Playing Ugly

This blog post is written in response to a thought provoking coaching article – you can find it here. Its a great read, and I recommend reading it before you go any further. Even though there aren’t any pictures of horses or riding, this is relevant to equestrianism.

Sometimes pictures don’t help our thinking.

I really like to look outside equestrian ‘stuff’ to see what I can learn from other activities. I admit I’m not enjoying the range of Disney behaviour in the FB world these days so I’m not on FB very much, but in recent days I have contributed to a few proper discussions on the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of coaching and horsemanship. In a series of interesting articles Marianne Davies from Dynamics Coaching explores some of the psychology of learning in The Ugly Zone, drawing from her coaching and personal experiences in canoeing and climbing. I would love to spend some time talking to Marianne, she is also an equestrian and she’s done a lot of primary research into skill and motivation.

Integrating this kind of deep and unstructured practise is fantastic for developing skill. As equestrian coaches how do we encourage our lovely horse people to take this on? It’s a splendid way to help people get out of the ‘only practising in lessons’ trap, or the swamp of self-criticism for ‘doing it wrong’. I’m giving myself brain ache thinking about how I apply this in coaching sessions given the different challenges of working with two species at once. Now I’ve finished this I’ll go and see what Oro thinks today, but I’ve got my blogging mojo back today!

Learning horse skills and applying them in a kind and compassionate way is critical, but we need to test those skills and stretch ourselves. We can do this in way more ways than we usually expect – practise how to develop a greater depth of connection in ground work, more challenging patterns and movements in schooling, on the trail, in different places – what we need to do is foster is our observation and the curious, explorative parts of our brain. How can I? Is a fantastic question. How can I creatively use a space and the resources within it to positively expand my own and my horse’s confidence and ability?

Meeting with a student yesterday for a groundwork training session, it was a windy day when all the herd were full of distractions. By going through a bit of ‘Ugly Zone’ practise, we found that the best way to help the horse self-regulate to find calm, was for the person guiding her to ramp up their focus and model moving with confident purpose and intense curiosity from point to point. This started with practise over simple walk, halt, back, turn patterns around a line of cones. Initially the horse repeatedly surged ahead and overshot the last cone, and showed several distraction behaviours, not exactly Kite Flying, but In a Pickle. In the end her posture was calm and balanced, and she was moving entirely in synch with her owner around objects, stopping, backing up and turning with no force or equipment.

Here’s a thing. The horse did more yawning and stress behaviour at the beginning of the session than at the end, which is very different than what we may expect in horsemanship training. Going with our updated knowledge about stress behaviour in horses this is The Right Way Round – we can measure resilience by looking for reduced stress behaviour. Horses yawning and dropping off to sleep after a training experience are not always ‘better’ for the training, from their POV they have survived. Horses coming up of their own accord at the end for more scratches, interrupting conversations for snogs and a chat, and offering to come with you and do stuff again have been positively changed by the training experience a little bit. What’s more they are ready for some more later on if you can possibly finish your coffee and get your ass back here!

Practising in the Ugly Zone on this occasion expanded the range of skills my lovely student has to safely calm and connect with her horse. We brought it down to this as a kind of theory of change – the horse had an elevated HR (heart rate) due to the circumstances, inducing a strong tendency to spook and move. The owner also had an elevated HR and felt a level of anxiety, but to start with moved quietly and slowly as an attempt to calm the horse. This was not very effective (because we often haven’t had enough time to change ourselves enough inside by breathing or anything when these things happen, and unless we have a naturally low HR or lots of practice with high energy horses, a high HR horse is very influential to our HR), but it is a place we often start. Neither was progressing with the static and dynamic target training we had planned. We discussed other options that we may or may not introduce to the session, and why the horse would benefit from movement but may view enforced ‘moving the feet’ on a circle without being able to actually get the heck out of Dodge as adding insult to injury.

What we need to do in this situation is to acknowledge and accept that the horse is experiencing internal stress and then enter the Ugly Zone and practise until we find a place where we can help them gain self-control. We also had the option of just stopping the session, but the owner felt confident in her abilities (as I was) and wanted to use the situation which is in reality a very common experience with horses, to practise.

I decided a pattern of walking, halting, backing and walking on a straight line to reach a target which I introduced after the back up, would be a chance to introduce a predictable and achievably positive experience to the horse and a familiar pattern for the owner to follow. Straight lines allow a horse to move in more balance so we wanted any turning to be controlled and slow, as does controlled backing up. I also very briefly demonstrated how re-positioning yourself to take up more room in the horse’s visual space and moving more quickly ahead or next to the head can be helpful in gaining control without physically applying pressure to the horse via the halter or placing a stick in front of them. Please set fire to the rules of Where to Walk – you need to be flexible in this area.

Turning, stopping and positioning herself in a more influential and safer place near her horse’s head rather than at the shoulder, the owner’s anxiety reduced because her HR was now appropriate for the more demanding level of movement and she was gaining force free control of the situation. In this position she very quickly found herself becoming positively interested and she threw open the doors of the metaphorical Cabinet of Curiosities! Her horse found a calm and fascinating spot in the eye of the storm and stuck to her Like a Burr, then she could practise less predictable movements and be creative in the space, on the halter and then without. Their practise developed the skill of moving them into and out of spook zone instantly, and into more explorations in two other fun sessions that day!

Many people these days, myself included, are not motivated to compete with our horses for a variety of different reasons, not least of which is that horse competitions Do Not always bring out the ‘best’ in humans, and beyond food or love competing is fundamentally An Alien Concept to horses. Competitions are more stressful for horses than we can possibly imagine, and we can learn a huge amount from observing horse physiology, behaviour and how we can successfully interact without giving our horses the shits. We as an equestrian community have an ingrained prejudice here and are kind of fixed in seeing competition as the only way to test our skills, which isn’t the reality. A session like the one I described is a great way to experience tackling sudden and potentially overwhelming situational variability and stressors.

Whilst a canoe or a rock face will not pay much attention to a stressed out human, a horse definitely will change in some way as a result of spending less than quality time with one, so we have to develop an additional skill dimension. Putting it in another light there are no watersports classes needed on What to Do when you Upset your Canoe (there are obviously classes on this, the literal interpretation)! As equestrians we have to do something a little bit different and add centaur skills to tool use skills if we want to evolve. And we need to consider that just like other activities we can bring more positive challenges into our practise and get comfortable in the Ugly Zone without hitting anyone’s overwhelm button and still being able to be curious and experimental. And and and…as if you didn’t have enough to do already!

If you follow the link to Marianne’s blog, there are a range of other really interesting articles to read as well. Other people think about this stuff too, which really helps.

You can find more of my blog posts, including the series on contact and connection here.

My own website can be found at

Thanks for reading, have a fab weekend and I Will be back soon! (See what I did there? Established accountability… lots of love xxx)


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