Love in all its shapes and sizes

Over the years I have had many different animals, horses, dogs, cats, chickens, geese. I have loved them all in different ways and for different reasons. I have had horses that I have loved because they were beautifully well schooled and a delight to train. I have had horses that I adored because they were cute and they let me sit down beside them in their fields. I have had horses that were rescued from mud drenched Welsh hillsides and ones bought from manicured yards in green belt land.

I have had dogs which I have loved for their crazy exuberance, and others for their cuddles. Big dogs and small dogs, dogs that were well-trained and others that were less so. Some from puppies and some as rescue. All the animals that I have had, all with their different quirks and foibles.

One thing that has always struck me is this. That while I have loved them all, and in different ways, it is how we fall in love with them that is curious. Many we fall in love with gradually, as we get to know them, as we start to appreciate their characters, whereas other simply fall like a jigsaw place into a part of our heart that we didn’t know was missing.

These loves are not better or worse, after all they are all simply love. And our love for our animals fills our days with joy. So if you are worrying about whether you will love your new horse or dog the same as your current, you probably won’t love them in the same way, nor will you fall in love in the same time span, but rest assured you will love them and each animal will give you something that you didn’t know you were missing…

Changing priorities…

Life changes, and with it our priorities change. Adjusting to our changing priorities can be difficult, sometimes it feels like you have been focused on some target for many years, and suddenly it loses its allure, and we realise that our priorities have changed.

Remember when you were young, and staying out all night was great fun? And now being tucked up in bed with a good book by 10pm is the ultimate delight? That is simply your priorities changing. As our life changes our views, our outlooks change.

When you were younger riding horses as fast as possible was an aim, now a spook-free hack is a delight. When we were younger we might have been more results driven, and gained satisfaction from winning at a show, or beating our rival. Though often as you get older, you appreciate the delights of training more than the pinnacle of the competition.

Age changes us, experiences, both good and bad, change us, so that our priorities change. If you have had a bad fall, success might be a hack without feeling nervous. If are older, a ride where your hip doesn’t hurt might be the ultimate indicator of success. These aspirations are no less valid or important they are just different. All our personal goals are just that, they are personal, they are all equally valid and important. We cannot judge our goals against the goals of others. We don’t know what battles other people are fighting, we don’t know what constitutes success to someone else.

So be kind, to yourself and to others. Even if your aims aren’t as seemingly ambitious as they once were they are still your aims. They are still valid and you should still be proud of them. Take a moment to look back at where you have come from…

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!)

Think good thoughts always…

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and perception is based upon exposure. We believe that we make sound, valid judgments based on facts, but in reality our perceptions are altered depending upon what we are exposed to.

If you take a look at these infographics about the coronavirus, (click here) in particular the reference to the media coverage of the coronavirus versus other diseases, you can see how it has been pushed into our minds.

Our minds are extraordinary, they respond to the information given and act accordingly. So think about it, if you think good thoughts all day long, your mind will think good things. If you fill your world with negativity then your mind will also fill with negativity.

We all know someone who brings us down. Who if we spend with them, we leave feeling drained and exhausted. We all know someone who moans all the time about how terrible their life is. And then you meet people who don’t have the best luck, who have bad things happen who still spend their time smiling and beaming positive thoughts wherever they go.

If you trot round the school thinking “my horse is going to spook in the corner” he probably will. If you trot round thinking “this is fantastic, I’m going to ride a perfect corner,” you probably will.

I’m not saying that the power of your mind will prevent you getting coronavirus. But I have had pneumonia, which kills 2216 people a day worldwide. The difference is I didn’t spend the time before I had pneumonia panicking that I was going to catch it. The panicking doesn’t achieve anything.

The world, even in turmoil, is full of magical moments and beautiful fragments. Enjoy the little things, savour the everyday, don’t panic and wash your hands!

One step at a time…

Do you ever feel overwhelmed? I’m sure you do, everyone does. Remember you can’t “see” that someone is overwhelmed. That woman on your yard with 3 children and 4 horses and a job, who remembers people’s birthday – you have no idea how she feels inside. She might be a panicking mess of overwhelming thoughts and spend every morning crying before she starts her day. That lady down the other end with one horse and no family, who from the outside might not seem to have any reason to be overwhelmed. She suffers from an anxiety disorder, and getting through a day is like wading through treacle, she always feels overwhelmed.

Everyone experiences the world differently. We have no idea what other people are going through. But we can deal with our own feelings of being overwhelmed will still being kind about others.

Indeed one of the first steps is to realise that other people feel like this, that you are not alone. The second is to breathe. Running round like a headless chicken won’t help. Take a moment to sit down and work out your priorities. I know you feel like you don’t have time to sit down, but working out a list will make your world feel more ordered, more under control.

Sometimes on a bad day, I add to my list things that I have already done and then tick them off so I can see that I have accomplished things! Whatever works for you…

Look at your list, you probably don’t need to do some of the things on it, or certainly not today, so cross them off, make the list bearable. Then start with thing that is stressing you out the most and do that. I operate better in the mornings, so always try and do stressful things in the morning, leaving the afternoons for the easier, more mundane tasks. But you might find yourself more productive in the evening.

Whatever way you get things done doesn’t matter, just do them one step at a time. If you look all the way down the list, or all the way up the mountain you will feel overwhelmed. If you just take one step and then another, soon those steps will all add together to a great distance, a great achievement.

Being flexible…

…and I’m not just talking about your joints! Flexible joints are great and definitely worth working towards for both our riding and our general well-being, however a flexible mind is a fantastic thing to aim towards.

A flexible mind means that you can cope with the unexpected, roll with the waves. A flexible mind makes you adaptive and gives you the ability to respond intelligently to change. A flexible mind gives you a brilliant tool to cope with the changeable nature of the world.

You had planned to go for a hack on Sunday. You had decided on the route, and really wanted to do it, but then you looked at the weather forecast. It is forecast to be really windy. An inflexible mind thinks “but I’m going for a hack, because that is my plan.” This could lead to all sorts of disasters, such a scary hack, a spooky horse, loss of confidence. A flexible mind might think, “how annoying, never mind, why don’t I go some ground work instead.” This approach means that you have a good session with your horse despite the inclement weather and then the following weekend when the weather is better, you have a nice hack.

You can see the effects of an inflexible mind and the problems it can cause. Whereas a flexible mind allows you to adapt better to changing circumstances. And remember that flexible thinking is a skill, so can be learnt. If you just read that and thought “I can’t do that!” that is a great example of an inflexible thought!

If you think being more mentally flexible would help, here is a link to an article about it (click here). Remember small changes make all the difference, we can’t transform ourselves overnight and also we are all doing the best that we can do, so that we can be the best versions of ourselves.

Always ask questions

Small children ask endless questions. ‘Why does the moon stay in the sky?’ ‘Why do I have to eat broccoli?’ ‘Where do birds sleep?’ As we get older we stop asking as many questions, we get complacent about the wonders of the world, and awkward at the idea of making a fuss.

When I became a director on a Multi-Academy Trust Board I was told to actively ask questions, to challenge what I was told, not to simply go along with it. Now I find that having been told to questioning in one area, I have become questioning in other areas. This is not simply being difficult, but more a case of not just accepting what is laid down in front of you. I realise how easy it is to be accepting of what you are told, and not to question it.

There are so many areas where it is easy to go along with what other people have told you. From the ‘this farrier is great’ comments, to the ‘don’t buy a horse from that dealer,’ ones. The world is full of endless opinions that we should question. You don’t need to go round treating everyone as though you are in a board meeting (you would rapidly lose friends!) but it is worth just keeping in mind.

It is wise to simply raise the question in your mind, ‘if the farrier is so good, why is horse always lame?’ or finding out that the dealer had refused to sell a horse to that individual because they didn’t deem it a good match. We all slant the world with our own version of reality, so all comments will always be from that person’s perception, our challenge is to not always take that at face value, but just do a mental check.

Most people will try and offer you the best advice, most people are generally kind about others, but it is sensible to always remember to maintain a questioning mind, so that you reduce the risk of slipping into the complacency of never questioning what you are told.

It’s only…

How many times have you heard the words “it’s only a horse” or “it’s only a dog”? Quite a few I would imagine, and those words are just as ridiculous every time you hear them. Yes, horses, dogs, cats, parrots (other pets are available!) are not human, but it doesn’t mean our connection to them is any less important, or any less deep. In fact, I have more conversations some days with my dog than other humans. She listens better as well!

Saying goodbye to humans and animals is always hard, the advantage with animals is that we can end their suffering, when we believe the time is right, whereas humans we have to wait while they wend their ways through their final days.

The love we feel for our animals is no smaller than the love we feel for people, it is often far less complicated. Grief around people dying is often entangled with guilt or anger, whereas animals don’t generally invoke such emotions, you simply feel sadness.

But grief is the price we pay for love, so part of the relationship with our animals must include grief at the end, else the relationship would not be the same. If we didn’t love our animals we wouldn’t grieve when then they died, but then we wouldn’t have enjoyed those years of fun. Terrible though grief, it is in fact a small price for the years of love. The alternative is not to love, and that would make the world a sad and lonely place.

The love you feel for your dog, horse, parrot is just as valid as the love you feel for a person. The one does not diminish the other, and an animal is never just a dog, or just a horse. They are the recipients of your love.

Mind your words…

We all know the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” and we all know it’s rubbish. Words don’t break your bones, but they can break parts of your soul, which is infinitely more precious than bones.

I was reflecting on this while considering how you give advice. Do you sail in stating exactly what someone should do, pointing out all the things they are doing wrong, or do you edge around the subject, never quite actually saying what you feel, or do you take the criticism sandwich approach and slide your advice inside two compliments.

I try to do the latter (emphasis on try!). I also try not to dole out unsolicited advice as there is nothing more annoying, other than when I believe it is necessary.

The other day two people said much the same thing to me but in entirely different ways. The first delivered in a heated discussion made me defensive, and closed. The second delivered kindly with empathy during a supportive conversation made me reflect upon my behaviour and see that point of view. It’s not what you say but how you say it…

So, if you see someone doing something with their horse that you think could be dangerous, or simply just not going to work, before you sail in all guns blazing consider how to approach it. For example someone is trying to load their horse on a slippy yard with lots of shouting. You could sail in with “don’t be stupid that’s not how you do it!” or you could say “horses that don’t load are really tricky, I had a horse that didn’t load, shall we help you move your trailer to an easier space and get some treats and stuff?”

You still might not get anywhere with the second approach, but you certainly increase your chances of having some chance of the person considering your suggestions.

So remember be careful with your words, for while they may not like sticks break bones, they can like arrows, wound.

Leave your stress behind…

Horses should be a good de-stressor, sometimes though they seem to cause more stress than they alleviate! But in principle they should be good for you…

Being outside in the countryside, rather than cooped up in a building, taking exercise, doing something that is fulfilling and rewarding, all of these things are proven to help us de-stress and improve our mental state.

I found a poem the other day, which is attributed to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, here are a few lines:

The little cares that fretted me,
I lost them yesterday
Among the fields above the sea,
Among the winds at play;
Among the lowing of the herds,
The rustling of the trees,
Among the singing of the birds,
The humming of the bees.

This should be what spending time with our horses feels like. That we leave our worry at the yard gate and allow the strains of our life to fade away. Often our lives are simply too stressful to simply drop away as we approach our horses, our anxieties are too tightly woven into us to be easily shed. Or our problems are too large to leave behind.

However, when we are aware of how difficult it is to leave our worries behind, we can make more of a conscious effort to leave them at the gate. Sometimes having a physical prop can help, leave a bucket at the gate, and “put” your worries in it. Count to 10 as you walk into the yard and make a conscious effort to leave your day behind. There are many ways to help you leave your stress at the yard gate, and like everything some days it will be harder than others, but trying to leave your day at the gate is the first step. Your horse will be grateful too!