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The most popular equestrian discipline seems to be. . .

22 Oct

. . .bashing people who do a different discipline.

I have often joked that “riding is religion”. People cleave so firmly to their own area/school/trainer/belief system/sport. Which is great if it means you’re positive about what you do and the people you do it with, and have faith in your own system. But so often it seems to turn into an assumption that everyone who doesn’t agree is either stupid or, increasingly, cruel. Dressage trainers “all” use rolkur. Except “classical” ones who stay in walk for a decade. Jumpers jump the legs off their young horses. Hunters are drugged. NH enthusiasts are scared. Event riders are careless with their horses. Western trainers only want shut down zombies. Everyone else is doing it wrong!

I’d say there is also a divide along “class” lines – “professionals” treat their horses like machines. Recreational owners are more likely to be poor riders. People who compete for money must be cruel, people who compete for fun always have the horses’ best interests at heart. (This is actually the one that annoys me the most!)

Of course not everyone feels like that – if I said that, I’d be just as bad – and maybe the internet makes it more obvious, but it’s still amazing to me how many people assume the only “real” horsemen are the ones they admire and how “horse friendly” their own discipline is relative to all the others. Let’s face it EVERYTHING we do to/with horses for sport looks insane from the outside.

What ever happened to judge as you find? Better yet, check to see if you can see through your own walls before you start throwing stones. At the very least, realise that if someone what really is bad, that doesn’t make you and yours good.

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You’re a conduit not a vessel.

17 Oct

When I left my first working student position I asked my mentor at the time what I could do to repay her for all the time and effort she had devoted to me.

She said, “You can do the same for someone else in the future.”

Then we cried a little bit. 😀

But I took her very seriously. A great many people have given me an immense amount of help for a fraction of the actual cost in time and effort. I take that legacy very seriously and hope I am open to people who want to learn what those people taught me. Knowledge is not something you own, it’s something you pass on. You’re not a vessel, you’re a conduit. We all stand on the shoulders of giants and no one who rides is discovering anything new. Your knowledge is not your own, to be jealously hoarded, it’s a stream you dip into and it doesn’t cost you any of your own knowledge to pass it on. Not to mention that teaching and discussion is, in itself, a way of learning and every interaction has the potential to increase your own knowledge pool.

Plus horsemen, in my experience, LOVE to talk about horses. Usually the problem is shutting them up! Be brave, ask.

That said, I think I’ve become less generous. A lot of people say they want the information but they want it dumbed down and spoon fed. They only want it if they aren’t going to be challenged. Quite often they don’t want to be made to feel ignorant, which is pretty much the definition of wanting more information! Or they want to argue and tell me I’m wrong. Or they don’t like what I say or how I say it and want me to say it differently. Which is all fine but if someone isn’t paying, why do I need to do that? Even if they do pay, why not just pay someone else? The minute someone asks me for “tips and tricks” regarding something it’s taken me years to learn (imperfectly) I start to suspect they don’t really want to do the hard work of learning so why should I do the hard work of teaching?

I do think riding is expensive to learn and you do have to be prepared to pay. BUT there are also a lot of generous horsemen and outlets for learning other than lessons. The trick is they “cost” too. Pay, don’t pay. Really, no one cares and it’s completely up to you! But if you don’t want to pay, at the very least by being humble and open to what people say, then you have to accept that you’re not going to learn much.

Just an addendum from the other side of the equation. . . I do think there is a big difference between offering your knowledge freely and foisting it on others. I suspect very few people feel that they are actually doing the latter but I do quite often see people who “offer” their opinion and are then offended when it’s not appreciated.

Don’t do that. Go about your own business, ride your own horses, teach the people who have sought you out. Accept that other people will make other choices and not everyone is going to see horses and riding the same way. Frankly, I think this even has to apply to people you feel are acting poorly towards their horses. People who want to change will seek change. People who aren’t looking to learn won’t learn no matter what you say and that’s about them, not you.

Some perspective, please.

28 Sep

I don’t generally share posts about abuse etc on this page, but there is no shortage of them on the internet so any regular visitor to social media is going to know a fair bit about the evils of the world.

Today I was reading a discussion on a popular site about a photo currently circulating of a horse wearing a very “busy” bridle, including quite a tight nose band. In the photo, the horse does look stressed BUT – and it’s a big one – it’s clearly a blown up cropped image from an action sequence or an edited frame from a video. There is no context provided, there are no other images from the sequence or footage from the situation, and the image is being circulated from a group with a clear negative agenda, in this case to ban certain equipment and allow others in competition.

All of which doesn’t necessarily mean the horse wasn’t stressed at the moment the photo was taken, of course. The image of the horse with a lot of equipment on, nostrils flared and eyes wide, doesn’t play well in isolation! Anyone who knows me knows nosebands are a bit of a “thing” for me, and I’m uncomfortable with the fashion for doing them up extremely tightly, for no other reason than a belief that that’s how it’s done and it’s “normal” for horses to open their mouths just to be annoying. Cranks and flashes are particularly insidious, if you ask me, because they are easy to do up incredibly tightly with very little effort. They also tend to sit/fit poorly when comfortably loose, encouraging people to tighten them for purely aesthetic reasons. I’m rather a fan of taking them off completely if a horse is having contact/resistance issues – to the point where if a photo appears in social media without a noseband people who know me often jokingly comment and ask if I had anything to do with it! If your horse is desperate to open its mouth, perhaps ask why, instead of automatically telling it to shut up.

That said, I’ve also had a fair amount of contact with upper level competition horses and I know it’s often a game of inches, not just for success but for safety. Even the best produced, most sympathetically ridden horse may need something “a bit more” at the highest level of competition. (Although, if you’re putting your four or five year old in a leverage bit to do low level competition, frankly, I think you need to take a good hard look at your riding and/or training program.) I’ve also seen the value of a temporary step up or constraint to retrain a horse that’s got into poor habits or developed a boisterous attitude towards competing. I am by no means a complete smooth snaffle purist!

All of which I say to demonstrate my personal feelings on the matter.

But what really upset me about the discussion this picture engendered in a group that’s closed and limited to people who ostensibly want to be good horsemen, was some of the reactions. First, even though a video and other photos of said horse were produced, a large number of the people involved simply refused to look at them. They had no interest in seeing anything other than the image they wanted to see, that served their agenda. So much for horsemanship being about objectivity and fairness.

Secondly, it took no time at all until someone invoked the negative treatment of horses in competition to the Holocaust.

Really?? REALLY?!?!

Even after a challenge, the poster and a couple of supporters maintained the validity of this comparison. The statement was eventually withdrawn but, quite apart from the obvious offensiveness, it just made the whole agenda seem insane.

But what really got under my skin was the repeated hyperbolic language. Multiple posters beat their virtual chests over the horrendous “cruelty” of various tack and training practices. They invoked the horrible suffering of the silent victims and the inherent evilness of people imposing their will by force, even though ignorance. (Leaving aside that most of them ride, and if that isn’t imposing your will to the detriment of “what is best for the animal”, I don’t know what is!)

Frankly, people like that need to get a big grip. They need to go to a page like PFK (https://m.facebook.com/princefluffykareem) and take a good hard look at what suffering looks like and what sort of lives many horses in this world lead. Don’t get me wrong, I know two wrongs don’t make a right, but even leaving aside the extraordinary silliness, how can any cause hope to be taken seriously with such a blinkered view of the realities of a situation?

Are there ethical considerations to be discussed with regard to horse sports? Yes. “Discussed” as in people look at the realities and speak to their opinions on the matter. Telling people they are evil doesn’t generally get then on board.

But you people invoking genocide and hyperbole, you aren’t helping your case!! The people you do want to reach are so alienated they don’t want to even start a dialogue because they know it’s going to devolve into the digital equivalent of screaming and name calling almost instantly. Yes, some people are clapping and cheering. Quite often people who are heavily invested in other people being evil so they can think of themselves as good. Almost always people who have no experience with, and no influence on, any kind of upper level competition riding. Of course you are welcome to your beliefs but if you want to convince people then bring on the facts, the reasoned arguments, the solutions, and the shining examples for people to follow. Stop telling me that a tight nose band is the worst thing that can happen to a horse. It makes me disinclined to believe anything else you have to say and even less inclined to stand with you, even if I might actually agree on some level. Get some perspective.

Driving with the engine light on.

15 Sep

One of the situations that’s always fascinated me, watching people with their horses, is the propensity for some people to apply effort to a situation that really needs a fix.

They school and school, or go out competing again and again, without actually changing anything. They pour effort (and money) into the situation, on the idea that working harder will solve the problem. They keep working, the horse keeps flashing the engine light! This, to me, this always seems like reacting to your engine light coming on by hitting the accelerator!

That is going to end badly!!

If you’re having a problem, pull over. Stop. Think. If you aren’t sure why you’re having a problem, find someone who does know and ask them to tell you how to fix it or, if that’s not possible, to fix it for you. You might even have to pay them. Do it! A little money spent applying the right fix is going to save you a lot of trouble, trauma and likely expense down the line.

Yes, effort is a necessary part of developing your horse and your riding. But going out every day and driving around with all your warning light flashing is NOT going to help if you’re not doing the right things.

Finding the fun.

2 Aug

Last I checked, riding was supposed to be fun. The possible exception to this would be people getting paid to do it. The irony is, in my experience, the people getting paid often seem to be having more fun than the people who are supposedly doing it purely for their own entrainment!

I was recently at a rainy mid week event, no spectators, no trade fair, no big prizes or glory on offer. Very much a day at the office. One pro, with a reputation for being taciturn, was coming back from xc on his third or fourth ride, having had a mixed set of results thus far. He looked pretty cheery but as he passed me his face lit into a big smile and he pointed down at the horse and called over, “He was great cross country!”

This man has ridden at the biggest events, on some of the best horses, and won a list of prizes as long as your arm. But on this random day, with no accolades on offer, on this not-so-famous horse he had had FUN. He had enjoyed the ride, seen the future, reaped the rewards of all his hard work. The horse had just as big a smile on his face. I’m sure he’d been tested and he’d certainly worked hard, but his skills hadn’t let him down. It’s not anthropomorphic to say he looked relaxed and like he’d come away with a positive feeling about the whole experience.

There seem to be a lot of people who think “fun” is the opposite of hard work and discipline. Certainly there is a type of fun that’s about not doing much of anything. But that real joy, that sense of pure accomplishment, is not devoid of effort.

The thing is, it’s not all about effort. It’s about balance. It’s easy to get caught up in the details, to try for perfection, and forget that in the end, with the work in place, the fun is in the letting go and just doing it. You will never be perfect. It won’t all go according to plan. **** will happen and you will have to roll with it. Sometimes it will even go BETTER than expected! You will have one of those magical days when the stars align, the ducks line up dutifully in a row, and all your Christmases come at once!

This is just as true for the days you school as the days you show. Go out looking for the fun. Enjoy the small victories. See the problems as puzzles. Don’t get so bogged down staring at the same boring trees that you forget to pick your eye up and take in the beautiful vista.

This doesn’t mean take it easy. There are days for that but it’s no secret that hard work and discipline reaps rewards and that there are no prizes for poor performances. The same is true for horses. If you want your horse to do its job then you have to prepare it properly. It needs to be fit and trained and disciplined. It needs to practice its skills and this will not always make for an easy life and a pleasant conversation. It’s not fair to avoid the things you find boring or the horse finds difficult and then expect a good result, or even a safe effort on the day. It’s also not fair to make things a trial when they don’t have to be. Too many people make training a drag and hacking “fun” but this is a completely human construct. Riding is riding.  If you’re not enjoying it, at least most of the time, then maybe you have to give some hard thought to why you’re doing it. If you’re not having fun, what’s the point? If you’re making it relentlessly unpleasant for the horse, you’re also missing the point, however good your intentions might be.

So do the work. Then pull the trigger. Break out. Just do it. Kick on. Lose yourself. Look for the joy. Smile. Have FUN. Don’t wait for it to fall on you, make your mind up you’re going to go looking for it. If it’s not perfect, don’t worry about it. Tomorrow is a new day, another chance to try again. (And you won’t be perfect tomorrow, either. Let it go.)

The one bad habit I REALLY wish people would nip in the bud.

15 Jun

Let’s face it, if horses never developed bad habits I’d be virtually out of a job.

But there is one habit that I find so pervasive, that can cause so much trouble, and that almost always requires being really harsh to the horse to thoroughly fix, that I REALLY wish people would not let it start!

When you’re leading a horse and it is getting tense PLEASE do not let it scoot around you in a little circle! If you have to in one bad moment then okay, but then go home and FIX it!!

It pretty much teaches the horse that the “open door” when it’s upset is past you or, worse, OVER you. I can guarantee that once the horse knows this it’s going to come up at the most inopportune – and dangerous – moments.

Even the “shoulder check, turn right” move (beloved of carriage bred horses particularly) is easier to fix and more likely to get fixed because it almost always results in the horse getting free, which makes it SEEM like a bigger deal.

It is very difficult to get horses to stand still under stress, I fully admit. This may not be possible immediately. But for everyone’s safety, learning at least rudimentary restraint and steering under stress is essential!

If you don’t know how to teach this, find someone to show you. Don’t just let it go. You will pay later.

Celebrate the easy.

10 Jun

Something to try next time you are feeling frustrated with your horse or your riding. (Which, according to the internet, seems to be most people, most of the time!)

By definition, I meet a lot of horses and their people when things aren’t going so well. I’m often introduced to the horse by a list of its faults (“stubborn” being a particular favourite, which seems to cover a multitude of supposed sins) or, at best, qualified compliments (“she’s a nice mover when she’s off my leg”). This is obviously partly an outgrowth of whatever situation has prompted my visit, but even so, it’s often tricky to get people to tell me what they like about the horse! A quick reading of the internet suggests similar – a lot of “my pony is amazing” when it goes well, a lot of “my horse has this and this and this flaw” when it doesn’t go well.

One of the keys to being a good trainer is objectivity. Objectivity brings balance, which is both literally and metaphorically an important ingredient in making good horses. The ability to spot and address weaknesses is obviously part of this but it’s not ALL of it. A good trainer also needs to recognise the strengths (both their own and the horses’) so as not to over drill or diminish what is good about the situation. It’s also essential to maintaining a positive mental attitude, which is not lost on the horses. Of course this is often easier when you have lots of horses to ride and don’t take any one horse too personally, but it should be equally possible for any owner, especially since one can presume the horse was bought for positive reasons in the first place. (If this was not the case, if you bought your horse for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with you liking it, then stop reading. You have bigger problems!)

So the next time you find yourself grumbling about your horse and frustrated with your progress, try this very simple, popular mental health exercise. Get out your trusty electronic recording device – or a pen and paper if you want to go old skool – and start two lists. On the first one, put your OBJECTIVE complaints/frustrations/dissatisfactions. So something like “Fluffy is difficult to load away from home” or “Mr Ed is resistant to my leg” or “Fly-By-Night regularly jumps out of his paddock”.

Then, on the other side, for each complaint, list a minimum of two – TWO – positive things about your horse. Again, attributes, skills etc, not your feelings about the horse. So along the lines of “Chubby costs £20/month to feed” or “Sparky stays calm to ride in the worst weather” or “Twinkletoes has an “8” canter.” Be honest. Honest doesn’t mean critical, it means that you see the situation clearly and assess it on its merits, not always though the lens of how you feel about the situation.

Alternate between the two, always going back to the things your horse does easily and/or well.

After you’ve done that, ask your friends and your trainer for a few similar suggestions. This is even more telling if they don’t know the horse well and go only on what you’ve told them.

Now, one of two things will happen. In the vast majority of cases it will provide a reality check and remind you of all the positive qualities your horse possess. Or, if you or the people around you struggle to say anything constructive, you have to take a good hard look at the situation and ask yourself what you are spending your hard earned money and precious time on! I hope it’s the former. If it’s the latter I would suggest going back to your trainer or other trusted advisor and having a long hard talk about whether or not this is the horse for you!

If you want to go on to the next step, you can take your “cons” list and assess it honestly. Cross of anything that isn’t really important to you, then take one undesirable aspect and make a note of one step you will make to start to change that situation. It might be to investigate a new trainer, or to go xc training, or to make a regular arrangement to go hacking with a friend. It might be to invest in a taller fence or to speak to the yard owner about a paddock rearrangement. Just start somewhere. Figure out the steps you need to do to make the hard things easier.

Then next time you’re in a funk, pull out the list and read it. If you want to get really fancy, visualise a situation where your horse made particularly good use of one of its attributes, say a very successful jumping lesson, or a stress free journey, or an hour standing tied, waiting. Don’t take those things for granted just because they don’t seem to cause you horse concern or cost you much effort. That is exactly the point. It’s so easy to forget the good and obsess about the bad, make a conscious effort to break that cycle.

Celebrate the easy. That’s where the fun is.