kept everything calm and quiet and just kept loving on Onyx each step of the way.  Reassuring him.  Amy is a phenomenal rider, I have seen her successfully ride horses I wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole at the time she rode on them.  Maybe I would ride those horses now that I have more experience but she is a horse person I admire and wouldn’t hesitate to employ or ride with.   So my concern was not about her abilities, but about meeting her horses emotional needs.

She got on him.  He wobbled around, and he looked like for a moment he might consider a rear if pushed further- again presenting a balance issue.   I asked her to not make any rein contact, if he felt even a soft contact it may cue him to elevate.  Asked her just to steady and square him up and stand him still.  Do nothing.  10 seconds passed… his feet stopped moving.  He was a bit tense, but he stood still.  He blinked, ears back on Amy- listening,waiting…

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‘Now get down and just love on him. ‘

Second time we mounted up.  He stood like grandmas horse!   I made a little happy dance.  Amy smiled ear to ear and cheered her little guy on for being so good.

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So, I got on her other gelding, a prince we call Pepe, and we went out for a short ride in the sun.  Onyx looked like the happiest Spanish pony in the Alpujarrah’s.  And when we came to the home turn off, he happily went in the other direction, with a wide eyed Amy shocked and happy to see her horse who clearly wanted to go and adventure with her, rather than go home.

‘He LOVES to go out!’

We should all do more of whatever our horse loves to do!  Even if that means doing more nothing.

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It was a happy morning for both of us.  And the first time I had solved a rearing issue.  Having said that, I solved 0nyx’s rearing issue!  Not rearing as a general topic!   Understand the difference.  I was working with the horse in front of me, and adjusting the ‘methods’ on the horses needs, rather than asking the horse to adjust to my method.  I came with no pre-designed or rehearsed training agenda or technique.  I came with the desire to help, and offer a different perspective on the half of the horse.  I wanted healing more than I wanted change.   I wanted to help Amy.  Amy is one of the only people who rode my Sanson when he lived in Spain and rode him gently and kindly.  I wanted to help her feel better with her horse like she helped me with mine.

I had seen a rearing stallion in Poland two weeks prior to this at a saddle fitting consultation.  This horse was not presenting an anxiety issue like Onyx, but anger and frustration!   At this particular stable all the horses had being cooped up for 2 days in horse boxes after the autumn de-worming had been done, and their paddocks needed 48 hours rest to kill any parasitic eggs that remained on the earth.  The same approach that worked for Onyx would not work for this stallion- whose needs were quite different.  This stallion, used for dressage, also needed more ‘nothing’ done with him, but a nothing without human intervention.  He was frustrated at being contained and cooped up for hours and hours and hours and should have  been turned out in a large pasture for a couple of weeks and let run, let free.  He would not have felt the need then to rear during a saddle fitting.    Frustration functions quite differently to anxiety.

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*****

I believe that finding a place of stillness with your horse is the foundation all horses need.  From that foundation you can build high energy moments like racing gallops or flashy tricks – whatever you want –  but if the foundation of that big expressive moment is a place of peace and stillness, you can be sure that your horse is offering you something out of their own generous will, rather than offering you something because they are looking for the exit and are trying to barter with you for peace.

Horses want, crave and deserve peace.  I am coming to the understanding that dominance theory in horse training is pure bullshit.  Even in some natural horsemanship methods where dominance is used actively, I don’t understand why one should want to replicate the behaviour of an aggressive horse in training.  In the wild, horses live a peaceful life.  The wilderness is not like a BBC documentary.   The wild is often depicted as a primitive, harsh place, a constant fight for your life, death in a lions jaw or drought.  But anyone who has gone on extended trail rides out into wilderness can tell you that the wild is a peaceful place.  The animals mostly mosey about their business unmolested.  Go to a shopping mall at Christmas time however and you may see a brutal, primitive, fight for your life struggle.  But the animals out in nature live primarily in peace.   There are these short, intense moments of ending, death and struggle, but horses move very quickly out of the bad moments.

Unlike humans, horses are not programmed to accept suffering!  The sad part is, so many domesticated horses are programmed to accept a human-centric world view of suffering as an accepted norm.  Learned helplessness.  I think that is also bullshit.  Life is not about suffering.  Life will not will be easy or pleasant- but we should move away from darkness and lean more into the light.

Doing an ‘active nothing’ with Sanson is key to my success with him.  It is how I keep him safe and happy- and me safe and happy too.  I ask nothing of him except being and togetherness, before I ask something of him.

When I do ask something of him, it is still with an attitude of ‘This will stretch you and challenge you, but can you feel my peace out there while you try it?  If I ask you to do something hard, I am here to support you, I won’t abandon you in the struggle‘.  Molly-coddling and over-protecting your horse by never asking anything of them is not the answer either.  I ask a lot of Sanson.  But I ask him to to it together with me.  If I prove that I won’t abandon him in the struggle, then he won’t abandon me in his moments of crisis.

Do activity with a horse with your heart wide open and I promise they will never leave you.  Provide moments of time where the horse can be at peace with you, and they will be more receptive to the requests you make of them afterwards.

Build a balance with your horse between activity and peacefulness and see the difference it makes.

Because I promise it means the world to a horse.

 

Reliable

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Reliability is highly valued in horses.  In people too, we all can agree that trustworthiness and reliability are completely priceless in business and in functional relationships.

RELIABLE
1.

consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted.

“a reliable source of information”

synonyms: dependable, good, well founded, well grounded, authentic, definitive, attested, valid, genuine, from the horse’s mouth, sound, true; More

When you ask them to jump they say ‘How high?’.  When you ask them ‘Can you?’  they say ‘Yes’…

When you need they provide. 

When you want, they allow. 

When you ask they acquiesce. 

Whenever, whatever, always there, always trusted, always dependable to provide a service and provide what you need.

What about what they need? 

There is a dark side to reliability.  In a relationship of reliability where one party is more dominant than the other, it becomes one sided.  Referring to both people and to horses, those deemed ‘reliable’ by someone else who always gets something from them is an abusive misuse of someones good nature.  It is one sided.  It can almost be a narcissists dream, to come across someone ‘reliable’ because they can get everything they need  without any obligation to clearly define the others needs, and make sure they are met too.  It can be a breeding ground for exploitation and misuse.  We all have a choice to make.  But if you make a habit out of employing a horse to ride or work for you, or a human to work for you, I believe you have a responsibility to constantly check in with them to make sure their needs are being met as much as yours are.   If you are interested in things like success, quality performance, and longevity, you better make sure that those who you employ feel good about what they do, or risk they do a botched job of it.

DO NOT ask anyone- horse or human- to do a job they dislike and expect them to do it well.  That is madness.

Reliability is often accompanied by a character that is forgiving, temperate, patient and open minded.  They are willing to compromise.  But at what point does compromise begin to compromise them harmfully?  When does it tip over the point of being easy to work with and become simply an abuser as their victim? 

How many of us equestrians have been to stables and either seen, worked with or ridden those horses which were categorised as ‘Reliable’.   Bombproof, solid, safe, responsive.  These horses will perform no matter how crap the rider is, no matter how hard the hand, no matter how deep the kick, no matter how tired, stiff, sore or neglected they are, they will just continue giving output, because they are physiologically pre-disposed to being accepting of the world around them.  Or they feel like they have no other choice.
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Reliable:  Learned helplessness?
Unreliable:  Unlearned helplesness?  

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Lets flip that.  We also know those horses which are deemed less reliable.  These horses often do well in the right hands, but in the wrong hands they are unpredictable.  They can be dangerous or explosive, or reactive.  If you were brought up in a horse culture that robbed you of your independent thought then you may fall into the trap of mindlessly categorising such horses with commonly bandied about terms such as;

– Strong
– Advanced
– Forward
– Green

Or worse.  I’ve seen people describe such horses with open vitriol, calling them dicks, knobs, idiots, annoying, barstards and other such words of hate and ignorance.

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The same person will then happily put a first time rider with a trot technique akin to a jackhammer on a ‘reliable’ horse because that reliable horse will be less likely to behave ‘dangerously’ with such a person.  Meaning that horse will notice the pain, discomfort and confusion, realise that they cannot, or will not do anything about it, and just do what is asked anyway.  It’s like a rape of their good nature.  Taking something you do not have a right to take and giving nothing but negative back. 

What I am trying to say is, ‘ACCEPTANCE IS NOT THE SAME AS APPROVAL’.

One can accept a task and do it, and even do it really well without approving the task or liking it.
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‘Just because I did it, does not mean I wanted to do it’. 

Is something that many equestrians and many people need to come to grips with fast.  Because I believe it is key in getting high quality performance out of those whom you employ, be they horses or be they people.

Treat. Your. Work. Well.  Be honourable.  Be fair.  Be reasonable.  Use your common sense. This is not rocket science. 

Give them dignity, respect and work which is not only appropriate for them, but fits into their niche of genius, and gives them hope for the future.

Sanson is a perfect example of such a horse.  He absolutely loves work.  In fact, I am on a ‘working-holiday’ in Spain right now and messages from my stable back home report that he appears sad without my regular visits and follows people around initiating play and wanting cuddles.   Needless to say, I cannot wait to see him in a couple of days.  None the less, too many times in his life before I had him, he found himself catagorised as unreliable.  He bolted, he barged, he bucked.  He hurt people.
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  He loves work but he is a horse who has a very definite boundary of the type of behaviour and activities he accepts into his life.  I respect that.  A horse has ONLY himself.  He has his body and he has his life.  He has nothing else.  No job, no bank loans, no taxes, no house or car or pets or clothes or organic mesculin greens in the fridge crisper that will get a Jamie Oliver twist in that evenings starter salad.  Horses have their bodies and their life.  When you come into contact with them and start to provide a context of work together with them, be prepared to meet horses who will one day say ‘No.’  ‘No, I don’t like that, I don’t want to do that’.  The same horse may even have tolerated that same request more than once, just because they trust you, they gave you the benefit of the doubt and waited to see where the situation would go.  If the situation did not go anywhere positive for them, they will say No.  This is why is it so important to pay attention to their expression, watch for those tiny moments of change, or the quality with which they do something.  Because just because they tried it for you once, does not mean they have signed a contract that they will mindlessly do something ‘crap’ forever. 


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But a ‘reliable’ horse would probably just do it.  But the same reliable horse will probably never do it with love, energy or vitality.  They will never have a joyful expression in that work, they will be dull, switched off robots who have long lost their ability to have agency over their life and their activities with people, because someone too unscrupulous to pay attention to how they felt robbed them of it.  Because reliability is often accompanied by gentleness.  An unreliable horse is probably less gentle when confronted by perceived suffering.  They know how to take care of themselves, violently if necessary.  But I can bet you, that unreliable horse is far less likely to find themselves under a crap rider, or in the hands of an ignorant person.  I’ll bet my years salary, that an ‘unreliable’ horse, in the right hands, when treated well will be endlessly more generous, gentle, soft, expressive and willing than a quote ‘reliable’ horse, any day of the week.

I was a dancer for a long time.  A dancer is very, very VERY analogous to a horse.  Especially when comparing working professional dancers to horses treated traditionally through dominance.  A creature of movement, without a voice, forced to perform often under duress, without the benefit of an opinion.
As a dancer, I was both.  I was both that reliable plod and that high strung advanced ride.  For years I thought that the way to be SAFE, PROTECTED, STABLE and SUCCESSFUL was to fall in line, do what I was told, never express my opinion or at least suppress it as much as I could, and just work, work, work.  I became that person in my company that the staff went to when nobody remembered the choreography, or when someone got sick, or when casting a new performance, I was put in a position without a second cast- meaning I was the only person dancing that position even if my colleagues were afforded the reprieve of an alternate. 
You know what I became?  Dull, lifeless, and without passion for my work.  I lost the magic because I was robbed of my autonomy.  I was just trying to survive.  I didn’t believe I had the right to ask for what I really wanted.  So I accepted the scraps off the table.  I realised that all my ambitions and hopes and dreams was washed away by my perceived ‘reliability’ because why give me something that is ambitious that risked flaring me into having an opinion or authority in my workplace, if they could just put me in a menial position and never get a complaint out of me.  It was about power and control.  Many people in leadership positions are scared of intelligence when coupled with a clear internal faith or power.  They do not want to be challenged.  They do not want to be shown to be lacking.  As a leader they want to maintain their dominance and so if they can put intelligence and power into a dull little box they are able to control it.


Once I realised this I realised had to do something different.   I became a ‘No’ person.  But I realised that it was too late, I had left it go for too long.  I had accepted and accommodated being ‘reliable’ for so many years that my superiors did not have the energy, or focus to suddenly re-catagorise me as someone who wanted and deserved more.  I was in my box.  I had to get myself out.  And I did.  I walked away from it all.

I promised to myself I would never let it happen again.  When I found myself recently in a situation where this pattern was repeating itself I had a different response.  One which shocked not only others but myself too.  I found myself somewhere where apparently my ability, intelligence, my services and my potential was recognised, and then was delegated to something designed to make me a dull machine.  Well, I had a violent internal reaction to it, which I managed to calm into a productive ‘No’, and I walked away, having set my boundaries.  I will not let that destructive pattern wreak havoc in my life again.

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What we should strive for is a balance.  Meeting our horses and our people half way.  But it has really got to be half way.  Eventually, both sides must get something out of whatever activities you are doing.  And I am not talking about money, food or a pat on the back ‘Thank You’ every second Thursday.  Each of us, horses and humans, have the right to find meaning in what we do.  Value that is integral to who we are, what we are good at and what we have to offer.   

Allow your horses to have ambition for how they want to be treated, and how they live their life.  Allow your horse to say no because 100% I can guarantee the same horse that says no is trying to pull you up.  They want you to be better.  Better for them but also better for you!  Let your horse show YOU how to improve.  Can you be humble enough for that?

Cocoon

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It’s autumn, and a beautiful one.  We have been blessed with consecutive days of sunshine, and mild sunny  weather free of wind and rain.  For people in Northern Europe, this bliss is fleeting, awareness that these are out the last outposts of pleasant weather before the winter sets in and we are besieged by months of cold, snow, sleet, smog and if you’re an equestrian… MUD.

It’s at this time that I feel my body begin to close up shop, tiredness accumulated and deferred during the Spring and Summer catches up with me and my body needs rest and hibernation.  It is a dichotomy, because I would really rather be outside taking advantage of the great weather.  But energetic debts spent months or even years ago now come to the surface, and my relationship with my own energy is changing, I don’t want to always live in an energetic deficit, but in a surplus.  The last few days and weeks my body sent me strong signals to slow down, so I listened.

When a caterpillar has gone as far as it can in it’s current form, it slows down, stops and then builds a cocoon.  The cocoon is a foil, because to the outside world, it looks like a boring brown package- inert and cumbersome.  It looks like nothing is being done.  But deep inside, profound changes are taking place.  This is how I feel right now.  To the outside world, it looks like not much is happening, but inside, profound changes are taking place.  When I am ready to shed the shell, who knows how far I could then fly? Or what form I will take?

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I use this idea when training horses.  Especially with Sanson.   He is my own horse that I do not outsource to anyone else at all, he and I have the wonderful chance of experiencing details of time together.  When I work with a client, I am very clear they they are the ones who must do the work with their horse, not me.  It is their horse not mine and the results I can get with that horse will not reflect accurately the results they can get, so I am teaching them how to make things better on their own.  Ideally, I want all my clients to be independent of any trainer at all.  One of the greatest pleasures of having your own horse is not dealing with things other people did to your horse to change them.  At least that’s how I feel.

Often I will totally put away a task- or cocoon it- for a time being.  I will stop certain gaits, exercises, techniques, even spaces of training for a time if it feels right.  But just because I am NOT doing something doesn’t mean that I am not working on it.  And it is more sophisticated than the following standard classical conditioning understanding:  ‘if you educate your horse at a walk the trot will improve’.  Yes, this is true and I use this too, but I can be trotting and practising the canter, whilst no canter is visible to the outside world.  The canter is then a FEELING shared only between the horse and myself and only the very perceptive can register the small signals that register externally  in the horse and rider that are linked to the profound changes that happen inside between the horse and the rider.

Groundwork gives you perspective, but riding gives you FEELING.  Both compliment each other.

I was lately finding myself mid-lesson saying things like:

“Now please walk with the FEELING of a trot, let him taste the trot feeling before you ask him to do it.”

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If the horse is awake, responsive and on the same page with you, they will share this conversation with you:

please remain walking, but feel a trot energy now

Stand still, but with the energy of gallop

Walk but with the feeling of stop

Trot, but with the feeling of canter

Close your eyes after you say the above four things, and imagine riding your horse and making that request…. that is you searching for a FEELING with your horse and this is the horses language.  They communicate in mental, emotional, physiological and even spiritual feelings.

If the horse has a poor expression response from this ‘cocoon request’, do NOT then ask them to DO the things they had a poor response to.  Get to the root of their frustration first.  “Go back, you missed something” The horse is trying to say.

Last Spring, a well known local trainer asked to film my riding as they had ‘Never seen anyone move on a horse like that before’.  Whether their motives were positive or negative I do not know, but unfortunately I suspect the latter.  Anyway, my reply was that sure, they can film me, but I am not trotting right now, so there is not much to film.
A few days later they asked me suddenly and forcefully
‘Why are you not trotting your horse!?’  Almost frustrated by my quiet progression.

I wanted to say that just because I am walking, does not mean I am not trotting.  But it would have taken too much for me to explain that, and I doubt they would have listened to me anyway.

Instead I said that my horse was not ready, he was just coming out of his first northern European winter with a profoundly different body, and I wanted to give him time to be physically and mentally prepared to go forwards.  Ten days after that discussion, Sanson and I were enjoying extended high speed gallops in the forest together.  He was absolutely ready for that, because I had ‘COCOONED’ his high energy movements under saddle, for months so they could have rest and time to transform into something better.

The result is that my weak, wobbly and downhill horse is currently giving me form beyond what I could have imagined.  I think he too, he often feels shocked at his own power.

My question then is, what are you cocooning?  What have you ‘Put back in the shell’ to give it time to change and grow without interference?

Letting horses find their excellence ON THEIR OWN has lasting powerful change that far outweighs any horse that has been micromanaged or drilled into change by mindless repetition.
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Perfect

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

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

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

It is a valuable attitude to have with horses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I guess I just really like to climb.

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

 

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DELTA

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Why is change so hard

Why does change feel so uncompromising? 

Why are so many people and horses resistant to change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change is hard.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SISTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her trainers reply, I’ll never forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Responsibility

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

‘Oh but it is so expensive’

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

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

‘They can be dangerous animals!’

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

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

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

‘Just make it WORK!’

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

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

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

Response. 

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


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

Ability.

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

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

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

Responsibility.  The Ability to Respond.

A wise old African saying goes

“Never Accept a shirt from a naked man’.

Another of a similar vein goes

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

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

Manipulate

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

manipulate

verb

1.

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

“he manipulated the dials of the set”

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

“the workman manipulated some knobs and levers”

2.

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

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

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

“the government tried to manipulate the situation”

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

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

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why?’

or worse yet…

‘I give up.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I always hated math class anyway.

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