What?

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Every single time you work with your horse you are training them.  I would say that as soon as you step within their field of influence, the training begins.  Without laying a finger on them the horse has already run a diagnostic on you, who you are, how you’re feeling right now, where your energy is at and how they intend to approach you.  This is training.

Anyone who rides a horse is training them.  I really dislike the word ‘trainer’ because it can be misleading, it puts the ‘trainer’ up on a pedestal and therefore we are supposed to view them as some kind of authority.   I have always been someone who questions authority that does not sound, look, feel or seem to be 100% correct to me.  That combined with what I know about horses; that they are a result of the environment they are living in, they mirror back and absorb that which surrounds them, I can comfortably say that the moment you are close to a horse, you are training them.

So what are you training your horse for?

Let me say it again…

What are you training your horse for?  

I am asking myself this question today.  After a winter of limited access to good footing, and working around rehabilitation of my horse’s diet, hooves and lifestyle… not to mention training activities, I reflected upon the question myself.  What am I training him to do.  And I remembered the intention I set for myself from the very beginning

‘I just want him to be the best version of himself’

Every time I leave the stable I face a 45m to 1 hour drive home.  During that drive I put on whatever music I am feeling at the time and I do a body diagnostic.  I check in with my feelings, and my emotions.   Life with horses is mostly about controlling our own emotions, so that we can influence the emotions and then later the activities of our horses.  I listen to my gut, and see what is sitting there.  If I drive away from the stable with a mildly disturbed feeling in my stomach, then I need to listen to it, and find out why I feel that way.  Maybe Sanson did everything I asked that day but his expression what not where I like to see it.  Maybe he suddenly changed gaits or direction and I didn’t expect it.  All those little things, which if left unignored, can build into larger problems.

The way I address these symptoms is by taking Sanson for long, long, walks in hand to the forest.  If he cannot settle down at the end of my lead rope, and just walk along in the forest, how can I expect him to do it under saddle?  That is something I hope to do a lot of once the weather improves, long trail rides!

I came to the conclusion that although the training I have been doing with him was good and necessary for his body it was only partially what he needed mentally.   I have always said that Sanson has a talent to be Super Plod of the Universe.  So why wasn’t I training him to just put one foot in front of the other for an indeterminate period of time and be ok with the world?  It’s good to do all those advanced things with him, or at least work towards them.  I will continue to do so, because I know that when asked to give them, he can and will.  He is very talented and athletic.  But actually, looking forward to a hopefully 20+ year relationship with this horse I find that mostly I just want to relax and explore the countryside from his back, at a calm walk with periods of chill, perky trot, and relaxed canter.  90% of the time, that is what I want to do.  Of course, all the higher training stuff is absolutely essential for that to happen, especially when undertaking equine retraining.   But sometimes you just gotta release all pressure and expectation and just go for a long trail ride.

Today I went for a long walk with him to the forest.  And then came back and worked with him in the round pen. I compared the difference.  I realised that a lot more pressure was coming off me than I realised during training.  So I decided to back off, refine my signals, and focus on a summer ahead, of quality trail riding, with therapeutic arena sessions.  I took the steady, simple relaxation I got from our walk and put it in the arena session.  I liked the results.  And felt better about myself too.

Next time you ride, ask yourself the question, ‘What overriding message about me is my horse going to take back to the paddock with him today?’  If 29063444_10155039974987000_9075186353653678080_nyou look at it honestly and objectively the answer may surprise you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Method

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So often I come across horse people who feel a bit confused and lost about which path they should take.

‘I don’t know what style I should do!’  They’ll say.  Often these people have very young horses who are still very green or totally untrained at all (lucky them… blank canvas!)

My reaction to that is a blank sort of confusion.   I could say it is because I decided very early on what ‘methods’ I was going to follow… and objectively speaking this is true.

What confuses me is the confusion itself.  I was never confused about which path I should do, even when I was in the process of finding my way.  Because I always knew that my instinct would lead me to the answers I needed.
In the place of confusion I was (still am) consumed by a hungry learning monster, obsessed with finding the answer!  No matter time of day or night, nor where I am or what I am doing, this learning monster can and will override all other functioning systems to hold a company meeting, brainstorming, and general pow-wow to get to the bottom of the nagging question as hand. I never had time to voice my concerns to others, I was too busy filling in the blanks.

I often wonder, if you are confused about the path you should take with your horse, to the point that you feel the need to vocalise it to almost perfect strangers, then you might be in a dangerous zone of waiting for the answer to be given  to you.  Searching for answers is one thing, but advertising for external absolution can be a recipe for disaster.  Wasn’t it Laozi who said ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’ ?  Advertising yourself to be openly if not temporarily clueless, unless in tried and trusted company, can sound like a victim siren to an aggressor.  You might accidentally contrive a situation where you find yourself with a trainer who does not have your best interests at heart, let alone your horses, but is exploiting your ignorance for their own personal gain.  Very dangerous.   To be frank, if I had let my life be dictated by what others handed to me on a silver platter, I would still be scratching away an existence in my home country, dreaming about who I could have become.  Its good to ask for help, but so many of the important things in life require independent action.

I guess I am lucky that I always seemed to have a strong internal compass.  I always had a little voice in my belly that said ‘You’re going to be alright, no matter what’.  Even when the world around me gave me no reason to believe that I much to be confident about at all, I still had a kind of undying faith that I would survive, and eventually thrive.

From the same place, I draw upon my ability to be decisive in my horsemanship.  It is so crucial!  You even have to be decisive in situations where no further decisions or actions are needed.  Decisively indecisive! To be effective with any horse past the level of pony rides at the local fair ground, you must be capeable of making well informed decisions.  Those decisions come in a variety of contexts:

  • Training decisions

You horse will need you to be able to decide WHAT you actually want.  From them, but also from yourself.  Doesn’t matter if your horse is in a moment of trouble, adreneline and danger hazard high, or if they cannot make it around the block fast than the crawl of a neolithic glacier, your horse is asking you to make a decision that is in their best interests, and then stick to it.

  • Logistical decisions

What saddle; treed or treeless or flexi-tree, western, dressage, endurance, trail, general purpose, synthetic, expensive, cheap, mid-market or flea-market, bareback or half pads?  Bit or bitless; bridle or bridleless?  What colour halter; rope or webbed?  Leather or Synthetic?  Colourful or Classic?  What stable; natural, traditional, sporty, recreational, posh, shoestring?  What food; grain or not to grain, supplements, ad-lib forage or rationed?  Just the tip of the iceberg folks, before you even lay a finger on an equine of your own you need to have demonstrated the ability to make a thousand tiny choices, all of which must relate somehow not only to your horses needs, but who YOU are as a person too.   Of course, you can infiltrate a stable community where a lot of those decisions are made for you from a cultural perspective… everyone here feeds 2kgs of oats daily, so will I.  But you run the risk of make decisions based upon a collective and very human cultural phenomena, called the herd mentality, that may or may not be the right choice for your horse as an individual.  Being an expat for as long as I have, I have lived outside of cultural norms and expectations, I can hardly imagine what it would be like to be part of a collective consciousness anymore.  Therefore, every decision is mine to make… not histories.

  • Hard decisions

The easiest to explain but the most difficult to consider.  Starting from ‘Do I buy them?  Can I buy them?’  Right down to the end ‘Do I let them go?  Can I let them go?  When do I let them go?’.   Most lucky horse owners, under the normal set of circumstances, will outlive their beloved horses.  We have to remember that their lives are our responsibility, and mostly likely we will have to make some very difficult decisions one day, on their behalf.

If you keep waiting for the next trainer, local guru, stable know-it-all, Youtube sensation, charismatic clinician or page turning author to tell you who you are… you will always remain a faded version of yourself.  By all means, go out there and sponge up all the information available to you and your resources!  But run everything you learn through your own instinctual, gut-based, common sense filter… and then do what makes sense to you!

Be yourself!

Isn’t that what our horses are constantly trying to tell us anyway?

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Trauma

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‘trauma’
ˈtrɔːmə,ˈtraʊmə/
noun
  1. 1.
    a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.

I must make it clear before I go any further, the home I bought Sanson from could not have been any better.  I love that place so much I went there 7 times, basically every time I had a holiday during the last 5 years, I went to Caballo Blanco.  I want to live in Spain one day.   Sarah, Sanson’s previous owner, is one of the most remarkable horsewomen- nay- animal people I have ever met.  I learned a lot from her and the people she trusted with her animals.  Because of this place I know everything about what happened to Sanson between the ages of 3 and 8.  Those first few years are very important times to a horse.  Just like in a human, early life experiences are absolutely critical to the formation of the adult you will become.

Trauma is like an onion, it has many layers.  The more you disturb it, cut it up, peel it back, manipulate it, the more it can make you cry.

 

Once I got Sanson back to Poland last August I decided that it was best to retrain him.  After the turmoil of the move I thought it was best to give him a fresh start.  Just like the fresh start I had when I moved from Australia to Switzerland almost 10 years ago.  He deserved a chance to make amends and reconcile with himself, heal himself if need be.
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I could have just continued going on in the way he was going.  The same food, the same equipment, the same activities, the same ethos, ideas and goals.  And in a couple of years he may have become dull enough to just plod around the forest, not having much to offer, unless something scared him enough to make him wake up for a moment, but then go back to a disconnected guy with untapped potential.  Who am I talking about again? Me or the horse?  Sometimes the lines blur so much its a bit scary.

But my gut told me it was time to retrain.  By this I mean go right back to basics, and go through everything step by step, filling any holes I found along the way.

But today I realised that retraining -for us- is not about going back to square one.  It is about starting where he was and peeling back each layer.  He had accumulated a number of problems in his short life, hence why he came into my hands.  Yet he seems to let me go to places with him that he would not, or could not, let others go.  The trauma onion.

The retraining begun rather clinically.  Change diet.  Check.  Change to correct stable for us.  Check.    We have been training too of course.  Sometimes 6 days a week.  Sometimes 2-3.  Mostly in the school with small trips to the forest.  The ultimate goal is to ride with expression, awareness and quality in the forest, for long periods of time… all day if we can.

………

Let me say that again:

The ultimate goal is to ride with;

  • Expression
  • Awareness
  • Quality

Not just plonk along mindlessly, hollow backed, dead eyed, going somewhere somehow.  To move with quality and expression in the forest so that he is equally as awake and full of care as I am.   I don’t want a horse who can be ridden in the forest safely only because they have totally given up ever being listened to or heard, or never realised that was even an option to them.  Such a horse moves because they mechanically feel obligated to do so, half the time following historical patterns and pathways rather than actually listening to the rider about where they go and how they get there.  Take the last 3 sentences and insert the same logic into a dance context and you have exactly the same feelings I have about my work in the ballet industry!  And people frequently wonder how I combine the two worlds together…..

I want an expressive, alive, happy, centered horse who is awake to the world around him.  Its a fine line to tread.  Too alive and it can tip over into anxiety.  Not alive enough, and you lose all quality and eventually lose your horse along the way.  I think the process will take years to attain.  And after you attain a certain level with require more or less constant, and daily devotion to maintain it.  Like prayer or meditation.   But, it just so happens I really love horses and I really love to ride, and I REALLY love my horse Sanson so I am prepared to take years to get there, no matter what the obstacle.

Trauma.  How does this relate to his retraining?
Last time I worked with Sanson he taught me something new about him.  I always try and set some basic parameters which are consistent  when I am at the stable but always change up the actual activities.  Some people confuse consistency with droll repetition.  That is not working with a horse, that is drilling them until they become dull to what you are doing, dull enough to easily control them.  Not for me thanks.
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He is a smart horse.  No, he is a REALLY smart horse.  Like, really, really smart.  I think he has problem solving, memory and creative abilities that far outstrip half of my work supervisors, seriously.  So for our last session I set up a kind of playground in the round pen.  Something that looked like the finals at the BLM Mustang Makeover challenge.  A tall stepladder with a huge tarp thrown over it, which blew in the gentle breeze.  A small jump.  A number of trot poles.  Serpentine marks.  And a Hula hoop.  It was just lying around, random detritus from the children of other horse owners that play at the stable sometimes.

The tarp gives him not many qualms. Some horses go through their whole lives totally unable to step over or even near a tarp.  I could throw Sanson under the tarp completely, wrap it around his neck like a scarf.  After a bit of tension shown in his eyes, the moment I tell him:

‘You’re alright buddy.  You’re ok!’

He just slow blinks and breathes.  Looks at me wondering what is next on the menu today.   Tarp on his neck like fabulous equine Oscar Wilde or something.

After a bit of creative lunging, I absent mindedly picked up the Hula Hoop.  Tapped it against my leg, standing about 1.5 meters away from him.

SANSON:

‘NOPE!   BYE!’

ME:

‘Huh?’

‘That’s the devils work that.  I am going to run and hide over here.  SNORT.  SNORT sticky thing in your hands. Kill it.  Snort.  Trot trot trot.  Throws head.  Death to sticky tappy thing!’

ME:

*Taps leg with hoop*   ‘You’re ok buddy.  None of that thanks.  Just stand please’

SNORT

‘Stand’

‘Can’t’

‘Yes you can.’

He reluctantly stood.  As if he said

‘Ok for you I will stand for a second…’

I am grateful we are at the level together where he will give me the benefit of doubt.  After a few minutes I could put the hoop all over his body, over his head over his neck, I could just about put it anywhere and do anything with it.  Except one thing.  Its very specific.  If I stood about striking distance, raise it in the air, brandish it, or tap it on my something, he very clearly rejects it.  Shies away.  Sometimes explodes away.  600kgs of fevently-wishing-it-would-stop is quite something to behold.  Especially when it has long luscious hair and four rocks for feet.   Especially when your hopes, dreams and heart is wrapped up intrinsically with it.

This confused me because I know where he came from.  They are good people!  They do NOT hit horses.  They use a lunge whip to shape up a horse during groundwork, but never on Sanson, he never needed assistance to get going.

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But then I remembered an anecdote.  I wasn’t there.  One of the former trail guides was assigned Sanson as guide horse a couple of Springs ago.  It was one of her first times on him I think and after tacking he was a bit sticky to get out of the stable.  She was probably used to the light PRE and Arabian horses who were much lighter to manoeuvre, but being a heavier type it requires a different touch, and she had mounted clients ready for the ride and a long list of things to do that day.  Anyway,  that day she decided she wasn’t going to take any of that thank you very much, grabs a bamboo stick from the tack room, and smacks Sanson roundly a couple of times to get him going.  Now, anyone who knows Sanson at this point would be saying ‘Oh no…’ and shielding their eyes.

Anyway, he backed out of stable.  Walked to round pen.  Let her get in the saddle.  Waited a second  and promptly bucked her off, rather violently so I am told.  She was 3 months pregnant at the time.  She now runs a calm little riding school for children in the hippy village Orgiva in the next valley.  Bless her.

It occurred to me today that he has a deeper trauma.  It must go deeper than that incident with the unlucky, overworked and hapless guide.  Because after everything he and I have been through, the type of relationship we have, if I pick up a hoop, not even visually akin to a stick, and hold it at striking distance, he still freaks out… then his problem must be a deeper, older hurt.  He was trying to tell me something

No horse is born afraid of whips.  They are taught to be afraid of them.

I asked his owner today what she knew of his previous owner.  She said they had never met.  She was looking for a draft type horse, and had seen Sanson advertised online.  She found out he had been sold to a chap she knew in Granada who was intending to break him to carriages.  One day she found out that Sanson was already loaded and on way to new home and she literally intercepted the trailer on the side of the road and bought him, exchanged, and bought home Sanson, then a 3 year old Stallion, to the mountains, with the intention to breed him with her Breton mares (which was a spectacular failure).

She said the likelyhood that he was whipped to get loaded into the trailer was high.  It is basically the only method to load horses that the Spanish in the area had.   This would account for his dislike of whips years later!  Even whip adjacent items when appearing in a equi-similar image to his eyes could trigger an old trauma and response.  I can tell you exactly the angle that he is most scared of me holding a whip-like object is exactly the same angle one would most likely take when loading a horse into a trailer.  When I stand in a different place, his reaction is less.  For example, under his belly, it gets no reaction from him there.  But flanks, and rump…. big reaction.
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The joy of owning your own horse, and not using them as a riding horse for other people, is that you can delve deep into the relationship with your horse.  Just like you would with another human relationship, romantic or platonic.  If the relationship is based on mutual respect, love, care and allowing the other to be 100% themselves at all times, then you slowly start to feel safe enough to entrust that other person with your secrets.  The things you only tell some people.  Deep diving.

Riding someone else’s horse you first have to wade through a shallow sea of problems created by others, before you can get to know the horse on a pure and simple level.

I believe this is part of the trust Sanson is still developing with me.  He is a very sensitive horse.  Things which don’t bother other horses can bother him greatly.  He can be proud and dignified and can get ‘stuck’ emotionally and physically.  Hard for him to let go when he feels he has been ‘stepped on; or wronged.

I think we just passed into a new phase in our journey together because he has sent me a message.  He told me his secret.  He laid all the clues for me to go do my homework and find out WHY he was in the state he is.  In the past he may have just freaked out totally and not attempted to participate in any dialogue with his handler about it, or -when he was sick with ulcers or other Gastro-Intestinal issues- not make any response at all.  Merely stare, dull eyes, not seeing the world around him, not caring.   I don’t know which is sadder.

But he is healthy now.  Healthy and loved and protected.  Protected enough to share his traumas with me.  I believe that was an offering he made me, showing me that which he wanted……. needed!….. to heal the most.

I am determined not to let him down.  I will work with him through it.  With kindness but also firm boundaries, until the day comes that he has said what he has to say and can let the monkey on his shoulder go.  Just like me.  I have my stuff too.  It takes me ages to trust people enough to tell them my hardest secrets, my worst hurts.  Things which didn’t have long term effects on others, but which still haunt me today.

And it also gave me a tearful new perspective on the fact that Sanson has loaded into a trailer for me.  Dozens of times.  All over Europe.  Time and time again.  Stood in 40+ heat in a sweltering metal box for me.  Unloaded into a vermin infested stable, and loaded for me again for me the next morning.   Tears now flow.

This horse is life changing.   I knew him in a previous life and if heaven exists, and he is not there, I don’t want to go.

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Energy

expat logo slimEnergy.  It is a word that is bandied around a lot when we speak about horses.  It can be a vague term and often misleading.  For me, energy is a type of language.  This ‘thing’ is difficult to describe because it is a feeling… language alone has a very poor capacity to evoke true kinesthetic realities, there are some things which can only be felt.  Body, mind, heart and soul together as a whole singular, non-verbal experience. 

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When I speak about Sanson, there are elements in his behaviour which can be troublesome for some people and still remain a part of him today.  He can bolt, run off with his rider, have problems concentrating, walk through or over someone, has even bucked people off.  He is pretty bulky and naturally powerful horse, I can name a few instances that I know of (But probably these are the tip of the iceberg) where these ‘things’ have hurt people, even put them in hospital. 

I spent 5 years visiting a mountain trekking centre in the foothills of the Spanish Sierra Nevada, first as a working holiday tourist, and then as a volunteer, and finally as a paid worker.  What started as a holiday in the saddle became a summer job, and it was where I met Sanson… this was his home. IMG_0364

I still remember the first day I worked with him.  There was a daily list at the stable, written by the owner and manager of the yard.   ‘The List’ is the effective bible of the days work and client/ride regimen.  I had worked with a variety of the horses they had across my visits but one day it went on the list—

‘4pm. School Sanson:  Lachlan’

I remember the people around me having some kind of nervous reaction to that.  Except for Val, the cool-as-a-cucumber Belgian stable manager.  I idolised Val and thought (still do think) she was one of the most gifted horse people I had ever met.   I cannot be certain, but I think it was Val’s suggestion to put me and Sanson together to work.  I had steadily been progressing ‘Up’ in the level of horse they were giving me to ride and school, testing my skills and my nerve.  Being a very busy yard, they are always looking for people who can help bring their horses along in their training, and improve the quality of rides to their clients.  

Being horse crazy like I am, each chance to get to work and ride a new horse is an honour and exciting, and on that visit to Caballo Blanco (I think it was summer 2013) I had been on the yard for a couple of weeks already and felt settled enough not to be scared, or too bloody exhausted to have energy for fear, or both. Half their horses were rescues and most of them extremely forward, some even fairly unmanageable.  Spanish horses can be hot and fiery, and the Spanish men are famous for their incredibly brutal training methods… some of these rescues were in a bad state.  The place was run solely by English expat Sarah, who is something of a miracle worker with horses.  Respected by expats and Spanish alike across the Alpujarrahs, if there is a God, Sarah got touched by him in her skills with horses……… and dogs, and cats, and chickens, and geese, and rabbits……   

I should have been concerned when my friend Jane said to me after reading The List…

‘So!  You workin’ with the big boy today eh?’

‘Who?’

‘Sanson silleh!’ 

‘Oh yeah, it’s on the list, so I guess so.’

It was unusual to school a horse at 4pm, that was time to make the evening feeds, but there were enough volunteers and workers that summer that those who could do the horse work were freed up to do that.  I had done a bit of mountain guiding for the place, and enjoyed it, but my heart really lay in horsemanship.  There was so much more to riding and to horses that just the ‘Getting On and Going’ mentality of a trekking centre.  You and your horse are thrown into the deep end and if your mount presents you with a few issues when you’re out on the mountain trail with -usually- inexperienced tourists following you,  you never really get the chance to focus in and solve the issue.  You and your horse finish the ride somewhat rattled.  It always felt kind of unfair to the horse to me.  Feels too much like flying by the seat of my pants.  Sure, there is a value in learning how to solve a issue with your horse while you are out riding, or doing a job, but I think it puts the horse and rider at too much risk.  Safety is EVERYTHING when it comes to horses!  Taking an unfamiliar horse out on a week long trek can be great, if the horse has the training and the temperament that lends itself to that kind of experience.  But most horses, it would be too much pressure on them just to ‘shut up and perform’.  ( I am starting to see a spooky connection to my dance career…) Some horses have opinions, intelligence and are not ‘dead behind the eyes’ like many trail horses are.  I think we owe it to them to see what they have to say, and help them through their issues. 
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Sanson up until that point had been the strange, floppy looking, young horse that I occasionally gave feeds to.  I never saw anybody work or ride him.  I thought he was actually kind of ugly, not being impressed by his mane, I was accustomed to horses that actually looked like horses, not strange fairytale ‘Barbie horses’ as he was referred to. 

As I lead him into the round pen, I remember the other volunteers giving him a wide berth, and people closing the gate after me, which NEVER happened.  Was I was leading a Siberian Tiger on the end of my rope?  People would stop mid bucket duty to catch a peek of what we were doing.  The whole energy I got from the yard was that Sanson was treated with caution, importance and even a bit of fear.  I remember distinctly being absolutely, 100% perplexed by this yard vibe around him.  None of the energy I ever got from him was giving me red flags.  There certainly were horses on the yard that I would have been very calculated in my handling of, not that I wasn’t cautious with Sanson, but I was more reticent to work with the I-Cannot-Ever-Stand-Still-I-Want-To-Run-Everywhere-And-Dance-Piaffe-Pirouette-Bolt-Bite-Head-Shakey-Prancy-Explosion Andalucian rescue mares, than this weak looking, young, draft horses in a strange colour, who always came over to say hello in the paddock.

I remember feeling no fear, only a bizarre type of apprehension that grew from a place of calmness.  I had absolutely no knowledge about prior training or experiences.  Normally I wanted to know as much as possible about a new horse before I worked with them.  I was told he was ridable and thats about it.  I knew he was green.  I had never worked with a baby before.  In fact, my stable in Poland exclusively gave me the aged ‘safe’ horses.  I was lead to believe that I wasn’t ready to able to work with a young horse.  I love my trainers dearly, but this sentiment was apparently incorrect!  I had had enough trainings to become an above average rider and done enough homework that I could take a fresh horse and not be clueless anymore.  A new page in my life was about to be turned and I had no idea.

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I had been studying for a year on Monty Robert’s methods.  Now, I am no evangelical horseman… the type who prescribes to one method and loathes the rest.  Monty, like many famous trainers, certainly has his fair share of such followers.   I try to learn from many different horseman and see what works for me, take the good, and leave behind the rest.  Like the modern American Philosopher Ken Wilbur who wrote about his idea for ‘Integral Humanism’ in his book ‘The Eye of Spirit’, I believe in Integrating Horsemanship from a variety of sources, and if it feels meaningful to you, do it, if it doesn’t, understand why you don’t like it. 

  I had read all of Monty’s books.  Watched my trainers perform what they called Join-Up a few times, although suspected that the way they were doing it was wrong.  So I had to go to the source.  Monty lives in California but travels the world annually giving clinics.  So, I  flew to Germany one Spring to see him in action at one of his clinics.  I saw him do Join-Up with my own eyes.  I saw that he was the real deal.  I saw his true love for horses totally outshine his own methods, and saw horses

DSC05981 forgive his many mistakes, because everything he did came from an amazing palpable place of joy, love, humour and care.   After tens of thousands of horses under his belt, I saw Monty break into tears of happiness when a horse he presented at the clinic got over one his  fears in front of the audience. I joined his online university and soon had watched more than 200 of his lesson videos. But, I had never had the practical opportunity to try Join-Up for myself.  So, I decided to try with Sanson.    DSC05946

 

Three and a half minutes later, I had a sweet expressive nose, sniffing my shoulder.  I had followed all the steps  of the method that I knew by heart, and Sanson had responded in textbook perfect.  I read somewhere that ‘Technique is what you use when you run out of inspiration’.  For me it worked the opposite way.  I used a technique I did not know I possessed, in order to grow some inspiration and intuition about what to do next.  Luckily, a friend of mine was present, and I believe she captured in this photo the moment Sanson looked at me differently.  This was the moment I think our connection started. DSC06061.JPG

Then we began 3 years of working together.  Whenever I could fly to Spain, I did, and though I loved being there, the more I went, the more Sanson became the reason I continued to return.  This horse just gave me everything he had, EVERYTHING.  I gave him 100% of my focus and intent each time, and he mirrored me back.  It felt like the first truly reciprocal partnership with a horse.  Like we were both there for equal parts each other and for ourselves.  I discovered how much reassurance he needed from his rider.  Not that he was needy, he can just be dramatic and fly off the handle, and needs a rider who can guide him through the good and the bad.   He is extremely brave, but confidence can be lacking.  But his confidence only lacks when he is confused, in pain or even mild discomfort, under too much pressure (mental or physical) or remembering past trauma.  Trauma for him presents in ways you wouldn’t expect.  He is also extremely sensitive to smell.  He sadly once saw the corpse of another horse on the driveway corner under a tarp, it had passed away and was awaiting collection, and for the rest of his life on the mountain, I never knew when he would remember that moment.  Some days past that corner he went past it like a pro.  Some days he turned on his haunches and flew away, and things got western.  Nothing but trust and step for step reassurance would lead him past it.  He is still loathsome of ‘dead’ smells.  Garbage with food remains of meat, if he is upwind, he spooks.  I bought a hoof ointment with main component animal fat, if he is not tied up, he very expressively avoids me oiling his feet with it.  If I was not detail oriented or aware of these things, and so willing to see the world through his eyes, these things would just present as Sanson being a ‘bit of a dick’, or ‘too spooky’ or whatever.  There is a rhyme and reason for everything he does.  Nothing is arbitrary with him or horses.    

How do I get through to him?  Energy.  I have to be 100% physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, present and then he can recognise me.  Luckily, I am a dancer, it brings a deeper understanding of my body, and the ability to project my energy out in the space around me.  One of my strengths as an artist was my performance, or acting ability… this is only energy, and the instincts for how to send it out around you, to affect how others think and feel.  This is what I do with him.  I become present.  I show him who I am.  Like rolling back the grey plastic curtain of the human world, and entering the painfully clear world of the horse, I show up.  I have photos which show what I believe to be Sanson finally ‘seeing’ me, when I do this with him.  Thats when he just comes over and fits into the palm of my hand and gives me everything he has got.  Sometimes I have even felt him share ideas, images, feelings and experiences with me this way.  But more on that later… I am still a bit hesitant to talk about that, lest people think I am mad. 

But it is true to say that I have the ability to make a connection with horses, and I think Sanson has an unusually developed talent to connect with a human, and has higher standards for people as a result.  The reason why he is now my horse is because there was nobody yet who was able to accomplish with him, the things I have managed to accomplish.  And I feel overwhelmed and honoured by it. 

Tomorrow when I see him, my focus will be on my energy, on showing up, and stepping into his world, and out of mine. DSC06035

Pretty

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So, this happened today.

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In the grand scheme of things, in life and in horses, of what could go wrong, it is a tiny, easily overcome thing, but still… I am a perfectionist.  I just want to get to the results, and get the ugly process over with.

As a dancer, we are hard wired to be critical -self critical mostly- and diabolically focused towards goals.  You are encouraged to relentlessly pursue excellence and perfection.   It can manifest in different way in different people.

Some people become image obsessed.  Instagram and blogs, they want everything to be grinning, polished, shiny, perfect, photoshopped, filtered, posed, positioned, prepared and performed.

– With each passing day I become less and less interested in image, unless its for my own sake.  Though I indulge in instagram, I am not very good at it.  My photos are usually grainy and poorly framed.  If they look great its because whatever I shot is naturally astounding, not because I worked to get the perfect shot.

Some people become competitive.  They strive, struggle, compare and undermine… they become jealous and both resent and admire those who have what they don’t, and through the seed of jealousy (or self loathing?) push and force themselves and others to achieve their goals.

I have never felt very competitive, never been interested in sport, because I hope we all make it!   I am too busy trying to drive my own unwieldy vehicle of life, I don’t have time or energy to race against others.

But today we had Murphy’s law.  In 24 Hours, Sanson’s paddock went from pastern deep mud to frozen sharp mud knives.  At the same time, Sanson had his monthly foot trim appointment.  Now, Spanish horses face formation challenges that Polish horses don’t, there are huge cultural differences in Spanish farriery.  Number 1 being, stacked heels and hoof walls.  I found a farrier locally who was educated in UK and comes seriously recommended, from people I know, love and trust.  He struck blood on his right front, during the trim.  And I did not discover it until much later.  It explained why Sanson did not want to give me his feet this evening.

It is annoying but it also makes me consider things I have been putting off.  1) Time to finally bite the bullet and invest in good hoof boots to help with his transition to barefoot.  2) Time to finally have a vet come in and do radiographs on his feet.  3) Time to slow down and pace myself.

Dancers have a short career.  Everything feels like it is on fast forward.  1 year can count as three when compared against normal career lengths, and it is hard to shake that habit that it needs to be done now or it might never happen… I probably never will shake the habit, but like a junky I need to remind self constantly, daily to pace myself.

But someone living alone, an expat, with three small pets, a horse, two full time jobs- one being self employment, a mortgage and a stack of recently bought yet ‘unread-because-I-have-not-had-the-time-yet’ books on my nightstand, it is hard to slow down.  Because I have yet to find somebody who can keep up with me and go the distance like I do.  Its not unusual for me to finish admin work at 2am.  And drag my tired ass to work the next day, then head to stable, come home, cook, clean, eat, admin… and try and find time to shower, do laundry and relax for a moment without sleeping.

Life is not pretty.  It is not a picture perfect postcard.

I have a beautiful horse, but what is the sense of only sharing the beautiful side of our story together?  There is a whole lot of beauty in and around him.  Sure, I got on a truck with him and drove across Europe for four days to bring him home.  But nobody knows that I slept in the horse trailer, on top of straw bales, waking every 3 hours to give him soupy muesli.  Nobody yet knows that when we stopped in Barcelona, in stifling muggy, Spanish heat, a stray German Shepard almost killed my little dog and I spent an hour MacGyver-ing a tail wrap out of my own t-shirt and baling twine I found in the hay storage because he was rubbing his tail raw on truck wall to stay road balanced during travel.  I didn’t sing the wonders of how slept on a blow up mattress on the stable floor outside his stall that night, watching mouse sized winged stable cockroaches crawl over my legs, signalling my bigger dog to run off another stray dog that wandered into the stable at 2am, eyes glinting spookily in my head torch beam after stable lights got turned out… I didn’t want to leave Sanson’s side that night because I was afraid his ulcers would cause him to colic, and I wanted to be right there to inject him with life saving medicine, from the vet syringes in the little bag hanging from the stall grill above my head.

Life. Is. Not. Always. Pretty!

It is beautiful.  But beauty means embracing everything that comes with it.  The dark and the light.
It might be hippie new age psycho-babble, but yes, even when I picked his hoof today and saw blood on my hands, there was a kind of beauty in that.  Beautiful that, I was lucky enough to have him here, the one here to see a problem first and the power and responsibility to deal with it, in my hands.  And I like responsibility, a lot!  Beautiful that it was dark and cold and quiet, and after protesting giving me his feet Sanson stood still and let me take it after I asked nicely, and let him know that I knew something was wrong.  There is definitely beauty in that.

Beauty- for me- means embracing all facets of a thing.  No matter what that thing may be.

And I embrace this first bloody hoof hurdle with Sanson.  Life threw me a challenge.  And somebody I love once taught me that only the best students get the hardest lessons.

 

 

 

Start

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Our first photo, in all my records on both computer and phone.  By now, there are thousands, like all proud horse owners.

I want to write about beginnings, because this is my beginning at blogging.

Why am I starting this?  Because I am lucky enough to have a horse of my own, and he wakes up in me a river of thoughts, ideas and reflections, which overflow outside my brain.  What is inside my brain is for me alone, but what flows over I want to send it out into the world.  Like a message in a bottle, to see if it will ever come back.

Who am I?  It is a hard question to answer, because who says we have to be just one thing?   And that is exactly what I grapple with daily, my dual identity.

On one hand I am a professional ballet dancer.  Dance has been a part of my life for 22 years, professionally for 8 years.  Against all odds, I followed my love, my joy, my passion for human movement, specifically ballet, until it lead me out of my home country of Australia to Europe, backed by a mountain of support and love from my family and friends.

I graduated with my dance qualifications after 2 years at a very strict and demanding school in Zürich, Switzerland, and headed out into the stormy seas of the dance industry.  First, I landed an elusive one year contract in a tiny yet incredible dance company in Germany.  But at the same time, the Euro dropped out from under the sturdy Germany economy, and theatres across the country were in trouble.  Against my will, I was on the move again.  Under immense duress and with great effort and upheaval, I upgraded that job to a better one in Warsaw, the capitol of Poland.  I became the first Australian to work for the Polish National Ballet, in Europes largest Opera House.

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever in my wildest imagination did I ever think I would have the chance to visit this city… let alone live and work here!  And yet, here I am!  And until very recently, I spent years here solo, as the only Australian in my company, which is wear a lot of my time is focused around.  Truth be told, it has been a very lonely existence at times.

As soon as I arrived in Poland, I could feel the dust start to settle.  And although life at the theatre, my career, and life was by no means easy or straightforward, there was a nagging voice in the back of my head the whole time.  Upon closer inspection, I realised that voice had been there for as long as I could remember.

‘Horses’.

I was one of those kids with ‘Horses on the Brain’.  It was what I thought about and dreamed about.  I drew them, endless reams of paper sketches and scribbles, exploring the magical equine outline.   They were the topic of my childhood games with my best friends, the subject of our conversations.  On the weekends, I went to dance class.

Being a suburban kid in Australia, whose hardworking parents sometimes just only managed to scrape together enough money for my dance tuition, horses were not easily accessible to me.  I might have asked once for riding lessons, but even then I knew I was pushing it.  Logistically and financially it was impossible to establish a regular hobby of horses when I was a child.

But every chance I got to be around them, I did that.  Every camping trip and family holiday, the first things I asked for and looked for… trail riding centres, horse rides… sometimes just driving out of city limits and spotting sleek round horses grazing in roadside paddocks was enough to perk my eyes up.  It was a crapshoot if I succeeded to get in a ride or not, but sometimes I got to ride some nose to tail, long suffering trail ponies and I loved every second.

My Aunt, Dad’s sister, had ‘gone bush’ many years ago, and had about 20 acres of land one hours drive from Melbourne.  At the time of my childhood, Aunty Anne was going through her horsey phase, like many city folk who go country.  She had a cranky shetland pony (aren’t they all) called Semi, an incredible Appaloosa mare named Sarah, (who was usually on loan to the local Pony Club and only sporadically available at the farm) and an enormous Clydesdale cross Thoroughbred gelding called Echo, whom I worshipped but was also terrified of.

That poor pony Semi put up with me, bless her.  Well into her 20’s by the time I rolled around, she was well experienced with small humans, and how to handle them aptly.   Every school holidays my brother and I were shipped off to the farm for a week and you bet, if I was not playing with my cousins, or riding my bike, I was in the paddock with her.  Hours, and hours I spent brushing Semi’s never ending shedding coat, standing on rolling hills amongst flocks of screeching sulfur-crested Cockatoos, and pink flamboyant Galahs.  I rode her when I could, and when she acquiesced to the activity!  When Sarah was Pony Club holiday I was in hog heaven, that mare was a gem and was the first real horse I enjoyed independently.  But all of this was basically with a child’s instinct, my Aunt gave some basic directions; two beat posting for trot, left, right and stop.  The rest was just a kid on a horse, loving life.  Never was there any kind of ‘training’.

But eventually I would head back to town.

Years rolled by and dance started to take over.  Teenage hormones arrived and I plumb lost all memory of happy childhood fantasy, and what my instincts said made me hum.  Dance became the focus of my life around 13.  A casual mention of my after school pursuits in Gym class one day instantly made me Social Pariah Number 1 at my quaint Catholic High School of 1000 students.  It pushed me to be goal orientated; the more my peers jeered and joked and insulted me for what I enjoyed doing, the more I clung to dance as a life raft of identity, in a world which seemed to redouble its attempt daily, to strip me of my sense of self.  Dance became my beacon, my golden ticket to the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of the world of Performing Arts.  A world I was sure that queer youth and eccentric, bookish, lanky weirdos like me would find a cosy nest of like minded friends.  I dreamed of a culture, where dance was not a ridiculed, or belittled endeavour… basically I dreamed of a world where I could be at peace.  At peace with who I am, and what I liked and loved, and find other people who liked the same things.  In my naive mind, me and these future friends and colleagues would laugh hand in hand as we trotted into a sunset of endless joyful stage productions, love and hard work for our craft, and stimulating artistic enterprises…

Hmmm.

One one hand, yes, all of that happened.  I did find that ‘nest’ in Zūrich, and to a lesser extent in Germany and Warsaw too.

See, everyone is ready for the bright side of something, the one bathed in light and familiarity.  But nobody is prepared for the other side, the unseen, unspoken and unsightly.  Together with all the wonderful things dance brought to my life, came with it a lot of pain, confusion, anger and if I may be so bold to say, abuse.  Not usually the slap you in the face and cuss you out type, although I have seen that happen too, but usually a corrosive, pervading culture of abuse infects the performing arts industries.  The classical ballet world being not immune to it.  And I believe it is not spoken of enough.

‘Horses’.

Why did my brain keep coming back to it?   Sitting in my studio flat in Warsaw, watching my Facebook news feed roll past of all the dancer parties I was not invited to -again- weekend after weekend.  Being the sole colleague of a far flung country, amongst a people whose history taught to be afraid of outsiders, compounded by my strong sense of independence, forceful will and the passionate way I would explore my own interests and ideas, made me -again- someone nobody wanted to be around.  I was under a constant weight of stress, both that which I loaded on myself, and that which came externally, and that can make even the most tender hearted person a total pill to deal with.  I found myself planning an entire week around my unpredictable work schedule and a lonely trip to the supermarket, I realised I had to take action to ‘save my life’.  Or, face down a long future of empty time.  The pain forced me to look deeper inside and the answer seemed to have four legs, a graceful neck, a flowing tail and smell sweetly like grass.

Needless to say, in Poland I discovered, properly, horses.  I found a passion which set an equal duality to spar with dance, like two columns holding up the roof of my life.

Skip forward a few years and the dream horse to beat all dream horses came into my life.    I found Sanson, and like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky I found a creature who seemed to look past all of my layers, right into the heart of who I am, and without words, put me at peace.  I felt seen, understood, comforted and validated by this horse.

Our story, like all of the stories I have to tell, was not simple, straight forwards, or plain.

How did it happen?

Hang around to find out. 😉