Putting away the Christmas tree decorations this year I
spent much longer than needed reminiscing over each of the individual pieces.
These monetarily worthless trinkets hold such memories and allow me to trace my
family Christmas history back from me being a child through to having my own
child who is now grown up and living away from home.
Some of the pieces are perfectly chiselled gems, purchased in foreign lands at Christmas markets or given to my parents for me as a child or to me for my child. Others, my most precious, have seen better days and came to me, handmade, via nursery or school. For the most part these handmade pieces have lost their glitter and may be dented or chipped but the shop bought pieces don’t bear comparison to them in terms of emotion and precious memories. Some of the pieces are downright ugly ducklings, as a child of the 60’s and 70’s there are some plastic atrocities but they still carry me back in time and are part of what makes my tree mine.
What has this got to do with equine matters?
Well it got me thinking that my life spent with horses is a bit like that precious box of Christmas tree decorations. Individually there are some expensive pieces; equestrian properties lived in, arenas constructed, matching kit, expensive saddles, lessons and treatments with specialists…the list is endless and thank goodness the financial cost has never been calculated.
What of the financially valueless gems?
The smell of a spring grazing horse, the touch of whiskers
on the back of a hand, hours spent in quiet solitude just observing horses, the
soft breath of whickered greetings, taking walks on a loopy rope, exploring the
way horses learn…the list is again endless but the monetary cost negligible.
As lovers of horses we can spend a lot of time regretting things. I should have done it this way. If only I known this back then. Why couldn’t I see the wood for the trees? All of these regrets hint at knowledge yet to be learnt, techniques and methods yet to be known. Like the ugly ducklings on my tree they lost their appeal many moons ago but they are part of who I am and regretting them is pointless. As with my decorations I won’t place them at the front of the tree but they will be there, deep inside the branches.
Some time ago a new Facebook friend asked me why I had
photographs of me riding in spurs (and without a helmet) on my page. The answer
was easy ‘that was me before I knew differently’. Of course I could rip them
up, delete them but they will still exist on those inside branches; better
surely to acknowledge them and learn from them? It would be wonderful if we
were all created as perfect partners for our horses; the factory made bauble
with perfectly timeless beauty. We’re not. And I’m disinclined to believe tall
tales from those that might suggest they were.
Instead of hiding our past, of regretting it and wishing we
were formed perfectly at the start shouldn’t we share our ugly baubles so that
those who have many more gems to add to their tree can make wiser purchases
than us and so enable mainstream knowledge of behaviour and training to evolve
If you would like help selecting the perfect baubles for your tree of equine partnership then do get in touch.
Trudi Dempsey CHBC Equine Trainer and Behaviourist
In 2013 I was asked to write a guest post for a dressage blog that would raise some kind of debate. With hindsight they were maybe thinking more of a debate on which aids to use for a movement or which noseband worked best…they asked the wrong gal! This is the blog I wrote.
Rest assured I’m not sitting in judgement; I have no perfect answer because as always it really should be the horse that stands as judge.
It’s many years since I’ve competed; in fact I’ve had a whole ‘other’ life in France and returned since I last entered the competitive dressage arena. My current P.R.E. horses have been spared the terrifying judges box/car, they have never known the horse eating flower monsters nor the horn of doom.
Call yourself a…?
Call yourself a dressage trainer but you don’t compete I hear the cry! It isn’t that easy though, at least not for me and the thing is that I’m not really sure when this all happened. I’m pretty sure it’s a number of, perhaps, random things that have conspired against my competitive spirit, battled with it and beaten it good and proper to the ground but maybe it’s actually a path I was destined to take all along.
I really should come clean at the start and mention that I am an Interdressage judge. The Interdressage system allows competitors to film their dressage test at home and submit their entries for judging online. There are a number of online dressage test sites all offering the chance to compete without the stress of leaving home or indeed the expense. I also undertook training as a British Dressage judge before departing to live in France. So you can already see how tricky it is for me to move my derrière from this rather wide fence I’m perched on.
If I go back to my childhood with ponies it was probably quite a typical horsey upbringing; I hunted, jumped (show jumping (badly) and cross country, and entered gymkhana events plus the occasional showing class. I would hack for hours to a meet, pony club rally or riding club show and make the return journey after competing. I coveted the big red (or sometimes blue) rosette of first place and would almost burst with happiness when, on the rare occasion, I was awarded one. I sulked when my pony refused the first fence three times and red faced I left the arena, my Dad’s encouraging (oh yeah!) cries ringing in my ears.
I was very small when I attended my first horse race with my Dad and not much bigger when I picked my first winner at a point to point. I lived for some years in a racecourse heavy area of Surrey where (with my husband) we indulged our passion for picking a winner, or at least trying to. The Epsom gallops passed our garden and Derby day was a major celebration. I still recall in 1991 Generous winning the Derby and the fabulous meal we ate afterwards to celebrate. This fence I fell off some time ago and I no longer support racing.
I spent countless hours sat in horseboxes waiting, stood in collecting rings putting up practice fences for my husband. I have plaited manes, committed tests to memory and driven myself to equestrian centres- that is until one little mare made me sit up and smell the coffee in the canteen!
The mare in question was on livery with me and had competed at novice level with varying degrees of success. The first time I took her out to compete was at Addington Manor, a large venue with indoor and outdoor arenas with all the madness of horses moving between the two. Warm up was indoors and entering the arena she just exploded into piaffe (something I may have been delighted with at home) and instantly dripped with sweat. I hastily left the warm up area amid tuts and head shakes from beautifully made up ladies on big bay warmbloods (my mate Chris and I used to joke that we would never win unless we wore more makeup!).
Plan B was a warm up hack which went pretty well…until we returned a minute or so before our ‘enter at A’. On riding up the centre line the tension returned and she ignored every pleading aid I could offer. After a 20m circle in a wall of death canter I finally admitted defeat, took polite leave of the judge and returned to the lorry deep in contemplation. The first hand was proffered from beyond the comfort of the fence!
Life in France
Living in dressage droughtville in France (the Limousin prizes its cows rather than its horses) took me away from the competitive world and into a burgeoning world of forums, blogs and online information. The internet saved my horsey sanity at the start of the noughties exiled in France and the free exchange of views brought me into contact with some rather diverse opinions such as those polarized views of Alexandеr Nevzorov, the anti-equestrian sport guru who is definitely not perched on any fence in these matters.
My own choice of equine partner may ultimately have tempted me to leave that fence or, if not, at least made me question some of my long held beliefs about competing with horses. The P.R.E has energy and character in abundance and they are truly a joy to train but the energy is too easy to misdirect and tension results. I was told many times when competing warmbloods that you should train them deep so that the tension at a competition would bring them up into an ‘acceptable’ self -carriage. Training deep is not and never has been my thing but training my sensitive boys has made me even more aware of how tension can manifest itself and how unhappy it seems to make them.
Just because we can?
In these days of global horse competitions is it fair to expect horses to literally travel those extra miles for us to win that coveted red rosette?
Is it acceptable to keep competition horses wrapped in cotton wool and without regular equine companionship other than over a temporary stable partition?
Does the modern equine athlete enjoy his frequent trips in the lorry or is it just something he must learn to cope with as part of life.
Is it building a partnership when kids gallop round a cross country course, pony ears pointing the way?
Should we limit the stress our equines are put under, perhaps leaving them in a field to while away their hours pulling grass and rolling in the mud?
Is there an answer?
I think the answer, as in so many things, is probably to find a balance. I have had many, seemingly small, invitations to step down from the fence but I have resisted taking the huge leap to being absolutely against all equine competition. If we are able to curb our ego and consider the welfare of the horse above ALL else perhaps there is a way forwards. Or is there? Can we really justify our human need to win when it relies on the horse doing most of the work?
Cues are signals that tell us some ‘thing’ is going to happen.
Cues can predict things that are good or bad.
Understanding cues is important for carers of horses.
Humans might not observe cues that are highly visible to a horse.
Cues build a language between us that can be clearly understood by both parties or by one party alone.
Signals given to us by horses can easily be misinterpreted. Confused horses become fearful and will be unable to learn.
Teaching and learning mutually understood cues in a calm situation is ideal.
Breaking it down
Cues are not one-sided we can learn from our horses as well as well as them learning from us. A horse will signal to you in very quiet ways before taking stronger action and these are cues to the human that something is about to happen. It is rare for a horse to just bite your arm with no warning but subtle clues before the bite can often be missed by humans who are often confined to complex language as a first means of communication.
Cues do not just have a place in riding they are a way to communicate on the ground and in every situation that horses and humans interact.
It takes time to teach and learn cues. Some horses may appear to learn more easily than others who might have been shut down by previous human contact and now feel disinclined to interact.
Horses understand many more cues than those we teach them. They are mastermind detectives and will pick up incidental information without us noticing. Environmental cues can be obvious- rattling of buckets in the feed room being a cue for dinner. Or subtle- wearing a pair of gloves might signal you’re riding today. Just know that your horse is collecting cues constantly especially when you least expect it.
The word aid is often transposed into cue and of course an aid (ridden or from the ground) is a signal that you want something to happen- it’s a cue to the horse to make a certain move.
Cues are created and kept strong by the addition of a consequence. Every time the pushy pocket nudge gets a carrot it will reinforce the nudge. The nudge becomes the cue and is kept strong by the consequence of a tasty carrot fed afterwards.
In simple terms a cue is a signal that something is going to happen. Our horse interactions are full of cues that are not always understood, or even noticed, by us but are clearly evident to our horses.
One foot in front of the other and arms, relaxed at your side, naturally swing. You perhaps assumed I’d be talking about horse walking rather than human walking! Walking with your horse (equine groundwork) would appear to be an easy task yet often it is the hardest exercise to perfect. Under scrutiny humans may walk with unnatural tensions which mislead and confuse a horse. Sometimes our intent is unclear and very often we appear not to have our minds on the job; this is an alien concept to a horse. Whether we intend to ride our horses or just hang around with them basic equine groundwork is essential.
Who is equine groundwork for?
Should we walk with our horses and shouldn’t we be riding them? There are those still be to be convinced by the benefits of equine ground work. Within equestrianism there is a gap in education as far as ground handling is concerned and horses will quickly learn to bridge that gap for themselves.
Guesswork or clear direction?
Horses are incredibly good at spotting signals and it’s easy to unknowingly train a horse. Reading body language, words and other predictors of events enables fast learning for horses. Many of us are completely unaware that we are communicating in this way and give off constant information in fairly random sequences. Horses will try to decipher these communications and so it’s hardly surprising that they can be confused. Watching a horse/human team I can be confused so no wonder the horse might at times indicate they haven’t a clue what you want (often erroneously misread as the horse being ‘slow’ or ‘naughty’).
Dominate or submit?
Word is filtering through that domination, along with force, has no place in training any living being. Language such as ‘showing the horse who is boss or he will not respect you’ and the misguided observations it was based on have been fully refuted. Developing a common language between humans and horses has to be based on proven, evidence based methods and not on fear or prejudice. The aim is to create a partnership where the frailties of the human can be supported by the horse and vice versa; we both bring strengths and it makes sense to be supportive rather than antagonistic. Learning together creates a strong bond and will ultimately lead to harmony through greater clarity and understanding.
The winding path
Simple steps to create a partnership will not be in a straight line- that is guaranteed. Nor will improvement occur in easy increments. There may be some steps that follow a sequence that makes sense from the start but it is more likely that they won’t. When you look back at the winding path once walked it is easy to spot places where fewer steps might have been possible. Experience teaches us not to miss the simple lessons as all else sits upon them- they are the foundations. If you want to save time then spend time in preparation. Riding begins (and continues) with groundwork.
Many of us dither; I’ve dithered. Fear of failing can immobilise us. Feeling isolated can hinder progress- being the only person with a horse that ‘needs’ training when everyone else is out there doing it. Let me share the fact that I have never visited a new student that didn’t need help- we are all on the winding path and none of us has, or will, reach the end (or should feel the need to).
A plan is essential but more important is the will to get out and do things. In trying we work towards success even if we sometimes stumble along the way. The process of writing a plan is, in itself, a way to focus on the outcome before working backwards to fill in the gaps. Impossibly big steps won’t help and will probably cause more dithering; think small steps and then make them smaller still!
Do it for me!
It’s easy to give non-specific training advice and this is a marketing tool used extensively. Relax, Breathe, Harmonise, Trust, Connect, Communication, Confidence. All good words (and there are many more) that are part of any solution but with no path to pin them to what help are they? You read them and associate with them but what do they mean in practical terms? Your plan needs your input to guide you along your winding path.
Do you have a vision for future time spent with your equine partner? This is the only time to think big as later you will begin to unpick every element of the dream until a simple set of steps appears. It might be to walk miles browsing the hedgerows or a ride on the beach. Some simple dressage moves or popping a log in the forest. It’s your dream- you frame it.
Still looking for clues
I can see you still dithering or worse still rushing out of the door to start without laying the foundations. Write your plan! What was your dream? What are the first 100 steps and what are the underpinning behaviours you will need to build a strong foundation? Write them, say them, imagine them happening and absorb them until they feel part of you. If they don’t feel as if they are yours there will be more dithering or stumbling on the path. Consider the ‘simple’ example above of being able to sit in a field with your horse unattached via a rope or rein yet focussed on you. This is a great groundwork exercise that will lead to a similar valuable one when ridden.
What are the steps to take?
Once clearly framed you, the trainer, can begin to put the steps in place.
Some of the BIG steps might be:
Sit and chill when together
These might break down into:
Clean and safe hand feeding
Understanding acceptable distance (for both of you)
Soft acceptance of a head piece
and clear cues for:
‘it’s OK we’re chilling’
‘is there something you’d like to do?’
It’s possible to pare down these steps further. If we take the soft acceptance of a headpiece, perhaps a headcollar, as an example then this will break down further still:
Soft and tension free when headcollar is produced in many different environments (in itself a lot of steps)
Interest in the headcollar when it is held towards them, sniff or touch behaviours need to be previously on cue!
Shape the touch behaviour gradually into inserting nose into headcollar
Shape the nose remaining softly in whilst the rest of the headcollar is fastened.
All of these steps in different settings, tension free with soft face and body language.
Yet more steps can be created depending on the point at which you started. I hope that you are beginning to see just how complex simple behaviours are and that if you don’t communicate specifically then your horse will pick up your unintended cues and build their own equine/human language and ways of acting around you.
Many clients find their way to me when they have lost their confidence. I’d like to think that’s because I am perceived as someone who is reliable in offering calm support. A sane and sensitive advisor who has been there and smelled the roses. Of course often one of my clients will recommend me as someone able to nurture nervous riders and handlers. Sometimes I’m approached by riders for whom ‘Classical Dressage’ is a last resort. Perhaps it’s ‘you’ve tried the rest, now try the best’. But often just that I’m last (or close to) on a long list of approaches that searchers might try.
I work with horse behaviour change applying science to enable humans to live with and share better the company of their horses. This begins with helping humans to understand why horses behave in the way they do and how to improve their daily lives so that they can lead happier more contented lives.
Recovering your confidence
A big part of recovery from diminished confidence appears to hinge on identifying how the confidence was lost in the first place. Reasons can be diverse! Traumatic falls, feeling vulnerable due to decreased mobility, having children, lack of skill the list goes on. Maybe there is no incident that we can put our finger on, no culprit to blame. But it doesn’t make the lack of confidence any less debilitating, it looms each time we think of sitting on a horse or maybe even just standing by a horse.
Our brains are incredibly complex but in simple terms we need to rewrite history, change the paths that are laid down within it and that cause us to panic. We do this in the same way that we work with a horse that has lost confidence; in small steps. No actually not small but minute steps that take us gradually to confidence, calm and relaxation around previously traumatic triggers. It doesn’t matter what trauma, how obvious or seemingly invisible, led us to lose our confidence- what matters is taking tiny steps to recover it.
The first step to recovering confidence is to understand why horses do what they do. What triggers behaviour and how we can help avoid those triggers and build resilience to them. It’s often said that we should dream big. I recommend you dream small. Dream of being with your horse, dream of breathing together, share air together and let your dreams grow as you learn more about each other and what it means to be a human in a horse’s world and more importantly a horse in a human’s world! Did I say small- heck I meant huge because it truly is!
Get in touch
If you’d like help better understanding your horse and building your confidence around them please get in touch for a chat. I offer person to person coaching, small group interactive talks, clinics and workshops where we can work on a more confident future together. I also offer remote consultations and training. Visit my web site here. Or my Facebook page here.