Letting go…

The mental flexibility required at the moment is immense. The world is in a state of flux, and change is now a daily occurrence. Staying balanced during this time is a feat of mental gymnastics. Letting go of pre-conceptions is a huge part of mental flexibility. Making the most of what you can do, rather than hankering after the unobtainable is a life lesson in happiness.

This lesson can be applied to anything. This week I had to let go of my notion about how long my child should do swimming lessons for, as it is simply not practical to do swimming lessons during this time. Once I had let go of this fixed idea in my mind, other possibilities opened, other sports that are less restricted than swimming. It was a prime example in the merit of letting go.

The same applies in our schooling sessions. Sometimes we can come out with a fixed idea of what we want to work on today. And sometimes it will go to plan, but other days it simply won’t. At this point you are left with two options; battle away with your horse because, that’s what you had decided to do, or, take a step back, let go of your fixed idea and do something else. This is not “letting your horse win” or “not standing up to them” it is simply having a plan b. A lesson learnt through force and stubbornness will never be as effective as one learnt through enthusiasm and collaboration. So letting go, may be the best thing you ever do.

Be kind to yourself, the world is a complicated place, always and even more so at the moment, but learning to let go of your fixed ideas, will help you to flex and adapt in a rapidly changing world.

The right time for a challenge

A lot of life is about timing. Sometimes the right things happen at the wrong time, and sometimes the wrong things happen at the right time. Sometimes opportunities arise at the perfect timing. But we are not entirely powerless. We need to be aware of the timing of life, and how different periods of our life present different challenges.

It is good to stretch ourselves. It is good to challenge ourselves, but it is also important to pick your timing. You may want to learn to jump your horse, but if you are currently so stressed that all you can manage to do is simply groom him every evening, this is probably not the best time. If you have young children who wake you up all night, now is probably not the best time to do that difficult online course you had been looking at.

Don’t set yourself up for failure by not understanding the importance of timing. Timing is everything. If you are working on your trot canter transitions, there are some that feel effortless and others that don’t. Some of this is down to the timing of when you ask for the canter. There are good moments to ask for canter and bad ones. There are good times to challenge yourself and bad ones.

Sometimes there is no choice, you simply have to do it now. Take the job, ask for canter, you may be pressured by money, or your dressage test may say canter at M. But sometimes there is a choice and when there is a choice, make sure you take a moment to consider the timing of your choice. It may not be the wrong choice, but it may be the wrong time…

The Importance of Praise

I read this great story the other day about a teacher. The teacher wrote 20 sums on the board in front of a classroom full of teenagers. One of them was wrong. The teenagers started laughing. The teacher asked them why they were laughing, and the teenagers said “because you made a mistake.” The teacher said, “You laughed at me for the one sum that I got wrong, but you didn’t praise me for the 19 sums that I got right.” The teacher continued, “this is what will happen to you all during your working life, you won’t get praised when you do well, only criticised when you do badly.”

Firstly, he was quite right! The importance of praise in the workplace seems to be a foreign concept to many employers or managers, yet people will work so much harder for you if they feel appreciated. It’s not simply a question of being paid, people want to feel valued. Great employers have the ability to make everyone from the floor workers, to the managers, feel appreciated, it is one of the hallmarks of a good business.

Exactly the same thing applies to our horses. The good riders make their horses want to give that extra bit. Like the good employers whose staff will stay late to help, the horses of good riders will make that extra effort. If you praise your horse for all the things he gets right, he too will feel valued, and will understand what you want him to do. We forget to praise, we remember to criticise.

How often do you tie your horse up, groom your horse, tack-up and then your horse starts to fidget and you tell him off? But did you praise him for standing still all that time? Probably not! Exactly the same happens in our ridden work, we criticise our horses when they make a mistake (despite the fact we were probably responsible for it!) and forget to praise.

Interestingly the ratio between praise and criticism was subjected to academic research and reported in the Harvard Business Review. The ideal ratio is 6 positive comments to 1 negative comment. So the next time that you ride, or even handle your horse, try this. Make sure you have praised 6 times, before you criticise, and see what effect it has on your horse (and yourself!)

Don’t live for sunny days…

You can’t live your life around the weather, else you will always spend your time waiting. And time spent waiting is not time spent living. Horses teach us this lesson so well. You can’t only ride when the sun is shining, you can’t wait for those mythical perfect days, you just have to get out, no matter what. And pleasure doesn’t sit only in the perfect moments…

Pleasure sits in hacking in a summer rain storm, trickles of water running down your neck, and the noise of hooves on the wet road, as the steam rises gently from the warm fields. The scent of wet horse, and the swish of their soggy tails. The unexpected pleasures of a wet summer’s hack. Think what you miss if you only choose to live for the sunny days.

And waiting for the perfect scenario means you never do anything. Life is never perfect. There will always be a bit of grit in your oyster, a pebble in your shoe. Life isn’t about the perfect moments, it’s about finding joy in the imperfections of every day, it’s the beauty in the flaws, the joy in the oddness.

If you expect perfection you will always be disappointed, but if you set out to enjoy the moments for what they are, you will be fulfilled. So remember the next time it is raining, and you want to go hacking. Fun can be had in the strangest of ways, and maybe the joy of a wet hack will come back to on a hot, sultry day, sat in a office, wishing for a cool breeze. The memory of the sensation of your wet jods, and the sound of the raindrops falling from the trees above, will cool you far more successfully than the feeble breeze from your colleague’s fan…

 

Remembering…

One of the great things about having children is that you get to see the world through their eyes. They can see the world more clearly than us, without the lens of years of problems, stress and sadness. They appreciate the simple things without getting tangled into a mass of history. And because of this they have the ability to make us see the world like we used to see it. They make us remember all the things that we loved, before complications got in our way.

I took my daughter for a hack recently, an off-the-road hack through beautiful countryside. This was something she really wanted to do, and so we walked along on our ponies watching the trees around us, and feeling the rise and fall of the ground, and the breeze. And there was no complications, there was no need to go faster or do it better. There was no need for more. There was just us and our ponies and the countryside. And I had forgotten how very special that can be.

We can get so tangled up in our desire to improve, our ambition to be better, so caught up in our memories of all that can go wrong, we can end up forgetting why we fell in love with horses in the first place. It is easy to get pulled off our paths, it is easy to lose our way, but there in the forest I remembered why I had fallen in love with horses, and watching my daughter just loving the experience, only served to increase my own enjoyment of the hack.

So if you are doubting your love for horses, go back to the beginning. Remember why you loved them, before life and all its complications got in the way, and you may just find that that sheer joy had never gone away, it was there all along, just waiting for you to find it under the trees, with the gentle thud of hoof-beats echoing into your heart…

Stepping outside the box

It is very easy to simply do the same thing that we have always done. Whether it be the same exercises in the school or following the same route out hacking. It is all too easy to become entrenched in our habits. Stepping outside the box can give you fresh insight and a different perspective into your riding and your relationship with your horse.

Do you always work your horse in the school through the same set of exercises and through the same paces in the same order? For examples, lots of us begin in walk before progressing through trot work, and then finally to canter. Why not try working the canter before the trot? It can have the effect of opening the trot up and can be beneficial.

Or if you find that your horse seems a little stale, try going around the block in the opposite direction that you usually go. Suddenly, it will seem like a whole fresh new hack. Or you could try leading your horse around your usual walk. Both of you will gain a new perspective from doing that, and work in hand will always help your ridden relationship.

It is so easy to do the same things over and over, but sometimes it is good to set yourself a challenge and step outside of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be a competition or a huge challenge, it could be taking your horse to a different venue to school him or meeting up with a friend to go for a hack. Or going for an all-day hack (check your weather forecast first!) Whatever you choose to do that is different from your everyday routine will give you a new experience.

Every time we try something new, we learn something. It may simply be that we learn not to do that again! But trying out new things is good for us and our horses. Experiences can always be put towards learning, so that our knowledge and understanding increases.

Girthing issues?

Is your horse happy when you do his girth up? If the answer is yes, then good, but make sure you know what to do should that no longer be the case. It is all too easy for our horses to slip, or spin in the field, or simply turn awkwardly and strain a muscle. You might not see this, you might not know, until you go to girth up your horse and he puts his ears back. Equally you might have a horse that has always put his ears back, and you have simply accepted it as part of his behaviour.

Remember your horse is only capable of communicating with you through his behaviour, it is up to us to make sure that we are listening. We always recommend that you begin with the eliminating the possibility that the horse is in pain before you begin to alter the behaviour. There is no point is challenging your horse’s behaviour till you are confident that it is not a pain response. All you are doing if you do that, is cutting off the opportunity for the horse to communicate with you.

Your horse may have always put his ears back, or started doing it recently, either way you can start to resolve this problem. Have a good professional check your horse over, so that you can rule out whether the behaviour is a pain issue. This may include a physio or osteopath, a saddle fitter, a dentist. Remember pain can be referred, so don’t assume it must be a problem with the girth.

Once you have thoroughly investigated and are confident that the horse is not in pain, then two things will happen. Either the behaviour will stop, as the horse realises he is not in pain, or it will continue, as a learnt response. The horse has learnt the association between the girth being done up and pain. Their behaviour is a response that has been learnt from the pain reaction. It is possible to re-train the horse not to respond in this way.

Begin the re-training by breaking down the process into small pieces and re-training each part of the process. Identify where the horse’s reaction begins. Does he start to fidget when you pick up the saddle, or does he only flinch when you actually do the girth up? Dependent on the severity of the reaction, it will take a proportional length of time to correct the training. Remember to spend time on each stage of the process, rewarding the desired response with praise, or some action that your horse enjoys, such a scratch on the withers. Be wary of simply using food as a reward, as this can lead to further problems. Once each stage of the process has been broken down and worked on, you will be able to join them together and be able to saddle and girth up your horse, while he remains happy and relaxed.

Top 5 tips for riding in a collecting ring

We are all feeling a little ring rusty after our prolonged period of box rest, and probably over-excited to be out and about again! So in case anyone needs a bit of a re-fresh, here are our top 5 tips for riding safely and responsibly in a collecting ring.

Top 5 Tips:

Pass left to left – the oldest and simplest of the rules. Always pass left to left when working on the outer track. If you struggle with left and right, write an “L” and an “R” on the back of your gloves.

Walk on an inner track – this allows riders travelling at a faster speed to continue around the outside, without you getting in their way. Likewise when transitioning down to a walk check there is not someone cantering up behind you, who might not be prepared for you to slow down.

Do not block the entrance – simple courtesy mainly, but also horse can often nap leaving or entering the collecting ring or arena, so it basic safety to keep it clear for people who may be having a difficult time persuading their horse to enter or exit.

Look up! – do not ride round staring down. Firstly it will tip your centre of gravity forwards, causing your shoulders to round and straining your neck, and secondly you cannot see where you are going! Simply being observant while riding with others will make you safer in the arena. It is always good to notice that there is a horse out of control at the other end, giving you plenty of time to come back to a walk and calm your own horse down.

Red flag on right, white flag on left – if there are flags on jumps, be sure to follow this rule, thereby preventing head on collisions. Do not cross in front of jumps without being very sure that no-one is approaching and certainly do not loiter around in front of the jumps.

If everyone can follow these tips for good arena and collecting ring use, we will all have a more enjoyable time. Remember a smile goes a long way, riding and competing are meant to be fun! Also, we are all human, mistakes happen. It is very easy to get engrossed in what we are doing and forget to look around and nearly crash. But most people will be forgiving as long as you apologise. A simple “sorry” goes a long way and can prevent a small incident escalating into a massive row. Do put a green ribbon on a young horse, and a red ribbon on a kicker, so that other people are aware of your horse’s behaviour. If we all act responsibly and politely we will all enjoy ourselves.

How to bomb proof your horse…

We have all been there. Peacefully hacking along, enjoying the view, when suddenly your horse launches itself sideways, leaving your heart thumping, and your nerves trembling. Spooking is one of the main reasons why people do not hack their horses out, but it is possible to help your horse build in confidence and reduce the possibility of spooking.

First though we have to accept that horses are flight creatures. Their survival depends on their ability to flee when in danger, the problem comes that they can’t differentiate between actual danger, for example a lion, and perceived danger for example a crisp packet in a hedge. However, with training, we can help them.

Begin with working with your horse on the ground in a safe environment, such as an arena. Make sure that your horse is listening and responsive to you on the ground. There is no point in expecting him to listen to you when he is scared, if he is incapable of doing so when he feels safe! Start with something small, such a bucket, make sure that your horse will walk quietly past the object at a distance before beginning to move closer towards it. Only once he is happy with this should you begin to increase the difficulty of what you are asking of him.

If there is something in particular that your horse is fearful of on your hack, break this down into small, manageable steps. Does he spook when passing a farm? Are their flapping plastic bags and tractors? Work on each item separately. Begin with a small plastic bag, tied to the fence, again ask him to walk past at a distance. Gradually reduce the distance between the horse and the scary object, always praising him for the correct response. Once you can lead him safely past these objects, change the environment. Set up obstacles in a field and repeat the process in this different location.

Once you are feeling confident in the field, you can progress to leading him on a hack. Again, build up slowly. Don’t head straight off to the most scary hack, but rather build in stages so that you and him can grow in confidence. Only once you can do this should you progress to hacking him out.

If when hacking you become nervous or fearful of something, find somewhere safe to dismount and lead him past. The horse has not won if you dismount. In time he will become more confident, as he watches you walk calmly past, rather than feeling you getting nervous on his back.

Horses are incredibly trusting, they put their faith in us that we will protect them. If he trusts you, he will believe you when you ask him to walk past the scary plastic bag. By carefully putting the building blocks in place and helping him to overcome his fears in small, bite-sized chunks, you can turn your anxiety into enjoyment, and your fear into pleasure. While we cannot control the environment around us, we can work to give us and our horses the tools to help control our responses to whatever we come across.

The importance of confidence on the ground

When I remember competing as a child, my primary emotion is one of anxiety. Even now I can feel my heart race, my stomach chewing over on itself, and my mouth sticky with fear. I was a nervous child, an anxious competitor and my horse was bargy on the ground. My anxiety around competitions would kick in the day before, as I contemplated the day ahead. Every part of the day was a source of anxiety from the grooming, the plaiting, the loading, the tacking up, the mounting, to the actual test. Such was the behaviour of my horse that the entire day became a mountain to overcome. My mother would on occasion trail round the show ground until she found a strong man to help with my horse.

As an adult, I now look back on that scenario with slight disbelief. No-one ever suggested that I could improve my horse’s behaviour on the ground, my trainers were focused on my ridden results, my mother simply accepted that that was how the horse behaved, and as a child I didn’t realise that I could strongly influence his behaviour. As an adult, I would take young horses to shows and spend most the day teaching them to stand quietly in the car park, the collecting ring, and only once I had taught them that lesson in however many trips it took, would I ever compete them.

In hindsight, there was so much we could have done. Just following some the basic tips such as teaching him to stand at the end of a 12ft line quietly, would probably have solved the problem. Or asking an instructor or professional for help. Confidence on the ground would have helped me with my anxiety turning the show days into ones filled with fun rather than panic.

Feeling confident on the ground gives one a “safe place” to return to. If you are scared on the ground as well as while mounted, the only position of safety is when the day is over and experiencing that level of anxiety for a whole day has a severe impact on your adrenal system. If you are already at the limit of your capabilities for processing your adrenalin, you are then going to struggle when your levels are topped up by standard competition nerves.

By teaching our horses to behave on the ground and by increasing our own confidence on the ground, we build a better foundation for our ridden work. If we are confident on the ground, and we become worried whilst riding, we can always dismount and regain our confidence, but if we are fearful on the ground, how can we expect to be confident on our horse? All good things are built on good foundations, from houses to horses…. make sure the foundations of your relationship with your horse are good, so that you can turn your anxiety into anticipation and your panic into pleasure.