Adventures in trust & connection – having the horse’s back

Adventures in trust & connection – having the horse’s back

With my face down in the water I hold my breath for as long as I can so I can stay in the blue misted underwater world. Not being an ultra free diver this lasts about thirty seconds, but it gives me long enough to adjust my focus and calm down so I stop twitching when objects that ‘are seaweed but could be sharks’ float into my peripheral vision. During thirty seconds of breath holding the first ten gets my adrenalin down. My survival brain reacts to sudden cold water immersion like a baby monkey fell in a river, but after that it’s time to explore the underwater pool.

From beneath the water’s surface the breaking surf looks captivating, the waves breaking through the surface above me are like a kalaidoscope, rather than looking ominous and threatening. I feel the swell of the tide’s incoming fill as it carries me further into the tidal pool, but it only lifts and carries me, and clouds my vision with dancing bubbles of silver and aquamarine.

I turn onto my back and float with my fins out of the water, resting on the incredible power of the Atlantic waves breaking over the rocky barrier behind me where this big pool lies in a rocky fissure. Wild swimming here is a way of adventuring into a place and a circumstance where you couldn’t normally survive, at least not intact for very long before the massive waves introduced you to a barnacle covered rock. It isn’t safe, or within my comfort zone, but I really want to be here. In fact I really, really want to be here, being swirled around, upside down and inside out by a natural washing machine because it is totally, captivatingly different from how you imagine it to be.

I always feel that being in a small boat or in the sea wild swimming is like riding an absolutely enormous horse. I have no choice but to surrender and be carried along by it, blending with the massive force around me, then finding another self I don’t usually use for whom the sea feels like home. I have to trust and know and activate my own physical and mental abilities so I can move myself around, but as I am always going to be seriously over matched in terms of energy I am humble. Finding which way is up in breaking surf can be a panicky situation, as the powerful forces moving you can be overwhelming. I need to be mentally quiet and trust that I can do it, I need to receive rather than project energy, and feel all of myself right to the edges, top, bottom and sides to find a place of confidence.

Before finding the pool I waited five years. Technically I knew roughly where it was but not exactly how to get to it so it became part of my personal mythology, like a white stag. It’s existence depends on the state of the tide. Too high and it becomes another part of the coastline, blended into a foamy maelstrom by huge Atlantic swells. We talked it up for a few days, then on the last day before leaving for home we just HAD to get up early and go. It was not the most inviting day for Western Isles swimming. Grey, overcast and windy, the sea looked hard and impenetrable. I sat on the edge of the pool in my wetsuit dispatching thoughts of conger eels with a mental baseball bat.

We found it under a massive fold of rock between the cliff edge world of sea pinks, short turf and sheep, and the rock pool world of limpets, little sea weeds and barnacles. We found it just in time. Forty minutes later when my wetsuit no longer protected me from the summer sea cold I climbed out and rubbed my stippled limbs dry while balancing on a huge, smooth rock slab. Holding a cup of tea between my warming hands the breakers flooded over the rock lip of the pool and the sea pool rejoined the sea entirely.

It feels such a whole life having days like these. Dried off with fins packed on the back of my rucksack, we picked field mushrooms from the multitudes of little cream caps strewn along the cliff tops. A couple of days before we fished and foraged for mussels. We walked into the interior trusting to landmarks to find a special trout loch. The island where we were is a kalaidoscope of waters – lochs, lochans and beautiful, complicated coastline. A landscape of great diversity in the microcosm and little diversity when you take a wider angle. It encourages you to find and unfold elemental hidden energies, and say “ok I will trust you”. When you walk, when you are alone in the sea, when you are foraging for mussels or seaweed, you have to let your senses trust that what you are looking for will be there. That if you stop trying so hard to look for one, a path will unfold and take you home. You have to be coherent.

On the way back from fishing, we were talking and we took a slightly different route. We knew we had to walk pass six small lochs on rough moorland to get back to the truck. In the middle of a large boggy expanse we knew we were heading in roughly the right direction but had lost our bearings. Standing and looking for landmarks, my small dog was also collecting information.  Suddenly she said “it’s this way of course, you nose-blind numpties!” (she is hugely affectionate but is her own dog and is often perplexed by human limitations), and trotted off across the moor. She had never shared her tracking skills with us before, perhaps not wanting to risk that we might be interested in her private collection of vintage rabbits, but she was so absolutely determined that she was on to the truck that we trusted her, and of course she lead us in precisely the right direction.

Trust and heart coherence are the first places I go in developing that interface between two bodies that we need for really good riding, and adventuring into new realms both in our experience and in our thinking brings them into sharp focus. With that foundation, that sense that we literally and metaphorically always aim to ‘have the horse’s back’, like holding on to a small child as it looks over the edge of a high bridge, we can be coherent, we can receive a lot more of the information we need to keep ourselves and our horses safe, and we can make decisions with clarity and precision about what we need to do throughout a ride.

“Horses don’t ignore their sensate experience. As animals they gauge trust, not by words spoken, but by how they feel. Trust with others is developed over time. We can chase a wild horse in a round pen and bring it to submission in half an hour. This does not mean we have gained the horse’s trust. The horse learns to trust the human gradually, each point of contact building on the previous session. Training a reliable horse takes recurrent reinforcement that we are not dangerous, that we are competent socially and that we respect his need to be a contributing member of the team. It only takes a minute to break trust, but it can take a thousand hours to repair it”.  

Ariana Strozzi (2004). Horse Sense for the Leader Within.

It’s a big responsibility. The other day myself and a good friend and two of my dogs took Lad and Oro the Youngest for his first big trail ride. He has done lots of smaller trips out, and this was a progression to a trail ride of about 1 1/2 to 2 hours on a much more varied trail round the loch. The way I visualise it is to create a small, mobile herd (this one was two horses, two dogs and two humans), where most of the members are going somewhere they know well, and just one member adventuring off his personal map. When you set it up like this, the rest of the herd is a support system. Most of the group, dogs included, had a really good mental map of the territory we’re covering, it’s backyard stuff to them. The herd also needs to be a herd, they need to live or spend regular relaxed time together, rather than be a bunch of strange horses and people.

“Relationships are based on connectedness. When people communicate, an exchange of perspectives takes place that can lead to new ways of seeing and being together for the people involved. We are capable of communicating far more than fear and insecurity to each other when our feelings become part of the legitimate scope of or awareness. Even when we are feeling threatened, angry or frightened, we have the potential to improve our relationships dramatically if we bring mindfulness into the domain of communication itself.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn (1991) Full Catastrophe Living – How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation.

The adventuring horse is there to extend his mental map, but the delightful thing about horses is that as they progress they can borrow responses from other herd members when they come across new obstacles and vistas. This has two sides to it, as many riders know, but it can seriously improve learning when it goes well (and learning other stuff when everyone decides to spook at once). When you can tap into their self-organising system again they become one mind. One horse stops, the other stops too, then they move off again in synchrony. Oro adventured ahead, or trusted to the group to look after him while he went behind Lad and absorbed Lad’s reactions while he made sense of something. You see this in wild or feral herd behaviour with young horses moving ahead and scouting stuff out, then coming back when it gets a bit alarming, and its good to encourage it in young horses rather than forcing them to follow an older one or go out alone.

My job was to manage where we went, the speed we took, whether we had any stops or not (and decide whether to compromise on this point in relation to heathery snacking to prevent fatigue), and health and safety. This is not really a role that in nature one horse ever takes, they don’t work like that, but humans can learn to be good at it. It brings up the verb ‘leading’, but I think of it in practice as ‘managing’. Leadership is an attractive concept to humans, but it has all sorts of connotations and I feel its definition is too blurred for me in relation to horsemanship.  In practice I want to manage the edges of the experience of the adventuring members of the herd so they can safely build confidence and get home again with good memories. It’s more like a collie might with sheep. Go here, don’t go there, let’s all go at this pace, let’s all wait here. My aim is to keep the herd flowing together, connected, calm, and safe.

We had a lovely ride sharing the adventure with Oro, a familiar ride through fresh eyes. When he had an idea, like experimenting with trotting up a steep bank as a way to tackle it, if it felt calm and purposeful I went along too. I trusted my feel for how he was expressing himself with normal calmness, and if he felt a little scared and had to pause for something I didn’t wait or put pressure on him, but hopped off and we progressed close together on foot until calm again. If I had to do something else with other herd members, like rescuing the dogs when they were stuck in someone’s garden, I did it on foot but took him with me. Then we picked up the ‘looking for a getting on object’ activity, one of his faves, hopped back on and rode along pricky ear adventuring again.

Over the course of the ride this meant very little fear stopping even for the two narrow footbridges we needed to cross. I got on from about six different objects, which he knows how to do well and seems to enjoy. Getting this consistent makes it very easy for me to mount calmly and with his help, from funny objects like fallen trees and tumbledown walls. For me the foundation job in riding is going along calmly, developing trust in each other and the activity, rather than being subject to a series of fearful bumps, stresses and separations. It is important to keep the flow going by giving yourself the instruction to get off and walk when your horse needs support, and only remount when you have re-established calmness.  If the horse is not calm for mounting, it isn’t calm for riding!

And we all got home and lived happily ever after.

Live adventurously.


Jon Kabat-Zinn (1991) Full Catastrophe Living – How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. Dell Publishing: New York.
Ariana Strozzi (2004). Horse Sense for the Leader Within. Authorhouse: Bloomington, Indiana.

I didn’t ride my horse today – two useful models of horse behaviour

I didn’t ride my horse today – two useful models of horse behaviour

I didn’t ride my horse today. It’s a nice day, the weather is good for the time of year, my horse is well and healthy, I feel fit and had the time to do it. But I didn’t ride my horse today. And the reason is? My insides didn’t match my outsides. I wasn’t coherent. I could have gone ahead and done it anyway, it would probably have worked out pretty well. The difference wasn’t very big, and I believe my horse is resilient enough now to tolerate it. My journey is on a trajectory though to present myself to my horse in a way that is as coherent as I can make it, so I made the choice not to compromise. I also had the recent experience of not being totally coherent on a ride and lead the day before with Oro and Lad. Snow rides are often exciting for horses, and Lad is a bit fed up of babysitting and would like a good canter. As Oro isn’t ready for that kind of gidding yet, our ride in walk and trot reminded me that if my insides don’t totally match my outsides my ability to bring two horses’ excitement threshold down is definitely reduced. I could have winged it… but I want to come home looking forward to the next ride too!

The definition of coherence is something logical or consistent and something that makes sense as a whole. An example of coherence is an argument (as in a debating position rather than a verbal ding dong) that has no inconsistencies. For horses to be able to understand us we definitely have to make sense as a whole. Today I have a little niggly twist inside. I can feel it most clearly in my body in the left side of my diaphragm, but it is affecting my whole front body and reaching round to the left of my rib cage. I need to sort it out as it’s producing a little bit of anxiety. What it’s probably doing is actually mimicking what my body does when I feel anxious, therefore I feel a little bit ‘physiologically’ anxious. I might have a rib out of position, my anxiety producing gut flora could be flourishing or I could even be dehydrated, or be making a fascial change – I have spent this week working on my posture in lots of different movement including with heavy weights and my muscles are feeling the difference. My focus has been predominantly internal so I could also have temporarily lost the balance between looking inwards and looking outwards.

So many things can influence the body it might all seem subjective and a bit of a palavar. In real life when I am making the choice to do something with my horses or not on any given day, it doesn’t really matter how my niggle got like that, experience tells me that horses don’t find these little niggles very helpful at all. Whilst we often downplay them, they find them pretty alarming indeed. Because there is some extra tension in our body and mind, they have no choice but to reflect it in their body and mind and it feeds directly into their alarm system. What happens when you just ignore it and go ahead anyway? Well yes that is an option I have chosen sometimes, and a lot of times it has ‘kind of’ worked out, at least nobody got badly hurt and I have found a way to unravel tautness by moving it back and forth between my body and my horses body. It doesn’t on the surface require much of the grown up horse to do this, but in my mind it’s not very respectful of them. In most domestic circumstances we can’t legitimately ask the horse if they mind, or genuinely give them the choice to back out of it. We have trained them to tolarate our inconsistencies. My horses are hugely aware of my physical and therefore my emotional state because their evolution has physiologically prepared them to do so. How do I know that isn’t over time going to contribute to their stress and affect their health? In lots of years of being a horse guardian I know it definitely can do.

Why does this happen, and what does the evidence look like? After thirty or so years of being exposed to natural horsemanship in practice or the written word, most of us will be familiar with the concept of the horse as a prey animal. Our relationship to the horse has been directly described as predatory, and one of the stated aims of modern horsemanship training is to mediate our own predatory behaviours in order that the horse accept us into its social environment. Lots of us have practised this like a martial art over many years and are getting to discern what is useful information and what we need to unpick now we have learned to be aware of our breathing, heart rate, posture, muscle tone, touch, timing and rhythm etc., all of which make up our ‘feel’. In relation to our coherence and how we directly pattern our horses, equine ethologist Lucy Rees in her recent book Horses in Company (2017), discusses two important applied ethology principles that we could learn from.

Firstly – hard wired avoidance of predators blueprints the majority of other equine behaviour. This is what natural selection prioritises for the continuation of the species. As handlers and riders many of us have learned not to behave like predators, not to sneak up, grab, pull or hold on to horses trying to escape. This is fairly straightforward for most people to analyse and learn for themselves and the most obvious response.

A human behaving like a horse in the presence of a predator however, can also have the consequence of triggering escape behaviour and is probably where the learning gets a bit more technical. When your insides do not match your outsides, when you are ‘faking it to make it’, or ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’, or feeling any strong negative emotion your chance of triggering escape behaviour increases. Plus when you are incoherent yourself you are very likely to be less aware of things that are about to happen as your own mind focuses on controlling or suppressing a negative emotion. This can happen in any circumstance when you are with a horse, on the ground or ridden, handling or just standing next to each other. The first thing that commonly happens with an alarmed horse is that after assessing the threat they move closer to other horses or to you if no other horses are nearby.

“Horses’ primary reaction to alarm is to bunch together, producing the predators eye confusion effect (Pullian 1973) a common defence strategy among social prey animals.” Lucy Rees (2017)

When this happens at speed you can get sucked into being part of the herd quite easily, but you are a lot more squishy than most horses and you don’t really know the rules. You may interpret their behaviour as barging or pushing, but in fact it is the first part of their alarm system kicking in. Bunching comes before running away as it over-rides moving directly away from a source of danger so the herd can all assess the danger and start to synchronise. We can use bunching behaviour as a marker to remind ourselves to back up a bit, slow down and take our time establishing calm in the horse before doing anything further with them. They are not ‘taking the piss’ or messing about, they are genuinely fearful.

When I was trimming for a living, some clients would be so worried about how their horse might behave during the appointment (or how the professional might respond to horse escape behaviour, unfortunate but true), that their horse was convinced they were about to be beset by wild dogs. They could be quite a way from the horse but their fear was palpable. All the horse knows is that you are freaked, he isn’t going to ask why before mentally heading off. If he can’t physically head off his alarm is going to build, like squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the lid on.  If you have a good hoof carer or other pro who sends you off to make tea or similar distractions during appointments, it might be because they are too polite to say you are freaking your horse out and making it difficult and dangerous to work underneath them. Happily there are lots of ways we can learn to rationalise our fears so we don’t inadvertently trigger alarm, either through self-help or with professional guidance, and it can vastly improve handling situations without ‘re-training’ the horse at all. In my work I explore the relationship off horse between thoughts, feelings and behaviour with my clients, and use positive mental rehearsal, visualisation and reframing to change long standing human behaviour patterns.

Secondly – Synchrony, this is a brilliant concept. Horses, like birds, fish or sheep, use behavioural algorithms for self-organising group movement. When looked at from above, the movements of a herd resemble those murmurations of starlings that are so amazing to see. Self-organising species flock, herd or shoal, keeping a set distance from each other and appearing to move with one intention.  This behaviour is innate and hard wired i.e it does not have to be learned, they can do it from birth, hatching or fledging. For our purposes, a group of two or more horses moving together in self-organised group movement essentially becomes one synchronised mind. In fact a horse being ridden or worked on the ground by a rider or handler with highly developed body awareness after a few minutes also moves in synchrony with their human. This is why even very inexperienced horses can appear to have amazing skills when ridden or worked on the ground by very organised, body aware and influential people. Domestic horses learn to move in and out of being themselves and being in synchrony – i.e all one mind, even when not alarmed. You often see horses sharing hay who move the same, have the same posture and the same energy, but we must remember eating ‘piles’ of food together is not natural horse behaviour so is unlikely to be seen in feral observation studies. They do take up similar grazing and resting postures however. Wild or feral horses act like one mind more of the time as they need to have a very sensitive alarm system.

“The single horse loses individual identity in the band, the band loses its identity in bigger groupings… doing what others are doing, moving together and turning together, is what keeps the herd united in flight from start to finish” Lucy Rees (2017)

Doesn’t that remind you of really good riders as well? If you have worked with groups of horses in movement, for instance riding one and leading another you might have recognised that at some point during the ride, providing the horses are comfortable with each other, it starts to be as if you are riding one horse. Moving up and down the gaits the lead horse (lead as in the one you are leading rather than the ‘leader’) picks up the movement cues in parallel with the ridden horse . The same for herding groups of horses at liberty. Knowing how you can trigger synchrony can be very useful when you need to motivate a number of horses to do something like go somewhere or exercise together, but it can also be a big ask to require one horse not do to what a lot of other horses, or even one very excited horse, are doing. Or in reference to our own coherence, require our horse to be calm and controlled when we are squirting excited alarm out of every pore! I might not have been quite doing that on our yesterday, but there was a background vibe of ‘this could turn into a bit more of a gid than I really think is healthy’.

Exploring synchrony with our horses is one of the most rewarding parts of horsemanship. We might call it blending or influencing, or see authentically talented riders shaping horses in synchronicity without force in a way that the horse totally ‘agrees’ with. We can learn this by developing awareness of our own bodies and minds and how we are presenting ourselves to the horse. The questions I ask myself are how close are we to triggering alarm in our horse? And what do I need to do, or where do I need to be to synchronise with a movement? To find the answers to these questions I need to develop in myself a sense of coherence.

“People who have a high sense of coherence have a strong feeling of confidence that they can make sense of their internal and external experience (that is basically comprehensible), that they have the resources to meet and manage the demands they encounter (manageability), and that these demands are challenges in which they can find meaning and to which they can commit themselves (meaningfulness).” Jon Kabat-Zinn 1991)

Exploring the way you see yourself in a relationship with your horse can help you to change your experience of that relationship. If you feel like a victim of your horse’s bargy behaviour you may have some very negative self-talk, but if you can change that thought to your horse simply expressing primary alarm behaviour you can quickly think of ways which you can get help and keep yourself safe. It could be as simple as the orientation of the horses body when it is tied up for daily care or it might be more complex, but you can act to keep yourself safe and balanced.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1991). Full Catastrophe Living. How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfullness meditation. Dell Publishing: New York.
Rees, L. (2017) Horses in Company. J.A. Allen: Marlborough, Wiltshire.


Carpe powder snow

Carpe powder snow

When your life drops a glorious new day of adventure right in front of you and you can “ooh” with delight and take advantage of it, it’s time to shout “THANKYOU UNIVERSE!” and dive right in and make the most of it. It’s time to throw out the “I should’s” and the “I must do’s” and all the guilt and responsibility, and swim out into the bright light of play. Follow your nose, your feel or your feet, or all three, feel grateful and enjoy it.

Loads of opportunities have come together to make this week fine, fat and healthy, and I am so grateful that the timing left me with a free day and (wowserooni!) twenty acres of four inch deep powder snow, and a bunch of new things to practise and a sound good horse who likes to move and learn and eat apples.

Thankyou herd for it being OK to ask the young Rey del Oro if he minds if I ride bareback in the snow to put him out after breakfast. He said he didn’t really mind but if I could see my way to not wriggling on my belly quite so much on a wet coat he would prefer it next time. The rock was quite slippery, it wasn’t very comfortable or elegant for him and it was definitely worth more than two pieces of apple. Thankyou for the two minute ride that reminded me very clearly where my still, small centre is so I could add it to the ‘doing’ of active riding.

Thankyou snowy fields for the walk across with Red Devil Lad in deep powder where he said he was so happy to be out doing things in the snow and we blew, and blew before getting on and doing some very lovely patterns and stretching together. Riding in perfect conditions like these is usually a singularity here. If our luck holds tomorrow and it doesn’t freeze or thaw there might still be the best surface in the world to ride on for another day and I will be so grateful for it.

Like making the first lines on a new sheet of cartridge paper, we spiralled and circled in the snow putting into riding practise the new body learning from last weekend with Mary Wanless at Overdale. Want to see whether your renvers really is on three tracks like it should be? Are your circles circular? Lad and I find fifteen metre canter circles his best diameter in the field, why do we like them so much? Can we do our best canter figures of eight in the snow ever? Thankyou Mary, Karin and Dorothy for helping me find my right back corner and my deep tensegrity, canter on both reins was way more functionally symmetrical and had a rather ninja uphill feel to it, and the trot afterwards, kapow!

Unfolding the spaces between the actions allows the learning to bloom from bud into full flower. Apologies for the plant analogy if it’s a bit flowery, but after that I feel like a wisteria vine in June. I’m spreading my arms into new territory, some flowers are in glorious full bloom, some are tiny nodes that I can only just see, some have been deliberately pruned or dead headed, and some have gone over in blowsy remnants and are just memories on the vine.

That was a reasonable enough insight, but the wisteria image is tempting me to drift off into broader emotional states when I am practising gratitude. Some brains are so attracted to metaphor. Mine is particularly open to doing that after profound insight experiences. Back to the practical, I like this description of the imaging of insight in the brain from studies using fMRI and other techniques from James H. Austin Zen-Brain Reflections:

“Insights are sporadic, unpredictable, short-lived moments of exceptional thinking, during which implicit assumptions about the relevance of common knowledge to a problem must be discarded before a solution can be revealed.”

J. Luo and colleagues, The function of the anterior cingulate cortex in the insightful solving of puzzles.

On such a rare day how hard it is to be disciplined and not be carried away by your emotional response. But to retain the detail of what led to the insight and not affect our horses we have to do it. How many times have these amazing experiences unfolded and then pouff, they drift away in the stream of emotions magnetised to them and we find ourselves in tears on our horse, or having to have a quiet moment afterwards. Importantly for coaching or practise if we feel wrung out by the emotions we have opened ourselves to we just can’t retain the learning so well. What was the recipe for that last segment? I have no idea, I felt incredible…. How do you make ‘incredible’? It used to take me days to sort this out and I would give my horse headaches. His mind felt like one of those metal pan scrubs. Emotions are a bit like mind crocodiles. I agree with this thought, even it’s a little bit paternalistic.

“Life becomes more efficient and inspired once we learn how to channel the energies feeling our consciousness into mindful avenues that become more creative and adaptive, not into trivial pursuits and unfruitful fantasies.”

James H. Austin (2006) Zen-Brain Reflections – Reviewing Recent Developments in Meditation and States of Consciousness. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It seems a bit like growing up to responsibly steer myself away from emotional watercourses, but they can easily become torrents and I aim not to implode on my horse. He has no choice but to experience it and he won’t thank me for that. He might not feel gratitude like I do, but the biggest thing I can leave him with is to set him up positively for the next time we are together.

While I write I am listening to a song from an album made by my brother and his band Salthouse (they are well worth seeing, they are touring all this year, try and catch them I got up to turn it up because it is so much of him, and it sounds so much of me, it’s ‘us’. It has family resonance, and that feels good although I know and feel grateful for being lucky to have a close family. I choose to identify the ‘us’ in the listening and when we’re together. In comparison my horse has to listen to me and experience my internal state whether he wants to or not, because he has evolved that way. We can be a calm and outward looking ‘us’, or emotionally conflicted and inward looking. I can tell myself the story that I have given him choice, but it’s not technically true.

Gratitude is like the full stop at the end of a sentence. It’s the point at which effort is over. It’s where striving and yearning has stopped and we are calm, happy and complete for now. The amazing thing about gratitude is that it does some really useful things to the brain. In gratitude studies people showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy compared to other groups, and feeling grateful can cause a reduction in physical ailments (The Grateful Brain (2012) Korb, A. Psychology Today Magazine). In feeling gratitude for your riding you can cherish it, then close the end cover and put it on your mental shelf and it will still be there when you need it.

Seven useful concepts for really satisfying training sessions with your horse

Seven useful concepts for really satisfying training sessions with your horse


Until fairly recently, I used to leave it until later in a training session to introduce new concepts, or progress further with established ones. On reflection I’m not totally sure why, but I think it is the outcome of training systems both within equestrianism and in general education that emphasise the accumulation and revision of prior learning as a precursor to adding new. In practice this meant that the first twenty to thirty minutes of a training session went from ground warm up – ridden warm up – run through what we did last time – run through something I ‘would like to work on or I think I should be working on’ and that we both have some grasp of from prior lessons or practice. It was often at this point that my horse started to offer something which would illuminate a possible next step or feel, which I would typically get into and take up to another half hour to explore. During the session I would add many wee breaks, scratches, rubs, praise and food rewards as positive reinforcement for the horse, but long sessions like this could get pretty intense for both of us, and it wasn’t always easy to finish the session with us both displaying a positive, sunny demeanour. In fact it would probably be 50:50 we even liked each other.

This way of doing things led to me as the human needing to look for little ‘get out of jail free’ justifications – learning is change – change is not always comfortable etc, and for my lovely horse to a level of background tension that was a barrier to his learning.

There wasn’t a specific event or ‘thing’ that made me change, I just wasn’t happy with the status quo and I wanted to find a different way of doing things and establish a level of agreement with my horse. Over a few years I studied and experimented, and now I have seven useful concepts that help me make training or even just handling and being around my horses generally work better:

1) Useful concept 1: Reward a great attitude. When I stopped thinking of training sessions with my horses as work, and started to think about them as exploration, my focus started to shift more towards prioritising the mindset of the horse, both in my own practice and in coaching. How could I set up learning experiences that established and protected their balance, calmness, engagement and motivation? What did I need to BE like when I was with them? How should I aim to present myself? This meant all the time I was with them, even during the majority of routine daily handling. Horses of course only like it when your inside matches your outside, so it isn’t acting or ‘faking it to make it’. If you were being asked to do activities yourself that you had little knowledge of, some extreme sports for instance, what kind of personal characteristics in your guide would give you confidence? Being reliable, relaxed but attentive, expansive and encouraging can all be conveyed by our bodies and speech (plus random noises) in a way that horses can intimately ‘get’.

2) Useful concept 2: Observe – Acknowledge – Blend – Influence. I have several clients (you know who you are lovelies), who try so hard to get ‘it’ right that it causes them to mentally or physically lock up in various different ways. To help them I set up a simple framework based on a big shape with several long-ish sides, you could use the sides of an arena or even between objects out hacking or on the trail, or you could set a timer for a minute for each task. If this sounds like it might help you, give it a try, you can use it for ground work or ridden, but for now I’ll describe it as if you are riding.

On the first side just ride and observe what is happening in your body and as far as you can feel in your horse’s body. On the second side and only the second side, think and make a small number of deliberate changes, just two or three at the most, one if you really want to get into deep practice. On the third side ride ‘mindfully’ ie without thinking or changing anything else, then back to side one to observe and evaluate whether the changes you made have had any influence on the horse or on you.

3) Useful concept 3: The Tunnel Concept. I borrowed this idea from Kelly Starrett, who may have also borrowed it as I’m sure it’s not new to humans. It comes down to starting a movement in the best position possible. For instance when you move from halt to walk either ridden or on the ground, what is your body position before you start, and how much influence do you have of the horse’s first step? How many steps does it take you to adjust your posture to gain influence? For years I was a third step kind of person, I sort of might have had influence by then but I’d left the first two steps for the horse to sort out. All sorts of things could have gone on by then! I try to apply this to every new movement – it’s not very respectful of the horse’s fragile mindset to start in a ‘sort of ready’ place yourself, and they respond really well when you give them a clear idea of what you will be doing right from the start. Plan and be ready.

4) Useful concept 4: How much is enough? I aim to ride any movement no more than three or four times in series nowadays, if we don’t understand each other by then and the communication is smoother it’s my responsibility to go back to the drawing board and work out how to break it down so I can present it more clearly. I found an old DVD of a natural horsemanship assessment I was doing back in the day. I repeated one liberty task no less than sixteen times and it was still mediocre, the horse was in a bad posture and we were obviously stuck in a loop. I loved my practice log then – notched up thousands of hours doing things not very well.

5) Useful concept 5: Get the new stuff in early! Once I’ve warmed myself and my horse up these days, I want to introduce new ideas to him as quickly as I can. I always start with something that is an obvious next step from a well established movement. His mind is fresher, he offers to demonstrate movements, he takes on my ideas responsively and thoughtfully. The other day, he had to stop to clear his throat just after I had asked for a canter depart. I gave him a long rein in walk and a neck stroke while he had a cough, and about 30 seconds later he was better. He then picked himself up and gave me the canter depart without being asked again! He was in the middle of doing it and I am so glad I didn’t ask him a second time or I would probably have disturbed him. This concept also helps you – if you’re anxious about doing something get it in early before you build it up in your mind.

6) Useful concept 6: Get connected. Riding with an emphasis on blending and influence happens that bit more rapidly when my seat feels really connected with my horse. Not having a consistent connection reliably before has lead to the design of our in development product Sculptaseat, which puts me in a better place to blend with the horse’s body and easily comunicate. Many women riders are subtly disconnected from their saddles to protect themselves from intimate pain, or as a result of a little initial anxiety about riding. Give yourself time during warm up to feel whether your seat is in your metaphorical ‘basement’ or on the first floor. If disconnecting yourself is a persistent problem, get expert help from someone who is a specialist in seat training.

7) Useful concept 7: Revisit old haunts and have fun during and not just at the end of the session. Once I’ve warmed up and done some challenging new thing, I’ll sometimes quickly go back and see how it fits into the constellation of things the horse already knows, and explore what the new learning has done to everything else. Does it throw something else into a new light? Does new mobility or awareness make some other connections possible? What do I find in myself that I can see is helpful or not? Going over old ground now helps the horse find confidence in the session, and they often come out next time really motivated to do those new movements again, often straight away! This can be a very playful part of the practice, short bursts of activity, lots of changes, lots of praise and reinforcement for taking up the fun in everything. Getting the timing right and stopping to reward when the horse gives a tiny bit more than last time really helps!

Ready to be a lion tamer?

Ready to be a lion tamer?

It’s a whole New Year, and you might be anticipating longer daylight and spending time with your horse. You might have loads of exciting plans for things you want to do or try through the year ahead, or you might be cautious about making plans because things haven’t gone according TO plan when you have done it before!

The big deal is knowing in your heart of hearts what makes you tick about horses, and digging out and squashing those thoughts and beliefs that are of the ‘it’s not quite me but I think I should…’ variety. Some of my lovely coaching clients seriously devalue their right to enjoy time spent with their horses or even take up space because of their beliefs about ‘not being good enough’, or ‘just being a happy hacker’. If you have experienced this and it has put you off having a go at a new activity it’s important to know that when you think about new and maybe scary new things your brain is very likely to come up with all sorts of thoughts and feelings that can stop you! It’s frustrating but quite normal and if you think about it, a sensible thing, after all your brain has to guide you through a long and hopefully not-too-damaging life so it wants to put you off the danger-of-death stuff. “Hmm… I think I’d like to have a go at lion taming?… HELL no!” But the good news is you can learn to be ready for them and ‘pow!’ them into the far reaches of the universe.

Have a little go at this exercise: think of an activity you would like to do with your horse that you haven’t done yet or find potentially scary. Make it the full colour HD version of you experiencing whatever you have chosen. It doesn’t have to be galloping cross country, it could be loading your horse or climbing up the mounting block preparing to mount, those fears are just as valid for more people than would care to admit it. Make it something realistically within your reach that you would like to do but find challenging.  Just thinking about doing that will change how your body feels – what physical changes can you feel in your body? Has anything happened to your breathing, heart rate, posture or muscle tension? What has changed? I would bet it has and that you aren’t even near a horse, you might even be on a SOFA! If that happens when we’re even considering doing something new away from our horse, how much are we likely to change when we’re close to them and facing the challenge? Now, and this is important, how long does it take for you to calm down and feel normal again after bringing up this thought? If you have a heartrate tracker on you can actually see this happening.  Even if you feel normal your heart rate may take longer to come down than you think as you’ve given yourself a nice wee shot of adrenalin without even DOING anything!  Next, bring your original thought back up again, but slow it down and just think about doing the very first movement in the activity, then pause your film strip. Be ready for your body to change and keep your breathing steady, this is just a thought, it will pass. How long did it take this time for your body to respond back to normal? Recognise that this is an important safety system that keeps you from jumping off cliffs or running into traffic – it prepares us to avoid danger and that is pretty useful don’t you think?

As a horse rider you will undoubtedly need this safety system at some point, but you need to learn how it works and how to use it sensibly. In this post I would like to introduce you to the concept of the Readiness Ruler. It’s something really handy you can do on the spot that will help you manage your fear response and make the most appropriate progress for you towards your goals. Let’s give it a shot: bring up the full length colour HD scary thought again. Ask yourself this question: how confident are you on a scale of one to ten – where one is not confident at all and ten is super ninja confident – that you are ready to make that change? Now bring the thought back to the first step in  slo-mo: how confident are you on a scale of one to ten that you are ready to make THAT change? Hopefully the second number is a higher figure than the first, but if it isn’t maybe reassess whether the original thought is a realistic goal for you.

Regardless of where they get to, most people as children start from a similar place when it comes to learning. We are very likely to build up quite an extensive baggage collection by the time we reach middle age, plus there are a whole bunch of physical changes that can potentially impact on our confidence. Our safety warning system has to be hair trigger but it can directly impact on our decisiveness and commitment to change. If you have identified a challenging new set of goals in your horse life in 2019, have you included getting yourself ready to take them on? I know my brain at least loves to dangle nice shiny new thoughts in front of me for me to daydream about how wonderful it would be if I did x, y or z, but I know how uncomfortable it is not being able to immediately put them into practise properly, it can really make you feel like a failure! The way I tackle it (which my coaching clients have sometimes found surprising) is by breaking the changes down into very small pieces, training and exploring them thoroughly in short focussed positive sessions, moving the horse and person gently into new territory and reinforcing prior learning with each session. My goal is to make sure that everyone involved has practised the groundwork and ridden skills they need to confidently influence the horse under a range of conditions so they can both stay as safe as possible and keep enjoying their time together, which will keep the change happening! This means in real life that after the first few big ‘wowserooni!’ mega watt lightbulb learning experiences, we need to expect our practise to simply lead to the next step, to the next step, to the next step, a calm, positive and exploratory progression. If it doesn’t, then we can spot something is up and we can go back a few steps or look for some expert input.

At least that’s my aim…;-), sometimes people take fifteen steps at once on their own accord or decide to skip three and wing it from there! I was once doing foundation work on a young horse for one of my clients. We had started lightly riding about in a halter, had done some work on picking up a bit, and we were happily building towards introducing a bridle with reins along with the halter to make a logical training progression, or another ‘layer’ of the ponies education experience. I went away for the weekend and when I visited again the owner, who loved him, had decided as he was being so ‘good’ that she wanted to ride the pony by herself. He was happy enough about that having being steadily habituated to me getting on from different sides and obstacles, which had involved lots of rewards which made him happy, and waited calmly before she moved off, but her mental image of how to go about it included the pony in a bitted bridle… which was critical to her feeling ‘safe’, but which he had no clue about and ‘strangely’ didn’t comprehend… Happily nobody was hurt or upset and he just walked around the barrels in the arena doing the patterns he had learned with me of his own accord, but imagine if the first ride included a hack! Learning theory tells us steps have to be small, positive and logical for the horse, so we have to recognise when we are leaving the trail ourselves.

You can use the Readiness Ruler to check out if you are about to launch into uncharted territory too. If even thinking about boxing up and heading out for a group hack with strange horses in a new place sends your pulse skyrocketing, it’s ok to take a rain check and stay prepping at home until you are confident. It’s not braver to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ when it comes to horses, as being an equestrian is like no other activity you can choose – the horse will also feel your feelings and in response will add their own! If you want to get to that lovely place with your horse where you can take them out and about and get involved in a wonderful and positive horsey social life, then make your first 2019 goal to get ready to get the prep done really, really, REALLY well, you will definitely be a winner with your horse.