Wednesday, September 7, 2016

I See You

Photo by Sanni Airaksinen

To truly know someone is to know the silence that stands for the thing they never speak of. ~Robert Brault

Each summer, when I travel to Finland to teach clinics, I meet a lot horses. Afterwards I may not remember all of their names, but I do remember each individual animal, as they all make a unique impression on me, sometimes more so than their humans. I know there are a lot of trainers who merely acknowledge the rider before a lesson (the rider is paying for the lesson, after all!), but I always make a point to greet the horse as well. It may only take a few seconds, but it can be a significant gesture. Even in that seemingly brief moment so much invisible information can pass between me and the animal. Each horse has their unique story and I want them to know that I am interested in that story. And not just the story, the horse itself. At minimum, I am there to connect and help.

This might sound a bit strange to someone, but the truth is that it is very important to me. In fact, sometimes I wish I could share the insights I get from the horses with the humans sitting a top. But often times they are not ready to hear half of it. Besides, they are there to learn how to sit on their horse. And I know that once they start to learn how to use their seats to communicate with their horses, they will also be better equipped to hear what their horses have to say. My job is to allow that to happen, not force the result by taking shortcuts.

This is why I was intrigued to observe Noora Ehnqvist during one of her clinics this summer. She does the same thing as I do, meets and greets the horse. But because her clinics are all about the horse-human connection on the ground (and on a soul level), she is able to share her insights with the human. In fact, that's the whole point. After she has met the horse, she can suggest the next step for the human to take, to start to connect on a deeper level with her horse.

I was very impressed with Noora's ability to "read" the horse. I call it reading, because that is what it feels like to me. Having studied and taught animal communication, I know that we all receive the information from the animals in different ways. I'm not sure Noora realizes herself how she reads the animal, she just does. Which is fine. There doesn't always have to be a need to analyze a technique or even admit that there is one. Animal communication is a very personal experience, often we are not conscious of how the information is passed, we are merely aware of the information.

All the horses in Noora's clinic were incredible, of course, but only one of them moved me to tears. At first glance, Anton seemed like an ordinary fellow; a 16 year old spotted gelding who had spent most of his life in one riding school or another teaching people how to ride. After his career as a lesson horse, he had made his way to his new owner, a gentle lady, who had brought him to Noora's clinic perhaps with the hopes of learning to understand him better.

I've seen many old lesson horses before and although this gelding was definitely a bit tired, he was by no means completely signed off to life. In fact, I felt like inside his stiff, worn body, there lived a dignified, humorous and above all, self-respecting horse. Noora must have seen this, too, as she immediately suggested teaching Anton a specific circus trick, namely stepping with his front feet on a raised platform to give him a sense of accomplishment and pride.

The owner started off with a very low platform. Using body cues and treats, she communicated to Anton what she wanted. Anton, however, didn't need much prompting. He stepped on the low, wooden platform in no time. After practicing with a lower platform, the pair moved to a slightly higher one. No problem. Anton was on top of the task, it was as if he had been waiting for this opportunity all his life. When the audience cheered his efforts, you could visibly see this magnificent horse come to life.

We all have the need to be seen and horses are no different. And when I say seen, I don't mean seen in the physical sense, but truly seen as who we are deep down inside, on a soul level. Have you seen the movie Avatar? If you have, you know that when the Na'vi people in the movie say "I see you", it means a lot more than seeing someone with your eyes. It is connecting to their soul, seeing their truth, seeing behind the mask. Sort of like the Sanskrit greeting Namaste, which often is interpreted as "the divine light in me sees the divine light in you". I see you, I truly see who you are and I respect that. I believe "seeing" or even the willingness to engage in an attempt to see, is the basis for all connection.

How many horses can ever truly feel seen by humans? We may often feel as if we know the horse, but I dare say we don't. So often it is the story we have made up about them, which we believe to be the truth. This applies to all horses, but especially the ones serving in a riding school.  To survive the life they are living, they often must hide who they truly are. And this was Anton's story as well. He was, undoubtedly, a great riding school horse. One look at him told me he was probably calm and steady - the trusted, unflappable mount for kids and adults alike. Never spooky, never resistant; the perfect guy, really. But that was just the outer layer of his persona, the one that mattered most to humans.

There are no accurate words in the English language to describe what it was like to see this horse come to his true self. Every time he stepped on the platforms in the arena and the audience cheered, he became prouder and prouder. And not only that, he felt seen. Finally, after all those years, people were acknowledging his true being. Outside he might have looked ordinary, but inside he was royalty, a king, even.

Finally, on the second day of the clinic, there was only one more platform left. It was very high. Even Noora hesitated.

"Perhaps another time", she suggested, knowing that normally it took days or weeks to get horses to learn to step on this tall platform. But Anton and his owner were already moving towards the massive object. And at that moment nobody had any more doubts.

When he stepped on the highest platform with his two front feet as if it was a podium built just for him, Anton truly arrived home. He was no longer a tired, old gelding, but a magnificent stallion who knew his wisdom and power. He stood with pride and looked around over the property as if he had just stepped on it for the first time. And perhaps he had.

His presence did not go unnoticed. Suddenly the three mares that had been peacefully grazing in the field next door, came cantering to the arena fence, followed by the herd's lead gelding. As we watched in awe, Anton stepped down from his podium and pranced over to the mares, his neck arched and his ears forward. He looked nothing like the sad horse that had entered the arena at the beginning of the clinic. This was the true Anton, noble and gallant.

Photo by Sanni Airaksinen

As I watched Anton interact with the mares and the other gelding, tears welled up in my eyes. I was, of course, deeply moved by Anton's incredible transformation, but I was also sad for all the other horses just like Anton, who never get to show the world who they truly are. How many horses share his story?

We all love our horses, but I dare say that often we don't stop to truly respect them as individuals. I sometimes hear people describe their horses in endearing, but slightly sarcastic tones. It's fun to tell stories of our butthead horse who did something hilarious (in our opinion). Heck, I've probably done it myself a million times. Sometimes, more often than not, these stories can have a belittling undertone or an unconscious superior edge even when they are meant to be told with love and affection. But if someone was telling similar silly or perhaps slightly degrading stories about us behind our backs, or worse, in our company, but ignoring our presence, we would be deeply hurt. Because these stories are not our truth.

I remember when I first met my own horse, Little Love. For the longest time I pinned her as hysterical, untrustworthy and perhaps a bit stupid. I thought she was frustrating, bad-mannered and ditsy. It took me years to see who she really was under all that fussing and stressing, and once I did, she was nothing like the horse I had met years before. Little Love was one of the most co-operative, sensible, peaceful and wise souls I have ever had the privilege to know. I could not have been more wrong about her in the beginning and my only regret is that it took me so long to truly "see" her. By then I also understood that all that other stuff, the hysteria and craziness, was just her way of shouting louder at us humans to finally get our attention. Because none of us were ever truly listening.

People say horses are our mirrors. And this is definitely true, to a certain extent. Often when horses are with us, their behavior is a direct response to our own behavior and attitude. But that is only half the truth. Horses may be our mirrors, but they are also unique individuals. And until we sense and understand the deepest truth of each individual horse, until we see her or him as who they really are, we cannot achieve true connection.

The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer. ~Edward R. Murrow

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Best They Can

A few weeks ago I ran into an acquaintance and her very ill behaving puppy which already at seven months old was the size of a large Shetland pony. I had met them a few times before and knew that by human standards the dog was “out of control”. 
"I’m sending my dog to a trainer for five weeks", the owner of the dog told me almost immediately upon our meeting. She was driving her car and the said dog sat in the back seat, not because it wanted to, but because it had no other option, as it was tied tightly by its choke collar to a hook on the ceiling. “We always do this with our dogs, it’s much easier. After five weeks they come back obedient and submissive.”
The puppy was trying to shove its face out of the open window, but couldn’t without choking itself. This did not deter it from trying. I nodded and smiled, but in my mind I wondered how devastating for a dog it is to be sent away to a strange place only a few months after he has arrived to his new home and family. And to go to training with a stranger, no less. On the other hand, this is exactly what happens with most horses, often several times in their lives. But I won’t get into that now.
I have always thought sending a dog away to be trained is a cop out, because really, isn’t it much more important to train the owner? One could argue that people should not get dogs if they don’t have the time, resources or interest to put into teaching them how to be in their world. Especially a dog the size of a pony! I mean hello?
Oh no.
I was definitely starting to fall into judgement. But how could I not? It is so easy, after all. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, we all wrestle with judgmental thoughts sometimes. More often than not. The thing is, however, I don’t want to be judgmental. In fact, already years ago I decided to learn to neutrally observe and understand, no matter what the situation. Judgment isn’t helpful, in my opinion, it only divides people, alienating them from each other. Judgment, I believe, is the root of so many negative interactions in the human world and I want to avoid it the best I can.
But how to stop?
Brené Brown (yes, I’m mentioning her again, she’s that good) introduces an interesting idea to fight judgment: What if we believed people are doing the best they can?
I know, sounds counter intuitive, doesn’t it?
But think about it. If you assume everyone is doing the best they can, there is no space for blame and judgment. And without judgment, there is more space for compassion. And having compassion for the people you interact with on a daily basis will have a definite and profound effect not only on the lives of the people you interact with, but your own life as well. So really, whether people are doing the best they can is irrelevant, it’s more important to believe they are doing the best they can.
This is some difficult, deep work, I’m not going to lie. There are moments when I want to yell out loud: “Did you see that? OMG, absolutely awful how some people don’t give a shit!” And I try to talk myself out of the belief that everyone is going the best they can. Because hello? Clearly that can’t possibly be true.
But then I take a deep breath and catch myself. Usually at this point the universe will provide me with a reminder. Which is exactly what happened the same week I ran into my friend with her puppy. My husband, who was going through files on his old computer, ran into a folder with ancient videos. One of those videos was of Andiamo, a horse I used to own eleven years ago. The video shows him tacked up with a vaulting pad and surcingle and his head pulled in with side reins that are attached to the snaffle bit in his mouth. Also attached is a long longeline and at the end of the line is who else, but me. Moi. Myself.
Andiamo looks tense. His tail is tucked between his legs and his croup is low. Anxiously he lifts his head and braces against the (very) short side reins while his back is like a rod iron, flat and unyielding. The look in his eyes is wild, but despite the evident panic, he is behaving like a “good boy”, cantering on the circle, doing what I am asking him to do, allowing the vaulters to move on and around his back.
I stand in the middle of the circle, lunging him with pride, and most likely have no idea of my horse’s true emotional state. Or perhaps I have an inkling, but I am thinking that he is a green vaulting horse and he’s supposed to be a bit freaked out. I’m not worried, because one day he’ll gets used to it all, he’ll stop being afraid. Because horses are like that, always afraid of this or that or the other thing, that’s normal. It is the humans’ job to continue doing what we do, until the horse gets used to it. And if he really is freaked out, he wouldn’t allow us do what we are doing, right?
“Wow, that looks absolutely awful”, are the first words that came out of my mouth upon watching the video. Yes, judgment. Of myself. Actually, I could almost argue that it wasn't judgment, but the truth. I couldn’t believe the short side reins, and how Andiamo was opening and closing his mouth. Clearly he was in pain. And his eyes! So fearful… and…and…
The irony of this situation, of course, is the fact that for the past year I have had the privilege to spend time getting to truly know this horse called Andiamo. And Andiamo, the horse on the video and who is now retired on his current owner’s property, is a kind, forgiving and wise soul. Back in the day, he used to be a dressage and vaulting horse, winning ribbons, but for the past year he has been my teacher and guide to my less perfect self.
It is an understatement to say that my philosophy and way of being with horses has changed significantly in the past decade. Perhaps, instead of listing all that has changed, it would be more accurate to admit that everything has changed. And how much can a human mind and heart grow in just ten years! 
Now, when I watch the video, I can see that we should have stopped with Andiamo or perhaps not even started in the first place. But I was in such a different place then, a celebrated vaulting coach, a dressage rider and trainer. Competitive and goal oriented. I would not have been capable of seeing horses in the light I see them now, even if someone would have shown me. I was in a completely different mindset: human doing instead of human being.
But, as I dared to claim before, everyone is doing the best they can, even I am, on the video. I wasn’t deliberately causing Andiamo distress; my awareness – in hindsight – was simply limited. Which makes me wonder how limited it is now. Will I look back at myself in ten years and label myself ignorant, yet again? What have I missed today which tomorrow will be a blaring mistake, even abuse?
Perhaps this is a lesson in humility, yet again. We cannot know where people are coming from. The lady who is yelling at her kids or the trainer who kicks his mount with spurs; they are all doing the best they can. No, really, they are. It may not seem like that to some of us, but we also don’t know the whole story. We don’t know where they have been, what their life looks like, what is their cross to carry. We also don’t know where they are on their so called path. Maybe they aren’t ready to look at what you and I are doing with our horses. Maybe they are not there yet. Maybe even we aren’t there yet, even though we think we are enough above it all to judge.
I have made a commitment to myself to believe Brené Brown. To believe that everyone is doing the best they can. You, me and my friend with her gigantic puppy. And so it was eleven years ago when I thought I was training Andiamo to be a vaulting horse even though he was clearly freaked out and anxious. Our best can merely be our current best.
I think meeting Andiamo again, being able to look back and see how I have grown, how I have changed in the past decade has been one of the most valuable lessons of my life. Because it is now clear to me that although people are always doing their best, it doesn’t mean that their best cannot change to be even better. It can, through an open mind, a lot of work and continuous reflection. It is a (sometimes painful) practice that never ends. Tomorrow my best is hopefully better than my best yesterday.
Others may evolve or they may not. Regardless, they are doing the best they can. We really can’t ask more from anyone.

 "Love is the absence of judgment."  - Dalai Lama

Friday, May 27, 2016

Humanity, Evolving

I apologize for the language in this article. I chose not to edit or filter it for the purpose of authenticity.

Sometimes I think the real purpose of teaching other people is to deepen your own learning. There is no better way to understand yourself than to have to explain your own knowledge to someone else. Even though I am known in some circles as a biomechanics riding teacher, I frequently get to explore the core of my own beliefs when I teach, mostly because riding is seldom just a mechanical, technical experience. Horses tend to steadily bring us to the threshold of our own humanity and as a coach and teacher I believe these are the opportunities for the real learning to start.

Recently I was helping a student, whom I will call Laura, understand her horse. She wanted to know why he was behaving in a certain way.

"Is he doing this just to be an asshole?" She asked sincerely.

This question is very, very common among equestrians. Often it's not even a question, but rather a statement: he is an asshole.

I calmly explained to Laura that horses did not know how to "be assholes."

Okay, I can see some of my readers rolling their eyes now. A few may even be thinking that if I'd met their particular asshole horse, I would not be making such bold statements. But I do believe that no horse could change my opinion about this. Seriously. As I told my student, horses are not out to annoy us or upset us deliberately, they are merely trying to communicate. Perhaps they are in pain. Or they don't like what we are doing. Or they know our emotional landscape and don't like the fact that we are actively working to hide it. Or something else. But there is always a reason and it's not "being an asshole".

In general horses tend to choose the behavior that is the most profitable for them. If you are leading your horse to the arena and he drags you over to a patch of grass, he's not doing it to be mean, but because eating grass is rewarding the behavior. And when something is rewarding, the horse will continue to do it. The same applies to many, many other scenarios.

I admit, I could see why Laura felt tempted to call her horse an asshole, she was stuck in a vicious cycle with him. She used most of her energy to correct and reprimand him for his "bad" behavior. I am deliberately using quotes with the word bad, because using this kind of terminology always comes with the assumption that we as humans make the rules. Meaning that we decide what is good or bad behavior. Because from the horse's point of view it is all just behavior for which it either is getting rewarded or not.

"Stop it!" "Don't!" "No, no!"

Laura was trying to tack up her horse. Her verbal cues were accompanied with slapping and pushing, which seemed to only augment matters, leading to a whole new host of problems such as nipping and biting. After observing all this for a moment I suggested that instead of focusing all the attention on the horse's unwanted behavior, Laura should look for the behavior she desired and find a way to reward the horse for that. Because, as I said previously, horses will choose the behavior that is the most rewarding.

I briefly explained the principles of negative and positive reinforcement to Laura. It is always interesting to discover how little people really know about operant and classical conditioning even though they have operated in the world of horses for decades. On the other hand, I was in the same boat some ten years ago. Perhaps I had a bit more knowledge than your average Jeo, but I definitely could not put that knowledge into words and explain why I did what I did with horses, which was mostly negative reinforcement in those days. (if you are not familiar with operant or classical conditioning, please google them!)

"In principle I do understand what you are saying," my student said. "With children it's the same idea, using the carrot is more effective than spanking. But this is a horse. I tend to think that there are moments when it's best to just smack it to get the point across quickly."

"Like take my seven year old daughter and her pony," my student continued before I could comment. "The pony is constantly going for grass when my daughter is leading him. Isn't it better to teach my daughter to smack the pony in the face to prevent him from doing that? Not only should the pony not go for the grass, I hate watching my daughter yank and pull to get him off it. I mean, there are some moments when smacking the horse is just better for the horse, too, right?"

You have perhaps guessed that I don't believe in using violence with horses. But how do we define violence? Because truth told, sometimes it really seems to be a matter of interpretation. My Webster dictionary says it is "physical force used so as to injure, damage or destroy; extreme roughness of action." It is also an "unjust or callous use of force and power, as in violating another's rights, sensibilities etc."

So is smacking a pony an act of violence? Are we violating against the pony's sensibilities, causing it injury? I believe the answer to that question is deeply personal, particularly in the equestrian world where the line between violence and schooling is sometimes blurred. The evolution of my own answer to this question is a good example of that. There was a time when I would not have considered smacking a pony a violent act, although in my own defense I must state that it also never crossed my mind to even question the act or it's justification. Which in hindsight is not only proof of my ignorance, but also my sense of entitlement.

Psychiatrist James Gilligan who has written a series of books on the subject of violence, claims that "all violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem." I certainly think this was often true in my case. I hit horses because I desperately needed to control them. And why did I need to control them? Because if I didn't, I looked bad.

Okay, perhaps it was a bit more complex than that. It usually is as we are complex human beings. I was taught at a young age that violence was the answer with horses in certain situations. The power trip came much later. I do, however, believe there is a lot of truth in what Gilligan says even though he is talking about violence between humans. But I did not bring this up in my conversation with Laura, because complex matters such as these take a while to unravel. And although my own story resonates with Gilligan's words, perhaps hers doesn't. It is always good to start with the aforementioned operant conditioning and how positive punishment as a training method does not work long term. But once the learning theory is covered, we are left with deeper issues. Especially because in Laura's case, this involved her young daughter as well.

"Laura", I said after thinking about it for a moment. "I believe the answer to your question depends not only on the way you want to train your horse, but on your parenting philosophy as well. Do you want to teach your seven year old daughter that violence is a justified method of solving a problem with her pony? Or do you want to help her find a non-violent way to communicate with the animal?"
It was interesting to follow to the expression on my students face as she took in what I said. I realize that although helping horses is definitely one of the reasons I am an equestrian coach, more importantly I want to help humans find their way to connect with personal questions such as this one. Finding answers may not be in the cards immediately, but awareness is a start. I'm not sure yet which direction Laura will take with her horse or her daughter, but I know that our lesson gave her a lot to think about. Which is my main goal. Heck, it gave me a lot to think about, which means killing two birds with one stone (ugh,what a horribly violent metaphor, wish I could recall another, more positive one!)

Understanding is one of my core values in life: I want to understand rather than judge. Therefore I can honestly say I'm not judging Laura or anyone else who struggles with these questions. Quite the contrary, I commend them for finding their way to a place of struggle. If you are struggling with it, you are perhaps ready to question what you are doing. And we need to continue to question, that is how we evolve has human beings, that is how we cultivate our humanity.

Horses have been my teachers, but so have my students. I feel that I am constantly challenged to find a novel way to navigate these important issues and just as often I am learning new ways to read the road map. It is clear that although my starting point may be to teach people how to sit on their horses correctly, it is often just that, a starting point. What happens then, is out of my hands and mostly up to the horse and his person. I merely hope I am taken along for the ride towards kindness and compassion.

"The next evolutionary step for humankind is to move from human to kind."  - author unknown

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Live The Questions Now

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with several strangers on Facebook. The subject matter revolved around a video someone had posted of Monty Roberts "training" a horse. I use quotes, because I personally didn't feel this was the way to go about introducing a horse to a plastic bag, which is what Monty was doing on the video. He had the plastic bag on a stick and every now and then would whip it out from behind his back causing the horse to nearly fall over from fear and the attempt to escape. But of course he couldn't escape, because he was in a halter and who else was holding the other end of the lead rope than Monty himself.

There is actually a term for what Monty was doing on that particular video and it's called flooding. Flooding occurs when the animal feels it cannot escape a scary or painful situation. It is psychologically damaging to a horse and often leads to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness unfortunately looks a lot like the state trainers like Monty are looking for. The horse is calm and seemingly nonreactive to stimulus, like the plastic bags. This is not because he no longer is afraid, but because he has shut down emotionally. You could see the horse on the video was heading that way, he was fiercely trying to control his reactions to the bag, but fear itself was still very visibly present: when Monty touched the horse with the plastic bag he did his best to stand stock still even though he was shaking all over.

As you may know, there are several schools of thought on this matter and although some years back I was all for Monty's way of doing it, I have since then jumped ship and  found other ways that feel more humane and do not involve scaring the horse to death.

The discussion around the video was lively and good points were made from both sides.

Was the horse really feeling like it didn't have any options? What about the option of standing stock still? Because it was a viable option and the one that Monty was looking for. Every time the horse stopped, the plastic bag stopped, so doesn't that mean that the horse gets a choice?

Sure, it's like choosing between someone pointing a gun at you or diving into a swimming pool full of alligators. Which one would you choose?

Someone chimed in and argued that horses are often afraid in nature and therefore we should definitely not coddle them, but rather arrange scary situations in the name of training. I agree with  this, as long as we aren't specifically looking to scare the horse. If a horse is afraid of something, say an umbrella, I believe we should definitely introduce him to umbrellas in several different environments. When I say introduce, I mean letting the horse stay as far away from the scary object as necessary for it to remain relatively calm and relaxed. This is important for learning and I don't believe anyone can learn in fear, at least nothing constructive. You can definitely "learn" to be afraid in certain situations, but isn't that the last thing we want the horse to accomplish? So when training a horse, we should always look for sings of worry or anxiety so we can "back off" before the horse crosses over into fear.

Desensitizing takes time. Often I use positive reinforcement, which in practice usually means using a clicker and treats. Sure, it takes longer perhaps this way, but the effects last a life time. I don't believe in ever scaring the horse. Freaking a horse out on purpose does not build trust and trust is key to my relationship with horses and humans alike.

The discussion continued. Someone posted a video of Kyra Kyrklund, a world famous Olympic rider and horse trainer, helping a student train her horse to walk calmly forward during loud applause from the surrounding crowd. This was done by bringing the horse in the arena and asking the crowd to clap very, very quietly. When the horse walked forward in a relaxed manner, the crowd stopped clapping. As the horse progressed, the clapping intensified.

Although the horse on the video never became fearful, Kyra did state that "sometimes we must scare horses" while training them. I'm not sure what she exactly meant with scaring a horse, but the person who posted it used this as an argument against me and my opinions. He wrote:

"Let's see, you state that we should never scare horses when we train them and Kyra Kysklund says we certainly have to sometimes scare the horse in the name of training, who do I believe? Sorry, I think I'll pick the Olympic rider."

Interesting argument. I did not take it personally, because really, everyone has the right to believe whatever and whomever. The truth is: I stopped believing every word Kyra says a long time ago. Just because she is an Olympic rider, does not mean she knows everything about horses. And just because I'm not an Olympic rider, doesn't mean I can't know somethings Olympic riders don't know. I dare say there are not many Olympic riders who spend hours and hours just hanging out with horses doing nothing, learning about their inner world. Nor are there many who have ridden dozens and dozens of horses in bitless bridles. Or tried clicker training. Just as I know an Olympic rider could teach me many things, I believe I could return the favor.

People are so inclined to blindly believe "the authority" especially in the equestrian world. I think perhaps this is the reason it has taken so long for positive change towards compassionate horsemanship to take hold. People don't dare listen to their hearts or think on their own. They would rather believe the trainer, even if she is using questionable methods to get results. I don't know how many people I have met who can't believe some of the stuff they were involved in just in the name of training. The regret is often overwhelming.

"I didn't know", they will say in despair. "If I had understood/said something/known it was wrong/realized/questioned..."

But we don't question. And I know exactly how that is because I used to be this way, too. I believed everything my riding teachers and coaches told me without having the sense to question them. Or to listen to what my gut and sometimes even common sense was telling me. It took me decades to get over that and start thinking with my own brain.

There have been several telling and slightly disturbing studies around our innate need to believe and obey the authority. Perhaps the most famous one is Stanley Milgram's social psychology experiment from 1961 in which a man in a "lab coat" ordered the subject to administer electric shocks to another person when they gave the wrong answer in a test. I have watched a few hours of video footage of the experiment and it is incredible how far people will go in hurting another individual just because a person they perceive as the authority told them to do so. Even when they hear the other people screaming in pain and they themselves are visibly distressed with following the orders, most people will continue the morbid task.

The results of this study, which have been replicated several times in different cultures with similar results, are truly unsettling. But it does explain a lot, doesn't it? We would like to think that we are the individual who would not follow the authority or would at least question their orders, but according to the studies most people don't (even if they think they would). So in that light it is not hard to understand why so many gurus in the horse world are not questioned, even when people clearly witness them abusing a horse.

I do believe everyone has something valuable to add to our learning experience no matter what their background. Sometimes we can learn from a child who looks at our familiar world with new, curious eyes. I'll never forget the moment when my then three year old son asked me why my student's horse had his mouth open. I had never even noticed the horse opening his mouth under saddle! Of course, my knowledge and awareness have increased ten fold since that day, but it is still incredible to think that I did not have the sense to wonder or even notice about the horse's mouth when it was the first thing my son saw.

And what comes to the gurus, experts and professionals... Yes, there are people who know so much and who can give us incredible knowledge. I spent many, many years admiring Kyra Kyrklund and learning from her, and for that I am forever grateful. And I still admire her riding skills. I believe she knows very much about horses. But, even Kyra doesn't know everything. Nobody does.

I believe we should continue to educate ourselves, no matter who we are. We should also continue to look at all the information we receive with a questioning attitude. Is it humane? Does it cause the animal pain or distress? Do I believe it to be correct? Do I believe this is correct because it makes sense to me or do I believe it because someone I think should be an expert said so? There can be a vast difference between the two.

Sometimes, when we look at things from a new angle, everything changes, even the things themselves. And this encourages us to keep finding new angles, new lenses to look through. Or at least that is what happened to me. I sometimes wonder, where does my evolution end. Or is there an end? Sometimes I am acutely aware of my own ignorance and yet other times I feel my progress in my bones.

"Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."   - Rainer Maria Rilke

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Child Within

Horses have an uncanny ability to bring up strong emotions in us. If we are not plagued by frustration, we are overcome with joy. If there isn't steam coming out of our ears, there is love spilling from our hearts. Perhaps this is the intrigue of horses, they push us to look at ourselves, especially the dreaded dark side, more times than we care to count, but they also fill us with love. Joy, compassion and gratitude are frequently present, but so are anger, frustrating and sadness.

And then there is fear.

Fear is one of the most common emotions in equestrians all over the world. If you are feeling it, well, so is someone else. We all have fear at times, and we should, as fear is healthy, it keeps us safe. And sometimes spending time with horses can be dangerous. But unfortunately fear wants more than just to warn us, it wants to take over. So when you notice that fear no longer sits in the passenger seat of your life, but is in your lap, trying to take over the steering wheel, it's time to take a closer look at it.

A client contacted me recently, wanting to better understand and eventually control her fear of riding and handling horses at the riding school where she rides once or twice week. She had thought she had put her fear behind her, but after her teacher was involved in an accident, fear showed up again, this time stronger than ever.

I always commend students and clients who approach me with this subject matter. Admitting you have fear is the first step in the long process of recovering from it. Fear is important and should always be listened to carefully. What is fear's message?

In my client's case it took a while before we arrived at the very heart of the matter. We talked about where and when fear enters the picture. What triggers it? What behaviors does my client engage in to feel "secure"? How can she help herself when fear is present?

Our discussion took us into many topics such as the fear of losing face with your peers, feeling insecure about your abilities, hating the element of surprise and the feeling of foreboding chaos which has my client observing her surroundings neurotically for the slightest disturbance that could trigger a reaction from the horse.

"I feel like a little girl, when I'm afraid," my client said. "It is crazy. I feel so capable elsewhere in my life, but at the barn I'm lost and insecure. I don't trust myself at all, especially now that my regular teacher is not there."

"How long has fear been present in your equestrian hobby?" I asked.

"Good question," my client said thoughtfully. "Probably always."

I felt that we were getting to something important, so I pressed on.

"When did you first start riding?" I asked. "Tell me about that time."

My client was silent for a second. Then she said: "I was eight and there was zero instruction. I was literally plopped on a pony and pushed in with the others. If the ponies didn't go, the teacher chased us with a whip. I was a very shy and timid child and was scared shitless the whole time, it was so out of control and I had no idea what I was doing."

She was silent for a moment. "Oh my goodness," she then said.

Yes, oh my goodness, indeed. This was the defining moment. This is when the twine started to unravel, when Pandora's box opened, then the seas split.

"I have carried that experience I had as a little girl with me since it happened. For years. It is my identity, how did I not see this before this moment? No wonder I feel like a little girl at the barn, I AM the little girl I once was."

This is not the first time a client or student of mine revisits the very beginnings of her equestrian life and discovers the key to her problems in the present. For example, a few years back a student of mine was having trouble riding her mare in the arena.

"She just moves like she is in molasses. Or worse, she stops and won't go. I don't want to force her, that's not my style. I mean I can ask, but I'm not going to start kicking and whipping her." She sighed. "It drives me mad. And all I have to do to get her to move is to leave the arena. If we were in the field right there, she goes beautifully." She pointed at the field next to the arena.

And she was right. We tried everything, correcting her seat, finding her inner power, clicker training, which all worked for a split second and improved the situation. But in the end, her horse just retreated back to sulking in the middle. The worse part, from my student's perspective, was that the mare would go with another rider.

"It's me, I see that, but I can't fix it," my student said with tears in her eyes. I could see how frustrated and even ashamed the mare's owner was. Nothing seemed to work.

Until I asked the right question.

"Tell me about your riding history. When did you start riding and how was it for you, when you started?"

Turns out my student was a very quiet and painfully shy child. When she started riding at 8, she never was able to get the ponies to move. So she spent most of the lesson standing in the middle of the arena, where the teacher either ignored her or shamed her, after which she was chased with a whip.

"It was horrible, I felt like I was such a failure."

Wow, and does that remind you of something that is happening now, this very moment, with your mare? Here you are, yet again, in the middle of the arena, on a horse that refuses to move.

It is amazing how our childhood experiences affect the way we are as adults. As children we are so open to everything, so vulnerable and unassuming. This is where and when our values are made, our identities are molded. And it is even more amazing to witness the way horses see this trauma in us and bring us to look at it, over and over again, as if they are trying to help us resolve it, once and for all.

I was a tough tomboy as a child. Sensitive inside, but determinate and energetic outside. When I started riding, it took my teacher about five minutes to figure me out. I was given one of the biggest horses in the barn to ride, a lazy Finnish horse called Viri. I was just a wee little thing, barely 10 and eager to please my teacher. I didn't know how to ride, but I knew that if I got the enormous gelding to go, my teacher would praise me. And boy did she!

From that moment on my fate was sealed. I was given the laziest, most stubborn horses to ride and each time I rode it was like going to war. And each time it worked. By the time I was in my teens, I had the reputation of being the one to get any horse to go. I learned to kick them effectively, and not only that, but hit them, too.

Took me a while to recognize that child manifesting in me and work her out of my system. When you have always been the one who gets the last word with any horse, there is a lot of anger, pride and ego to sift through before you arrive at a neutral place. Just like my client's fear was handed to her on a silver platter, I was handed the identity of a tough rider, one that didn't take no for an answer.

You might think that these childhood experiences are not that important, but they are. We may carry them with us in our bodies, our very cells, for the rest of our lives. We tuck them in to the back of our minds where they become values and belief systems, identities and thought patterns. Understanding their power is crucial. And, if we do not tear down the walls we have build around those childhood experiences, they will continue to manifest in our lives over and over again.

So, I ask you now, what is the unwanted emotion you continuously run into with horses? Is it fear? Anger? Insecurity? Shame? Inadequacy? Something else?

Did you have an experience with horses when you were a child? Go back in time and remember your first ride, your first teacher, your first horse. What were you feeling? Can you trace your way back to the heart of the heart, the core of the core, of who you are with horses today?

"What we remember from childhood we remember forever - permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen." ~Cynthia Ozick

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Arena

After writing the post The Journey, Yours and Mine, I have received many messages from people who struggle with their journey because it makes them feel so exposed. I am always honored to hear your stories, so please keep them coming (email at the bottom of this page).

In addition, and quite appropriately, I have for the past month studied with Brené Brown in her online course, Living Brave, which has helped me circle back my thoughts as well.

Who is Brené Brown, you may ask.

Brené Brown is a researcher from Texas, who studies vulnerability, authenticity, courage and shame.

Yeah, wow. That's a heavy (and perhaps a bit taboo) subject list, to say the least. And not just heavy, but absolutely critical. Because, after visiting and re-visiting Dr. Brown's work over the past three years, I see that we cannot talk about vulnerability, authenticity, courage and shame enough. And what does all this have to do with horses?

Well, nothing really, and yet everything. I think I could (and actually might) write another post about Dr. Brown's work and tie it closely to what we encounter when we interact with horses. Anybody who has ever wanted to connect - and I mean truly connect - with a horse, has had to go through vulnerability, authenticity and courage, and perhaps even shame, before they got there. But I won't go into that today, because I want to continue talking about the subject of the journey, yours and mine. Because there's nothing like embarking on a truth-seeking journey that kicks up Dr. Brown's research topics big time.

In Brené's first online lesson she reminded her students of Theodore Roosevelt's brilliant quote from his 1910 speech at Sorbonne, in Paris. It, in my opinion, pretty much summarizes her work.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood...who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly...”

Why is this quote so important? And what and where the heck is this arena?

Brené Brown uses the word arena as a metaphor for anything we do that leads to uncertainty and emotional exposure. It is the place where we take risks, where we put ourselves "out there" for the world to see. Sometimes our audience is merely a single person (in a relationship, for example, when we talk about our feelings or with a horse, when we struggle with our connection) and other times it is literally the whole world (you publish a book, for instance, or post a video of your work online).

In this blog I talk a lot about the journeys we take with ourselves and our horses and how to cope with feelings of isolation. You have probably guessed that sometimes those journeys take us not only into a real arena or two, but into many, many figurative ones as well.

We feel vulnerable as we step off the beaten path and navigate our way over new, unknown territory of horsemanship.

We are criticized and judged at the barn for the training methods we choose to use with our horses.

We feel exposed and alone for the philosophy we have decided to embrace.

It could be that our journey often IS the arena, over and over again.

Not an easy fate, as you have probably realized by now. Roosevelt knew this first hand, but he had the wisdom to understand the essence and importance of being in the arena. "It is not the critic who counts..." the quote aptly begins. Brené Brown, who brought the Roosevelt quote back into our consciousness in her book Daring Greatly, embraces his idea that if people are not willing to be with you in the arena, their opinions don't count. Especially, if these people have the so called cheap seats. Meaning that they are the people who would never have the courage to be in the arena themselves. In fact, many people do their best to avoid “the arena” to all costs. Why? Because sometimes (ok, let's face it - most of the time) being in “the arena” is one of the hardest things we will ever do.

And, as the quote says, only in the arena can you triumph. Yes, you can also fail, but failure is secondary to the fact that you tried. As long as you know that you dared greatly, that you had courage and you did your best, it was worth every second of it. Because that is what life is really about, doing what feels right, pursuing the things you love and are passionate about. And falling and getting up to do it again. Only by embracing vulnerability - because lets face it, being in the arena is as vulnerable as it gets - you can achieve something bigger than yourself.

This does not mean that we don't listen to constructive criticism or that it cannot be given. It definitely can. But judging without knowledge and questioning with curiosity are two different things. This quote is about the critics who don't stop to think and understand, but who bully and call names to cover up their own shame. Who want to find someone to laugh and point a finger at to make themselves feel and look better.

But remember, the cheap seats are not the only seats in the arena. There are always other seats as well, seats that are reserved to people who support you. If you are lucky, you have supporters close by, ready to cheer you on when you stumble on your path. Or perhaps you have an online community where people understand or better yet, are also going through the same trials and tribulations as you are. It is important to seek support, find others who know about the arena and understand the work you are going. Trust me, no matter how alone you feel, there are always others going through the same thing, it is just the matter of finding them.

And the most important seat in the arena belong to you. Yes, you. You decide who sits in those seats. Is it self-doubt or compassion? Is it negative self-talk or empathy? You can be your best cheerleader, if you learn to understand your own worth. Because, in the end, what should count more: what others think or what you think?

So go ahead, put yourself out there, into the middle of the arena, your arena, wherever and whatever it is. Practice clicker training, horse agility, compassionate horsemanship, riding bitless/ saddleless/bridleless. Have your horse go barefoot, live in an open barn/herd, not be ridden. Dive into animal communication, natural horsemanship or unicorns, if that is what floats your boat. As long as your journey is filled with compassion and you are not hurting others, you are on the right path.

Go on brave soul, go your journey, wherever it takes you! Dare to practice that which feels perhaps exposing or vulnerable. If you receive petty judgment and cynical ridicule, it speaks volumes about the people delivering said ridicule and nothing of you. Because as we know, the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, his face metaphorically marred with dust and sweat and blood, doing what he feels is right, even if he might fail.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Solving the Equation

My philosophy as an equestrian coach has evolved quite a bit over the past few years. I initially started off as a biomechanics trainer, who focused solely on the rider’s seat. This is still the premise for all of my teaching as it is an easy starting point for all riders, no matter what their background. But there is so much more than biomechanics to riding and my hope is always to uncover these other, often hidden, issues people encounter with their horses. Mainly, I hope to bring my students to a place of mindful awareness of how their actions, attitudes, thoughts and emotions affect the horse. In addition, I hope for them to discover compassion and empathy, not only for the horse but also for themselves, because these emotions are the building block on top of which true partnership is built.

Everyone comes to my lessons from their individual starting point. You could be a very traditional rider with long-term goals or someone who mainly trail rides with a bitless bridle and a saddle pad. Or anything in between. All I ask is that you have a respectful attitude towards your horse. Although I do recognize that respect is an elusive term in itself and subject to interpretation. One person’s respect can easily be another one’s abuse. I always trust that the fact that they have chosen to ride with me, is a sign of something. If it is a natural continuum in their already budding curiosity of a different, more horse-centered way of being with horses or a subconscious call for help is left for me to discover.

Whatever the framework of each individual student, I proceed at first in a standard manner. Everyone understands biomechanics, at least once it has been explained to them. Whether we stay solely with the biomechanics is up to the rider and the horse. Sometimes it takes only one lesson with me to open up the floodgates of emotion, others ride with me for months before we dive deeper.

This past weekend I was working with a student on one of my favorite subjects: turning, something that is rarely explained to riders correctly during their formative years. My student was performing an exercise in which she rides a small square at the walk, working on turning the horse correctly at each corner. Mary Wanless, the British biomechanics guru, introduced me to this exercise years ago and it brilliantly exemplifies the correct turning technique, which has nothing to do with the reins and everything to do with the seat. In addition, it often helps the rider realize what it means (and feels like) when a horse is straight and aligned.

The most important fact about this exercise, however, is not in my opinion the mechanics, but that it always and without fail brings the following two realizations to the forefront of the rider’s consciousness.

1. Horses are extremely sensitive and responsive animals

2. We, as riders, manage to confuse the horse by over-riding, often with incorrect aids.

It never gets old to witness the shock on the rider’s face when she realizes her horse is capable of turning with what seems like only a thought, a breath, a wish. Because a horse will, every single time, if you let him. Without exception.

“Wow, my horse is really sensitive,” my student exclaimed on Sunday with words I have heard dozens if not hundreds of times.

No, your horse is not really sensitive. All horses are really sensitive. More sensitive than we can ever truly appreciate. They react to every movement of our bodies, every weight shift, muscle tension, the passage of breath, thought and emotion we have. Every second we spend on a horse’s back is merely a string of reactions for the horse. Therefore, if the horse is not turning left of bending right, it’s usually not because of the horse, but because of us.

Oh yes, it’s true that horses are crooked and stiff. But still, when we are riding a horse and we break down what we are doing into small, miniscule pieces, the finger eventually turns to point at us, the person sitting on the horse.

The horse is crooked to the right and is leaning over his shoulder? Adjust your seat over and over again until he can align himself. Getting pissed off and frustrated won’t help. Neither will name calling or using the whip. Not to mention pulling on the reins one way or another. None of this helps, especially if we are not aware of our responsibility as the likely culprit to our horse’s way of going. And even if we are not the direct cause, we are always – always – the solution.

That is why this aforementioned square riding exercise is perfect. Not only will the rider learn how the horse turns and straightens, she will also understand that when the horse doesn’t turn or straighten, instead of smacking the horse with the whip or kicking it resentfully while telling it to stop being a jerk, goddamnit, she needs to look in the mirror. The world you get is the world you give away. Or in other words, what comes around, goes around. As hard as it is to admit sometimes, this applies to horses, up to the hilt.

I know I can be a tough teacher to chew, because I think that nothing is ever the horse’s fault. That is, if we are looking for culprits, which I’m not. Why? Because I believe that riding is a string of exercises, problems, to which we must find a string of answers. Finding the answers is challenging, but very, very interesting and rewarding, and it is done one piece at a time, like a puzzle. There is no time for finger pointing and blaming, but plenty for empathizing and understanding. We analyze our, the rider’s, pieces, where they are and how they correlate with the horse’s pieces. Then we find out how to rearrange ourselves so that it fixes the horse’s alignment. Sounds simple, right?

Solving the equation, the puzzle, the problem, takes a lot of time, but it is so engrossing that it can completely consume you. The short-fused and resentful rider who I identified with in the past has in my case disappeared ages ago. She was replaced by a curious, creative rider, a person who is not afraid to question her own actions. Why would I get frustrated when I am presented with a multidimentional problem and an incredibly wise horse, who is more than ready to communicate and help me find the answers? What could be more interesting than finding the solution together?

Rarely does a rider grasp all this at once. The mechanics of it perhaps yes, but the emotions and attitudes that can follow not. Many find it hard to accept that the horse will do exactly what we ask, we just need to know how to ask correctly. It is so much easier to blame the horse. And to smack its shoulder that is falling in or out. And granted, that smacking/yanking/kicking/holding etc. will make it move towards correct for a split second. But it won’t fix the underlying problem, because that can only be solved by finding the root cause of it.

When I was living in Switzerland I knew a dressage rider, who was aspiring to compete the higher levels with her young horse she had trained from scratch with some help from her German trainer. The dressage rider, however, had a massive asymmetry in her body. I don’t know if she was aware of this or just in denial, but the effect it had on her gelding was tremendous. This was clearly visible in lateral movements, which highlighted the asymmetry issue tenfold. Often the gelding could simply not perform the movement correctly even though the rider did everything she could to make it happen. There were times when the rider’s aids were so conflicting that the horse performed the movement in the opposite direction than the rider had intended.

What can I say, this can happen to anybody. The sad fact about this particular case was that the rider repeatedly reprimanded her horse with a long dressage whip for “the mistakes he made” even though she was clearly the direct cause of these so called mistakes. Without going into a spiel about why positive punishment (i.e. the whip in this case) never works as a training tool and is not a correct way to treat a horse regardless of what it is doing, it was clearly completely out of line in this case. But the rider never stopped to question why her horse was responding this way and refused to discuss it with anybody who dared to try to explain their observations.

This past weekend, when I witnessed my student grappling with her own limited abilities to ride and communicate correctly with her horse, I realize once again how hard it is to let go of the idea that we know more than the horse. That instead of being partners, the horse is somehow below us, the one that always makes the mistakes. Or perhaps more accurately it is difficult to admit that we, too, make mistakes. Many and often.

On the other hand, when I watched my student, I could also appreciate the dedication and commitment in which she relentlessly tried to understand what was happening between her and the horse she was riding. Everyone is not capable of such introspection and I always have respect for those who do.

After the lesson we discussed the exercise and what my student had learned during it. What was the take away? Despite her wonderful insights I realized once again that the process which I had started during our lesson was simply too big to comprehend in one sitting. I watched her face carefully, trying to see the internal process that I knew was there. Would we have another lesson soon? Or ever? As I said before, this work is not for everyone.

I am unsure of what will happen in the future with this particular student, but I am happy for what transpired between us in the lesson. I was able to dislodge something, open a small door of awareness in her world. Once the door is cracked, it is best to let the door open in its own time, instead of kicking it down at once. If it were only about the biomechanics, this would be so much easier. But it isn’t. That is why when people ask me what I do for a living, I struggle to answer. Equestrian coach or biomechanics coach does not even begin to cover it, because as I said in the beginning that is just the starting point to a journey which can last a lifetime and take us to landscapes within ourselves we never even knew existed.

The degree to which a person can grow is directly proportional to the amount of truth he can accept about himself without running away. ~Leland Val Van de Wall