The girl on the dancing horse

I love the Olympics. And I enjoy watching different sports and as well the wonders of the British Equestrian team. I love the aspiration, the obsession, the precision and the power that so many sports have. I love the tales of their pathways to the Games. I love the dedication and devotion. The whole thing gives me goosebumps.

We all know how incredible Charlotte Dujardin is, though a special mention to Carl Hester for competing in his sixth Olympics, which is a monumental achievement. Years ago if you mentioned dressage people (outside the horse world) looked blankly at you. It wasn’t a sport we excelled in, and nor did it seem to enter the nation’s conscience.

I remember making my colleagues watch Charlotte’s test at the London Olympics in 2012, and no-one had heard of any of the riders, nor (quite frankly) were they interested. But by the end, and because she won gold they were captured.

Fast forward to 2021. In my city office a colleague explained to me with a great level of knowledge about the fact that Charlotte Dujardin had retired Valegro and was on her new horse Gio, but that she was still a medal favorite. The change is incredible. She has permeated a nation and turned dressage from an obscure sport into a sport where we are world leaders. That is quite an achievement.

When she won the Gold medal at the London Olympics we had never won a single medal in dressage despite a century of trying. That is an incredible burden of a nation and a sport to carry. Reading articles from 2021 they say that this will change the future of dressage as a sport forever. I think they were right. Nearly 10 years later the man on street knows what dressage is, knows her, and can name her horses. That is some legacy to have created.

It’s all about perspective…

I have a little rescue dog who was rescued off the streets in the Cyprus. I love her, she is wonderful. When we got her she obviously, had had no training, so we started from scratch. She has already exceeded my expectations.

We were warned that she would probably have been used to hunt and then slung onto the streets when she was no longer wanted. Having been bred to hunt and used for just that the chances were that her prey drive would be strong. We never thought we would be able to walk her off the lead, but after 6 months, she will walk off the lead, with an excellent recall. Her heel work is brilliant, she is getting the hang of a stay. She has mainly stopped chewing when left! I was happy when I could walk her on a long lead without her howling throughout the entire walk! (That habit was particularly stressful!)

To progress her training we are doing dog classes with her, and are gearing up for our next test. The trainer said something that really struck me while giving us a pep talk. “You don’t look at the certificate, you look at the dog.”

It is so true. It is all too easy to get caught up in needing to pass, or needing a better mark, a clear round, a qualification. But at the end of the day you look at your dog and your horse. We love doing well, we like our certificates and our rosettes, but the best feeling is when you have a good schooling session with your horse, or your dog recalls across a vast field towards you. That is what you see, that is what you feel. Not the certificates, or the rosettes, but that bond between you and your animal that is better than any shiny award.

The oddities of grief

Grief is strange, it comes in waves, it hits you when you least expect it, catching you unawares at the back of your throat. Unexpected things trigger it, songs, or smells. Random vistas stir memories long buried, which can erupt into sadness. A view down a track to a gnarled tree can unleash a torrent a grief. Whether we are grieving the loss of a person or an animal, grief can still be encompassing.

I have seen a brilliant graphic illustration about grief, which shows that your grief doesn’t shrink, just that you grow bigger. We are constantly growing and changing, our love of the person or animal that we have lost never goes, it is just that we grow to accept the loss.

My favorite quote about grief is: “Grief is the price we pay for love.” This quote is attributed to the Queen, though in fact it was is part of a longer paragraph written many years before by Dr Colin Murray Parkes which I will share here with you:

“The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love:it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend that it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our own lives and unprepared to help others cope with losses in theirs.”

Life is a balance of good times and bad times, a mix of sunshine showers. All we can hope is that in the end, the good outweighs the bad, and that our over-riding memories are ones of laughter, and love. If that is the case, then personally I will accept the grief, in exchange for all the fantastic times, wonderful moments, and endless memories.

How to deal with anti-climax

I recently experienced anti-climax when I finished some big exams, where preparation for them had become the main focus of my day for so long. When I struggled or felt like giving up, I’d think of when the exams would be over, using it as motivation to keep me going. I’d tell myself “not long until they’re over”, “can’t wait until I have more free time.” However, the exams eventually came and went, and whilst life went on like normal for others around me, I no longer had the main focus to my days like I used to, and then the question of “what shall I do?” started creeping into my mind.

We all experience anti-climax at some point. For example, training for a horse show. Everything feels like it revolves around the extra care for your horse, the daily exercise, the careful grooming before the show, the anticipation, and then it’s over like nothing ever happened, how can that be? Nevertheless, it’s not all negative, you have just achieved something and this is a positive thing.

There are many stages to dealing with anti-climax such as planning ahead and considering what will come next by planning something exciting that you will be able to look forward to after the event has taken place. For instance, this could be a celebration. Take time to notice your achievement and all the work that has gone into it – giving yourself credit is important.

Sometimes it’s easy to take things for granted and we forget to appreciate the things in our life. Look back on what you didn’t have or what you hadn’t achieved and imagine what life would have been like if you hadn’t reached that goal or achievement. Probably not where you want to be, so there you go, you have made progress and this is a good thing, you just need to recognise that.

Guest post by Florence Duncan

When is it best to rest?

I recently went on a walking exhibition which I found to be more challenging than I expected. It was 14km each day for three days and I found this difficult, not having had experience walking this far before. I found myself constantly wanting to take breaks when my legs started to hurt. It felt like the end was miles away, quite literally, when I was only at the halfway point. This got me thinking, how do I know when to rest… where’s the line between needing the rest to refresh myself or powering through because I’m ambitious and determined.

I realised that I’m often faced with this question on a daily basis without even realising it.  For example, you’ve just come home and you’re tired after a long and stressful day. You were planning to go out for an evening ride but now after all the challenges you’ve faced throughout the day and the comfy sofa just a few steps away, that doesn’t seem so appealing anymore. I usually find that if I sometimes give in to this feeling of tiredness, I can fall into more of a slump, and actually, powering through and going out for a ride can lift both my mood and energy levels.

Rest days are important otherwise your days could become unproductive and you will only feel more exhausted gradually over time. However, sometimes you are capable of more than you give yourself credit for. As they sometimes say “Believe you can and you’re halfway there”.

Listen to your body when you need a break and know that it’s ok to take a rest, but recognise the difference between exhaustion and “I’m a bit tired.” Doing something productive with your time can honestly make you feel so much better than a nap on the sofa ever would! Give it a try…

Guest post by Florence Duncan

The little voices in your head

I recently offered to write something for someone that I had never done before. It feels like stepping off a cliff. I find myself plunging into swirling self-doubt, foggy clouds of negative comments stream through my mind. “I can’t do it.” “I’m not good enough.” “He’ll work out I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Self-doubt is fascinating if you can manage to be objective about it, and this applies to self-doubt in any situation. Think how you feel when you want to hack your horse alone for the first time, or try a leg yield. How much are you held back by your self-doubt? What does the little voice in your head say?

When I can be sufficiently objective, I can challenge the little voice. “I can’t do it.” This one I always tackle by starting the task, immediately I can quash the little voice – see I AM doing it. The moment you first ask for the step of leg yield, the first step on the hack you are doing it. It doesn’t matter whether it goes well or badly, the point is you are doing it.

“I’m not good enough.” This old chestnut… Yes you are. You are always good enough, always more than enough. If you spend all day wearing old pyjamas, lying on your sofa eating biscuits you are still more than enough. You are awesome and incredible.

My personal favorite little voice: “He’ll work out I don’t know what I’m doing.” This one is just insulting to everyone. If someone employs you to do a job, you have to give them some credit that they will try and pick the best person for the job. Why wouldn’t they? It makes no sense. If you choose an electrician, or a farrier, you don’t think, “he seems a bit rubbish – I’ll choose him” do you? Yet, if someone chooses us to do something, we insist on thinking that they have chosen badly. Why do we grant others such bad decision making, why do we listen to our little voices? Self-doubt, lack of self-belief, lack of self-confidence.

Let’s shout out the negative little voices – let’s replace them with voices that say “you are awesome.” “You have worked hard at this therefore you will be able to do it.” “Trust in yourself.” “It’s okay to be nervous, just breathe.” Imagine it would be like having your own personal support band in your head…


Decision making

Someone told me once that teaching your children how to make decisions was one of the best life skills you could teach them. I think this is probably true. Life is full of endless decisions from the small, “what shall I have for breakfast?”, to the large, “shall I buy another horse?” Every decision that we make changes our lives. Some people struggle with decision making, whilst other seem to sail easily through.

I think decision making is difficult. Some people find themselves with “paralysis by analysis” whereby you simply render yourself incapable of making a decision. Some people always pick the easiest option, some always seem to pick the hardest. Some people fail to weigh up their options. The list of way that we can struggle with decision making is seemingly endless.

However there are some good pieces of advice. One is, ask other people’s opinions. Have a group of people who seem to make good choices. Don’t ask for financial advice from someone who is living in a caravan after going bankrupt for the second time. Don’t ask for relationship advice from someone who is on first name terms with their divorce lawyer. Don’t ask for advice on your horse from someone whose horses are always lame and who changes trainers every five minutes.

Weigh up the evidence. Read about critical thinking. Wikipedia defines critical thinking as: “the analysis of facts to form a judgment. The subject is complex, and several different definitions exist, which generally include the rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence.” Don’t base decisions on the opinion of one person. Do your own research.

Believe in yourself. If you have carefully evaluated the evidence, drawn your own conclusion, don’t let yourself be knocked off course by other people. Respect yourself enough to trust that you have made a considered decision.

Decision making can be difficult, but as with everything start small. Evaluate your small decisions and apply a logical process to them. You might be amazed by what you learn…

Never lose that joy…

One of the great things about children is their joy in the present. As we get older, we become more pre-occupied and distracted by the stresses and pressure of our life. But children have that opened-eyed awe of the world. Children will be delighted by muddy ponies grazing in a field. Children don’t think of the work, or the cost, or the scheduling of horses around work. They don’t worry about getting that extra dressage percent, or whether the lorry will pass its MOT. They just enjoy the ponies in the field.

It is so easy to forget why we fell in love. We become caught up in the crazy circus of life. We forget that as children we just loved our ponies. We loved the ones we walked past on the footpath, the ones we biked past on our way to park, the ones we were occasionally allowed to ride at the riding school. We loved them.

If you are competitive or driven, it can be easy to forget the simplicity of that first love, the love of the pony in the field. It is easy to become ensnared by ambition and competition. That is not to say that competing isn’t wonderful, that ambition isn’t brilliant, because they are. But for some people they can lose that little child who just wanted to stand on the gate and watch the ponies graze. The little child who just wanted to hug them and pat them and didn’t think about scores, and judges.

Don’t lose the little child inside you. Don’t ever lose your wonder of the world. Don’t ever lose your pleasure in those simple moments, those wonderful moments that string together to make a wonderful life. That little child standing on the gate, is still there inside of you, don’t forget that.

Opening and closing doors

There is a great saying (and I am fond of a saying!) which says remember when you say “yes” to something, that means you are inherently saying “no” to something else. It doesn’t mean saying “yes” is a bad thing, just that you can only use that period of time to do one thing, and you choose what to do with it. You can never have that period of time again.

This resonated with me recently, after I didn’t get an opportunity that I was pursuing. Though I was initially disappointed, because we are all human after all, I had a think. I thought of all the others things I wanted to do in my long term plan, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I had got the other opportunity.

You cannot do everything, and you certainly can’t do it all at the same time. Every choice that you make have a repercussion. It can be impossible to know what is for the best, and what have happened if you had made a different choice. You can see it sometimes when you look back how a series of choices led you to a certain place. But while you are living it it can be hard to see the best path.

Some people have very clear ideas of what they want their lives to look like, and some people have none. You may be living your ideal life and wondering why it doesn’t feel right. Or you may be living a life that is not remotely how you imagined it would be, but you love it! Every life is different. But the one thing we do know is that you can’t live that time again, so every yes, have an opposing no. Just like simple physics were every force has an opposing force. So the next time you don’t get a seemingly brilliant opportunity, just consider what you would have said “no” to to achieve that “yes”, and remember every door that closes, another one opens…

Language and how we use it

I have been thinking a lot about language and our use of it. It’s remarkable how some people can ask us to do something or give us advice, and only succeed it making us dig our heels in! Other people seem brilliant at dolling out advice and never incurring anyone’s wrath.

Being able to give tactful advice, or feedback to others is a brilliant skill. It is learnable, so don’t despair if it is not one of your natural talents. Pay attention to who you take advice from. How do they convey their advice? Often it is not so much the words as the delivery of those words. The old “it’s not what you say but how you say it” springs to mind. Some people empowers us with their advice and others cut us down.

Language has the ability to build bridges or burn them. Be careful with your words. But consider the language with which we talk to our horses. Language doesn’t just encapsulate words, but body language, voice tone and many other subtle nuances. My dog trainer does a wonderful demonstration of training the recall. A flat, boring tone of voice, with dejected posture will never encourage the dog to return to you, whereas an enthusiastic, friendly tone, combined with an open and approachable posture will encourage the dog to recall.

All our interactions with our horses form our language. Are we cheerful and open? Or are we stressed and closed off? Our horses are reading this all the time. Every interaction not just our ridden work will have an effect on our bond with them. Our language will impact our relationship, so make sure your language conveys that right message. Animals are in general very forgiving, so they will forgive bad days and tense times, as long as the majority of your language is positive. Remember language matters, make sure you communicate from your heart…