Sunday 5 March 2017

So You Want a "Stable" Job? A Few Things To Know About Working at a Horse Barn.

Okay so I've officially been a barn manager for 2 months.

Don't get me wrong, I've worked in a lot of barns.  We also owned a small boarding farm for a couple of years.

I have learned from some amazing people about what quality horse care looks like.  I think my horse management skills are getting fairly well-honed.  I am continually growing in this department but I feel confident and am rarely surprised by the day-to-day challenges anymore.

That said, managing the "human" aspect of barn affairs is somewhat new to me.  I've never been responsible for the day-to-day leadership of other humans in the barn.

Ensuring that I am taking care of the equine needs is one thing but becoming a human manager has proven a bit more challenging.

What's life if you're not up to a challenge though, right?!

My short leadership legacy thus far has taught me a lot, and also brought a few things to light.

I'm assuming since you're reading this the title caught your eye and you have some interest in barn work.

Or maybe you're a barn manager like me?

Or maybe you work in a job anywhere that has a manager ... or you are the manager.  I think a lot of this is general life/work "stuff".

I enjoy helping others to learn from what I've learned and also from my mistakes, so that's what I'm here to do.

So let's get at it .... Here is what I have learned (and what I think will help others) about management (of barns ... and I'm sure you'll draw other applications as well):


I love that quote above. And I believe it. 

I took on this role because I am ABSOLUTELY passionate about making sure that every horse and every client can feel safe and secure leaving their horse in our care.  I also think the barn should be a place of joy and learning and friendship.  And this begins with a staff that are there for the right reasons and on board with the "vision".  A vision I'm constantly thinking of moving closer to.


To some of you, this list might seem like .... duhhhh.   But what I've realized, is not all of these things are intuitive or common sense to everyone.

As a manager, you might have to clearly delineate these understandings to your staff.
As a staff member, don't be insulted if your manager outlines these things with you.  They've likely had employees in the past who required this level of clarity and offer it now across the board. 

Remember, what we do matters.  Really matters (see #3). 


This point might not apply if you work in a clothing or merchandise store (unless you sell life-saving items). 

Anywhere that you deal with "life" though (animal, human, etc), you have some absolute "non-negotiables" to deal with. 

Feeding and watering and checking on horse health is ALWAYS what comes first.  And although we have to be careful with "the client is always right" when it comes to our less-educated human clients, when it comes to our horse clients, they are never wrong.  They will tell you how they are doing through their behavior and general health. This is our first concern.

No-show days are not an option.  Someone HAS to take care of the animals, so someone HAS to be there. If this weighs too heavy on you, or you don't think you can do what you committed to ... this isn't the job for you. 


Due to #3 ... this one can be tough to adhere to.  In fact, I include it in here to remind myself more than anything. 

The role of the barn manager is to oversee.  To organize.  To coordinate. To schedule.  To record keep.  To assess .... 

Usually the barn manager has spent many early mornings and late nights in their life cleaning stalls, fixing waterers, feeding hay, tending to sick or injured horses etc.  It is this experience that gave them the necessary skills to be a barn manager.

That said, if they continue to do these jobs when they have staff hired for that purpose, then NOBODY is getting done what they are supposed to.  If the barn manager does a poor job of managing, the service will decline,  clients will notice and then said clients will likely go elsewhere.  Clients pay bills and bills fund paychecks.

Soooo ... if clients leave, we have no jobs.  So the barn laborers must, well, labor ... and the barn manager must manage.  There's no fair or unfair about it.  Both roles are vitally important and neither functions without the other.  If you are a barn laborer and want to be a manager ... keep up the good work and you'll find your way there.  

(And if you're an over-controlling barn manager or your staff aren't completing their jobs, so you find yourself continually doing chores ... well, you're not really managing and will likely find yourself phased out or burned out.)


Due to the "care of animals" factor, claiming that you didn't do something or that it's "not your job" just doesn't fly in a barn (whether you're the stall-mucker or the owner).  

If a waterer breaks or a horse is injured and you're all there is around.... Guess what honey .. you're up to bat! 


In any business, there are employees who tend to the small (sometimes menial seeming) everyday tasks (in our case: feeding, watering, cleaning stalls, washing buckets, etc).  If this is your job, take pride ... the place could NOT run without you. 

There must ALSO be someone who is looking out for the bigger picture ... the long term goals and vision for the business.  It can be difficult to take on both at once without getting completely burned out, which is why we need laborers and managers.  

It's vital to note though that we HAVE TO work together.  As a manager I need to consider the daily struggles when planning and strategizing for the future.  As a laborer, you must consider the long- term and big picture impact of your work or your daily tasks would get overwhelming and lose their purpose. 

That said ....  


Whether you are a new hire or an old farm hand (pun intended), you will have ideas about things that would improve the place.  

Some of these ideas will be great, affordable and easy ways to make things run more smoothly and efficiently.

Others will be costly and complicated to implement (a fact that may not matter to you if you don't have to fork over the money or paid labor for it). 

Owning and running a boarding stable (especially a modest one) is rarely a money maker. Usually the overhead costs are UNBELIEVABLE to those who haven't seen a barn balance sheet up close. 

Owners and managers are always open to suggestion but will grow weary of the constant barrage of ideas, needs and wants from employees to make the barn "better" (especially if they are just to make your job easier).  

In all likelihood, owners and managers have tossed the ideas around already and are looking to find the funds or resources to make it happen ... I would hate to see these funds come from the recovered wages of an overly-critical employee. 


This is not just me spouting platitudes or giving lip service.  I board my horses where I work and that makes me a client as well as a barn manager and trainer/instructor.  That means I have a vested interest and I am telling you ... YOU ARE IMPORTANT.  Providing quality care with integrity, honesty and effort is something to be very proud of.

There are a lot of other minimum wage level jobs that you might struggle to find purpose in, but if you love horses, being outdoors or being a steward of animals, you can find endless satisfaction in this type of work.  I've seen it many times, in many different employees.  

But, you have to check your motives and your expectations.  The work is tough.  Very tough some days.  If you love it though, it's totally worth it.  

So ... do you still want work at a barn or have I scared you off? 

If you are a true horse lover and have a spirit of determination and a hardy work ethic, there is likely not a whole lot that can deter you.  

That is what makes this sport (and this job) so amazing.   It's more than just a job ... it gets in your blood and the passion and love you have for it is a force to be reckoned with. 

I am sharing this because if you are truly passionate about barn life (and making it your employment) I would hate to see you sacrifice that dream over some simple misunderstandings.  

Management of expectations and clear delineation of roles can help to lessen confusion and resent, and help employees and managers to work together to create a wonderful place to ride AND to work.

I have big visions in everything I do and this is no different.   I'm loving all of the learning and opportunity that accompanies my latest adventure into barn management. 

I might not be able to claim that we are normal, but at least I (and others out there like me) can say I have a "stable" job. 

Take it all in stride my friends ;)

Wednesday 8 June 2016

What Can You EXPECT from your Horse Show?

Merriam-Webster definition of "expectation"...

A belief that something will happen or is likely to happen.

A feeling or belief about how successful, good, etc., someone or something will be.

Expectations.  We all have them.  And they are not inherently bad.

Unfortunately for those of us who have chosen the noble and daring hobby (or career) of horse showing (or competing with horses in any discipline) expectations become a bit complicated.

If you play any other competitive sport, you set your goals and then work to achieve them.  When it comes time to compete, you gather your strength, will and developed skills and go to work.

Competing with horses is no different.

Except you have a horse.  And it has a brain.  Which has its own ideas about this business of getting to work.  It senses emotions and micro-movements, and hears small children crushing pop cans in the stands and crackles of the microphone. Sometimes it has to pee.  Or needs a drink. Or wants to sleep.

It is this very living, breathing and thinking creature that makes our sport so wonderful and unique.

But this creature is also the reason why we must approach our competitive "expectations" with caution, especially if those expectations sound something like "winning _(insert any title/class/ribbon you wish)_", "beating __(that girl, that horse, her time, etc)____" or "just not getting last place".

It is very easy to begin spending time fantasizing about what it will feel like to get those red roses or that plaque.

We start envisioning how certain competitors may react or feel when we win.  Or what it will feel like to get that time, have a clear round, get all our leads, or achieve all the elements of our pattern.

It is at this moment though that our beloved 4-legged partner becomes an expert wrench-tosser.  He'll show you problems you didn't even know he had.  He'll find scary things you could never see or hear.  He'll call you out on your "fake it till you make it" confidence.

So what do we do?

Do we become goal-less wanderers just aimlessly riding in hopes that someday, by some fluke of the celestial alignment that we might get a prize?

Absolutely not.

But we DO have to manage our expectations and the role they play in our assessment of our competitive success.

I listened to a book by the wonderful researcher Brene Brown the other day and she suggested an exercise which I have modified below to show you how this might work for your competitive journey.

1) Pick 5 of the top expectations you have for your competition.

            i.e.    Get a first place in class 226  
                     Qualify for regionals
                     Beat that girl ... oh you know who I mean
                     Get all my leads correct
                     Have a clean pattern class

2) Write them down on cue cards, then flip them upside down and shuffle them.

3) Randomly pick 3, flip them over and read them

Now imagine ... the 3 things you picked happen!! Yayy!  But the 2 you didn't do not materialize the way you'd hoped.

For instance, you get enough points to qualify for regionals, you manage to get all your leads and even beat that girl you wanted to beat, BUT you do not get a first in class 226 and your pattern turns into a bit of a wreck. 

Fully immerse yourself in the vision.  How do you feel? Is your show ruined?  Does your effort feel worthless?

If not, you are probably already fairly enlightened to the "expectation management".

BUT, if the thought of one or more of these expectations going unmet makes your gut churn, you might need to work on managing the standard by which you judge your competitive success.

So if we aren't expecting to win ribbons or beat competitors, what kinds of things should we be envisioning when we set out to compete with our horses?

Well ... here are a few tricks I use:

Break it down: 

Think about specific things you'd like to see happen in the class (and things you might be in more control of than the overall outcome) ...

        -  I'd like to have my horse remain responsive to my inside leg.
        -  I'd like to continue breathing through my pattern and wait long enough between elements.
        -  I want to ensure I give myself enough time and the proper "set-up" before transitioning to the canter.
        - I'd like to keep my spacing and maintain proper corners and distance from other competitors (in rail classes)
        - I want to keep my horse's rhythm consistent and keep her driving forward into the bit

Get the idea?  Break your goals down into smaller, more specific and controllable elements.  Then, if you do not achieve them, you can better assess where you need assistance or practice, or if circumstances were simply out of your control!

Think about more intrinsic rewards: 

If you enjoy daydreaming about your upcoming competitive experiences shift your focus away from "winning" or "achievement-based" visions to more intrinsic payoffs such as:

           - The feeling of "fitting in", having a well-turned out horse and being friendly with your competitors
           - The praise and accolades from your team and your competitors when you make improvements or show fortitude in dealing with your challenges
           - The satisfaction of finally nailing down a maneuver, elements, gait, or transition after having some difficulty with it

Reality Check with Perspective: 

I encourage my riders to do this all the time.   We ABSOLUTELY must remain very grounded in our reality (i.e. how we relate to those we are competing against) and our perspective (how we are competing based on our previous experience and accomplishments).

We need to know who our competitors are, what they've done and for how long they've been doing it.  Talk to people.  Find out how long they've been showing, how much training they (and their horse) have had leading up into the competition, their horse's history and breeding, etc.  Watch competitors closely through the season and from year to year.  You will see that most of the people who win have worked hard and invested a lot of time, energy, money and effort to get there (and when you win, you'd likely say the same!).

I often say to my riders:  If there are 6 horses in a class at a local-level show, and 2 are very expensive, well-trained, previous national champion, and you come in 3rd (with your young or inexperienced or less well-traveled horse) you basically won FIRST!  (And also, when the time comes and you are riding that winning horse, you will be much more humble and honored to accept that prize knowing what went into winning it.)

Another essential part of this is ...

NEVER rely on your performance at the horse show to OUT-DO the level that you are easily and successfully achieving at home. 

You cannot just hope and pray that by some miracle you will pull a winning ride out at the show when your rides at home are still a work-in-progress.  This is simply placing unrealistic expectations on you, your horse and your coach based on extrinsic (or outside) expectations such as winning or beating someone.

If you feel that you are not progressing as quickly as you'd like or not finding the success your feel you (realistically) deserve, this is a question to be discussed with your trainer or coach (and if you don't have one, read my last post on why you might want a trainer!) .

Maybe the horse isn't a great fit.  Maybe you need more time in the saddle or the horse needs more training. Maybe the horse needs some ring time with your trainer to troubleshoot.   This is something that needs more investigation at home, before you continue to compete and get more frustrated.

In order to find your deepest and most meaningful success at the horse show you need to determine something really important.

As the fantastic Simon Sinek would say,

You need to START WITH "WHY".

You have to determine why it is you do this.  What motivates you?  What is the payoff?

If the only reason you want to compete with your horse is to get a ribbon, or the only way you'll be satisfied is by receiving the roses, you might need to incorporate that into your plan.  You will likely need to spend a lot of money, find the best trainer, etc. All of these might be completely do-able and legitimate.  But you NEED to be aware.

And maybe just asking "What is my 'why'?" will help you to re-center and refocus.

If the reason you do this is to deepen your bond with your horse, have fun and enjoy the thrill of competition, then maybe all you need to do to find more satisfaction is to manage those other (less-realistic) expectations.  Try some of the above suggestions, discuss some more specific goals and meditate more on the intrinsic rewards, versus the prizes themselves.

Surely you can have long-term goals (like competing at the National level) and this will rely on all sorts of achievement and success along the way.  But what we are talking about is weathering the challenging times, keeping a good attitude and truly getting the most out of your competitive horse experience.

By better understanding what you have control of and the reasons why you began this journey in the first place, you will set yourself up for much more satisfaction and success in the long run.   The ribbons fade and the trophies collect dust and may lose meaning over time but the experiences you have, the character you develop and the enjoyment you get from spending this time with your 4-legged friend will certainly make it all worth it.

~ Jacquie

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Why Would I Even Want a Horse Trainer?

So as a instructor and trainer of show riders and horses (mainly Arabians and Half-Arabians, and soon Morgans!) I’ve been asked some really great questions lately and I want to share a couple.

These are things I hear ALL the time. In fact, there was a time when I asked these same questions. They are legitimate questions, and I feel that they also have very important answers.

The answers might not be what you'd expect ... Especially if you're in the DIY (or Do-It-Yourself) camp.

There are many different variations on these questions but they all revolve around the worth or value (or point) of having a horse trainer.

QUESTION #1: "Why would I want a horse trainer? Isn't that 'copping out'? How can I feel satisfied when I win if someone else does all the work? What if I turn into one of 'those' passenger riders who just gets on a trained horse but doesn't really know how to ride? Isn't it enough to take lessons? (etc ....)"

Okay so there are a few different aspects to this question and I'd like to work through all of them as I think they're completely related.

I'd also like to point out that I respond to this much differently than I used to.

I grew up as a DIY rider. I started riding when I was about 8 or 9 and started working with young and unschooled horses within a couple of years. We took some lessons but most of my time riding was spent with my friends taking a stab in the dark at how to solve all of our horse and riding problems. We learned how to stay on a horse (with whatever means necessary) and we prided ourselves on this ability. Good riders could stay on bad horses ... and that we could do.

"Collection" on a horse meant pulling on those reins until the head was down and to the inside. You then pushed as hard as you could with your legs to make it keep going. When you got exhausted, or your horse ran too fast or misbehaved, you reverted to clamping your knees and going into a half seat to weather it out. It wasn't anyone's fault. This was just how we all did it. The horses were green and so were we. Even if the instructor was giving correct ideas, we had no concept of the feel of a balanced or finished horse and the minute fear or ego came in, you just did what you were doing ... only more intensely.

So back to the point.

As a horse trainer, I ensure that horse and rider are able to progress together. "Progress" to me means continually moving towards balance, lightness, confidence, technicality, and control. Most show horses, even the ones who are in full time training and their riders only ride them in a weekly lesson, are still impressively difficult to ride. This goes way beyond just sitting on a horse and mechanically moving around. Their buttons and cues are intensely sensitive, requiring riders to have a skill and technical depth to their riding.

Think about it like this .... As a rider, would you take lessons from a total beginner? Someone who is just learning a concept or just getting consistent in their understanding.

Probably not.

And yet this is what we ask our horses to do when we decide to do it all ourselves. We ask them to learn from someone who doesn't know what they are feeling for. And likely someone who cannot commit to a regular schedule of 4-6 days a week of consistent work.

As a horse trainer, I help horses to understand a concept before teaching their rider to execute it. I have a feel for how the horse responds and resists and what works and doesn't. I can then teach my rider how to cue the horse, develop the skill or train the maneuver.

My goal is not to make my rider dependent on me. Instead I want to create riders and horses who progress together (much more quickly than they might on their own) with much less heartache and fear.

There are very few riders who advance to such a high level that they cannot benefit from someone else riding and schooling their horse and then providing feedback. The same goes for good trainers ... which is why they often seek second opinions and the advice or input of other trainers!

I mean, I guess in theory there might be riders who just want to plop mechanically on top of a horse, ride into the ring and collect a prize, but I actually have yet to meet any of these riders. Most people want to get better, deepen their understanding of horses, training and competing and continue to develop skills.

The thing about horses (in contrast to ALL other sports) is that there is not just a person who has a brain, personality and ability to learn. As it's been said, "In our sport, the ball really does have a mind of it's own!".

If it doesn't make sense for an athlete to try and compete without a coach or trainer who is constantly correcting, critiquing and advising, then WHY would we ask this of our equine partners (when communicating with and training a horse (especially at a competitive level) is so much more specialized and technical)? It just doesn't seem fair.

In this light, going into a competition with at least some kind of professional assistance specifically for your horse seems to make a lot more sense. There is no "hero" award for doing it all on your own, especially if you are not finding any consistent success. It can be frustrating and lonely to try and speculate why you aren't achieving your goals.

NOTE: I must address the financial aspect here because I know I will get a ton of comments from people saying it's too expensive to hire a trainer. I personally have a passion for helping folks get into the show ring. We do our best to keep costs low, cut extras where possible, and make the show ring manageable and accessible. For those experienced riders who are doing it on their own, finding success and are content, that is fabulous!

Riding is an expensive sport, there are no two ways around it. That said, leasing, horse sharing, fundraising, good planning, transparency of service providers, cutting out extras and showing at an appropriate and accessible level make it more feasible to consider going the "trainer" route. You just might need to look around to find a suitable fit!!

QUESTION #2: "What do you do for your clients at the show? What are they paying for? How do they learn anything if someone does it all for them?
I'm actually going to answer the third question first.

I'm a HUGE FAN of learning. I want my riders to be able to answer the tough questions, get horses ready for a class, potentially help someone at the ring side, or know how to groom and manage a show horse.

That said, the time to learn this is NOT WHEN YOU ARE PAYING A CRAP TON TO SHOW YOUR HORSE.

Was I clear enough?

I am willing to offer as much experience as I can to someone who wants to learn the "behind the scenes" of grooming and horse showing. I have mentored many eager new riders through a long and arduous horse show weekend of stall cleaning, feeding, braiding, bathing, clipping, lunging, class management, etc.

And what I have learned from all of this is that when you pay a LOT (like, A LOT) of money to prepare for and compete in a horse show you do not want to have to be exhausted before you even get into your class.

So to answer the question "What do I do for my riders at the horse show?"

Well, pretty much everything. And when I say "I" it might be me, or someone on the team there to groom or help (usually one of those keen folk who want to learn the ropes but aren't showing in that particular show).

Although I try to keep my show fees manageable they are also fairly non-negotiable.

I wake up crazy early. I clean stalls, feed, bath, braid, do feet, tack horses, warm horses up, coach at ringside, cool horses down, rinse, do tails, clip, etc. My show fees also cover the supplies to do this (it's WAY easier and more efficient to just have one set of prep supplies for all the horses ... and it all gets remembered!).

Sure, folks help out. Someone holds a horse in the bath, someone braids a forelock, someone throws a saddle or bridle on or lunges a horse. But for the most part, that is my job. THAT IS WHAT THEY PAY FOR.

This differs for every trainer but I think most barns are a fairly close variation of this.

I charge a "Show Fee" per show which covers all of the above (and is posted for each show at the beginning of the season). Some barns charge per class or day. I post my fees on my website and we discuss them at our show meetings so there are not usually hidden costs. Riders pay Entry Fees to the show, Show Fees for my services, and then hauling (if they do not haul on their own).

If someone wants to learn how to be a groom or get their own horse ready, we can do that at a fun show or they are more than welcome to come for a weekend and shadow. If we have a busy enough show we might even hire them as a groom.

I have learned that if you are going to take your horse show seriously and you are competitively training for certain goals, you need to focus your energies on your classes. I think if you ask my riders (many of whom started out doing it all themselves) they would entirely agree.

A good horse show team is a family. Your horse trainer needs to be someone you trust, not only with yourself but also with your horse. They will help your horse to find confidence and calmness, and this will make your horse show experience more safe, fun and successful.

And I'm pretty sure at the end of the day this is what we are all searching for, right?


Tuesday 24 February 2015

Performance Horses, Naturally.

So I recently found myself challenged.

It was at the Horse Breeders and Owners conference when one of the plenary speakers spoke on the topic of typical training practices and the issue of horse abuse (Stacy Pigott, Training Practices for a Positive Image). I kind of wrote off the topic as applying to those who starve horses or do abhorrent, unspeakable things that leave scars and wounded spirits. Certainly not me.

I honestly can't remember a good chunk of the session (I am entirely a visual and completely not an auditory learner so I have to hear something really significant to remember it).  The one thing she said that stuck out (and she was quoting someone else)  was a challenge of sorts.  The gist of it was "Could you do what you do with your horses in Central Park, and with limited opportunity to justify your actions, go un-criticized?"

It made me think.  A lot.

A few years back in a bit of a ridiculous and completely ego-fueled scandal, an email went out accusing me of "horse-beating".  The incident occurred at a club-sanctioned event and was witnessed by all of the local professionals in the industry, so my worry about the repercussions of the allegations were minimal.  I was insulted, but I certainly wasn't worried about my reputation.  It made me think though ... could anyone (yes, anyone, horse person or not) see everything that went on both in front of and behind the scenes, possibly find something questionable in what we do.  And what defines "questionable"?

Due to our move home this winter and our lack of a covered riding arena, I've spent a lot of time doing chores and not very much time working horses.  Sounds depressing, I know, but its given me some time to think on all of this.

Between my own personal experience with it and the recent challenge posed at the Conference, I got thinking about my conduct and my relationship with my horses.  I know that I have never willfully "beaten" or abused a horse, but nonetheless, do they trust me?  And more importantly, should they? Or should they just do what I tell them to do? And is there a difference?

So, I started researching.  One of the other speakers at the conference, Dr. Stephen Peters, spoke on the horse's brain and how learning happens slowly, through repetition and lots of opportunity for time to pause and absorb the learning.  That the horse cannot learn when its anxiety and mental intensity level stays elevated for too long.  Its not the elevation that is the issue necessarily (unless I would assume, it is extreme) but the extended duration of this elevated state.  I suspect pressure of any kind would cause some kind of elevation in these vitals.  Horses are, after all, flight animals and are constantly searching for ways to be free of pressure for this exact reason.  Certainly fear or pain, or really distress of any kind, would cause these types of elevation.  How then, can we know how much is too much?  Not all of us have access to the kind of equipment required to determine if our horses are in distress and to measure hypothalamus and brain activity for intensity levels that are too high and that do not naturally decrease due to prolonged elevation.

Well, that lead me to the question ... what causes horses to be under pressure and when does this pressure turn from productive and educational to a stimulus for fear and distress (and is the answer to the latter ever me)?

I would love to give you a clear cut answer (and in the future I would like to dismantle this problem even more) but for now I have come to believe that it has, in large part, to do with the attitude in which we enter the horse's world. For instance, when you watch horses, they aren't just out there taking it easy on each other.  If the lead mare needs to school a colt she doesn't gently just nuzzle him away from the water or hay bale, especially if he's acting boyishly confident! She is firm.  And by firm I mean she uses enough force as is necessary to pressure him into feeling some distress and isolation from the herd.  There's the key though. 


Just enough.  Not too much. And she never completely loses her cool, has a tempter tantrum and goes overboard.  Nor does she worry or panic or fear that he wont listen to her, and act inappropriately.  She uses just enough pressure, and then goes along her way.  If she needs to do it  again, and again, and again ... she does. But never does she get frustrated or start acting unpredictably or unfairly.  She just keeps pushing him, far enough that he wishes he were allowed back in  (to the herd and her protective leadership) then she lets him alone.

I firmly believe two different people, applying the same type of pressure, but with different attitudes and for different lengths of time, can have completely different results. 

Horses communicate using body language.  So do we.  But that's ALL they have to communicate with.  We have words too, and we rely far more on them than we think.  Horses are very good at body language.  They pick up tiny signals.  Ones that we don't even know we're giving off. These body signals can be evidence of calmness, firmness and authority, or of fear, anger and unpredictability.  Horses are not wired to deal with the latter.  It causes them distress, and if prolonged, the horse will not be able to decompress enough to enter back into a "teachable" state. Sure, if you apply extreme pressure in these cases you may "break them down" and get some results resembling what you were looking for but they will not be natural, willing or sustainable.  The horse will eventually break down either mentally or physically.

Okay, so back to the topic of the day.  I have long been a critic of many schools of "natural horsemanship". I think I need to clarify that for the most part it is probably not the "school" I am critical of as much as those who profess to be followers but are ineffective, often fear-based, and lacking the necessary skills and tools to themselves appropriately administer the training in a productive way.  People hear the word "natural" and think of how lovely it sounds and forget that it needs to be what is natural to the horse  and not humanize the process to what feels natural for themselves. I have been known to say, sure playing around with natural horsemanship might be fun and different for a while, but it isn't gonna' train your performance horse, especially in the Arabian show pen, with all its technicalities. 

Or is it?

Well, that's what I have set out to discover.  We tend to write it off as normal that our Arabian and Part-Arabian show horses are just "flighty" and unpredictable by nature.  They are after all "show" horses (as though this some how makes them another species). These high level performance horses require rigorous training and must operate under a high level of difficulty and technicality.  But is it so unthinkable that they could be cool, trusting, and also collected (pun intended!!)?

This trust and this calm takes work.  It takes skilled hands at the end of the lead or the rein.  It takes self-control, not just of your physical actions, but of your emotions, physiology (i.e. heart rate, breathing, etc) and psychology (i.e. your attitude towards the work you do with your horse).

So, in order to better understand if learning to communicate with our horses better in their language is compatible with training a performance horse, we are making some shifts.

We move into this spring preparing for the season ahead in a bit of a different head space than we have before.  We will start to better monitor our horses attitudes, resistances and reactions. We will learn to develop better self- awareness and self-control.  We will attempt to gain the trust and willing partnership of our horses, instead of just breaking them down and pushing them over the line to get compliance.  We will be tough when it is necessary, but not out of anger, fear or frustration, but an understanding that when we release that pressure (in a well-timed way) our horse will gladly rejoin the conversation in a new, more trusting and submissive manner, that he has chosen.

So far, I think it's going very well.  I will keep you posted but I don't think there will be a lot of surprises.  From what we have learned over centuries of research and studying these animals, gaining their true and genuine trust has never failed yet.  And so we will learn to speak better in their language instead of forcing them to speak ours.  And hopefully we will, in the end, come out with trusting and willing partners and both of us will have more confidence in our endeavors.  We will have applied our training methods with calm, fair authority and developed all the skills necessary for our horses to become great performance horses, naturally.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Groom Where You're Planted

I sometimes marvel at the envy I experience within my thoughts on a daily basis. I try my best to hide it, contain it, and keep it to a minimum, but it always creeps back in. On days when I'm really in the pity-party mood I like to think I'm alone in my horrible thoughts and jealous inner-longings.  The better part of me knows though that being human comes with many such challenges.  Jealousy (and its counterpart, hypocrisy) are ones that I'd wager are making a run for the gold in the category of most destruction to the developed world today.  You all know what I'm talking about.  "Keeping up with the Jones'" as its been coined. And let me tell you, if you were to find a huge group of Jones' and Jones-wannabes together, sharing an expensive, emotional and time-consuming hobby, well, you'd have found the world of horse-showing. Sometimes it seems that there is no ceiling to the fancy horses, the blingy outfits, the unbelievable rigs (with gorgeous living quarters ... that I would have to live in as I could no longer afford my house if I should purchase such an outrageous dream-machine).  How can any of us "little guys" compete?  Do hard work, hours spent, miles covered, solid training and preparation  count anymore if you are constantly being "outdone" by the guys next door?  Well, that all depends on your attitude I think.

Brendan's Irish-Catholic grandmother used to have this old sign hanging in her house (I think it was one of those needlepoint ones) that said "Bloom where you're planted."  Always seemed a little silly to me.  I mean what choice do you have if you're a weed growing out on a bare, dry prairie other than to just grow the tallest and strongest your little roots can make you.  Ay, but there it is. The saying isn't "Just barely make it where you're planted" or "Grow as tall and strong as you can where you're planted but complain about yourself in comparison to all the other beautiful foliage around".  No, it says BLOOM.  We generally think of blooming as the time when a plant is flowering.  This in itself is significant because we are called not only to grow, but to flower, right where we are.  Not where our neighbor is, not where our family is (and not on the horse that they have either!). We are called to develop our own deep, strong roots and fruitful branches, where we are, with what we are given.  There is an even deeper meaning I think though, when we look at the second part of the Oxford dictionary's definition of bloom: "the state or period of greatest beauty, freshness, or vigor".

How many of us believe that if we only had a fancier horse, a more prestigious horse trainer (is it wrong to admit that I sometimes feel this, even as the horse trainer?), or some new gizmo, gadget or outfit?

I am constantly telling my clients (and myself) that we have to have a truck load of perspective in this industry, and we have to really examine our own personal goals and achievements when assessing our success (see last month's blog, "In It to Win It"). 

Humor me a bit while I get a little philosophical for a minute.  I truly believe that anyone who is graced by the presence of a horse, has been introduced to this "world" for a reason.  Riding (and competing) with horses is truly like no other sport.  There is an inexplicable synergy found in the combination between horse and human.  Two animals, fashioned completely differently, one with two legs, a vertical carriage, wrought with emotion and both helped and hindered by advanced, conscious thought, and another with four legs, horizontal carriage, and ruled by instinct and deep biological impulses, both working together in a harmony that is fearfully beautiful.  Even if you aren't religious it is hard not to find some connection with something deeper when you walk astride a horse.  And regardless of what turns of fate brought us into this arena, so to speak, we all have to start somewhere.   Some start off with the best of the best.  Expensive horses, elite instruction, flawless training.  Some of us figured out how to stay on by playing "capture the flag" out in some back field on naughty little horses that we more or less trained by our 12-year-old selves. 

How truly wonderful it is though, when you study the profiles of those in the winners circle (both amateurs and professionals alike) that you find individuals fitting both of the profiles above, and all through the spectrum in between?

I believe it lies in the title of this blog (which I personally felt was extremely witty).  Instead of sitting around (and come on, if you're like me, most likely on Facebook) groaning over all of the successes and fancy new acquisitions of those around you, you need to get to work on just creating your own "blooms". 

I recently had one of these experiences myself (confession time ...).  This year there were several riders and horses at US Nationals who I know fairly well, and most of them had some amazing successes.  They have all worked so hard for and totally deserve it.  That, and it is absolutely awesome for the industry in our area that our Canadian contingent gave such a great showing.  I must admit though there was a moment (it was fleeting as I kicked myself in the butt quickly for it) that I felt envy.  For no justifiable reason, I felt it was "unfair" that they should have all of that success.  Why? I mean, they worked for it.  They paid for it.  What felt so unfair about it?  Plain and simple ... it wasn't mine.  

And in this moment I realized more fully than ever before that there will always be others I can compare to... those greater and lesser than myself.  In that moment though, I have to choose to focus on what I can do, not what I cannot. 

As most of you know, we have embarked this last year on a great new leg of our adventure ... our own place! The show horses all came home in June, the barn's a hoppin' and things are really and truly going great.  We don't have an indoor arena yet, and that can be challenging at times, but I'm just determined to "groom where we're planted" and try to make the best of it.  So, we get creative.  Sometimes weather causes cancellations. Sometimes we have to adapt our plans.  On days when I cant go full force in the arena, we do ground driving around the yard, stall-bitting and ground manner training (I even have a couple who can do some tricks now!!).  I spend a lot of time reading and brushing up on theory and technicalities.  We are also in the process of setting up arrangements to haul-in to some local arenas to ride when the real winter arrives!

I am ever-so-tempted some days to sit back and cry about what we don't have here (and no one gets to ask my husband how often I succumb to this temptation), but I hope at the end of the day I'll look back and think, "Wow, we really were able to make something awesome happen, despite facing some challenges".  It's easy to get spoiled with all the amenities our modern facilities offer.  And its easy to think that we need all of these things in order to create anything worthwhile.  Along the way though, I've learned that horses are hardy, and people are committed.  We just have to keep our spirits up about the whole thing.  And you know what,  in my estimation, our little band of horses are actually looking better than ever.  The naughty ones seem a little less naughty, the fat ones have slimmed down, and the skinny ones are getting pleasantly plump.  Everyone's morale seems great and we really have a wonderful little family here.  We're growing, we're learning, and we're blooming.  Right where we are.  No fancy trimmings (well maybe not yet) but man do we appreciate every little victory!

So my winter challenge for everyone is this ... The next time you visit your friend's new multi-million dollar facility with plush stall mats, heated floors and perfectly groomed and temp-controlled arena, or the next time you cruise Facebook and see how "so-and-so" just acquired an inheritance and picked up her five-time national champion that she is sooooo in love with, swallow that envy down hard. Put on a smile and be happy for them.  But don't dwell too long.  Pull up your socks, put on your muck boots, go down to the barn and then groom (and bloom) with a new vigor.  Life has a way of rewarding hard work and persistence, and the character you'll develop along the way will serve you well in being able to truly enjoy the successes you achieve, rather than driving you to look to the next, bigger, fancier thrill.  Do your best, and work hard, wherever you are, with whatever you have to work with.  Seek good counsel, and make changes when you can.  You will bloom no doubt, and when you do, the fruits of your labor will be so much more beautiful than the store-bought successes you once longed to afford. 

Happy Grooming!!

Tuesday 7 October 2014

In It To Win It

They say that if you never experience losing, winning just isn't as significant.  You know ... that winning is somehow made more glorious and satisfying if you've had to work for it, earn it, and experience some hard knocks along the way.  I would tend to agree.

That said, losing still sucks. I am a competitive person (obviously, or I would have taken up equine philosophy rather than one of the most competitive and subjective areas of the industry). I mean don't get me wrong, I have personal goals for myself and all of my clients that do not involve earning a ribbon in the show ring. At the end of the day though, it's going to be tough to keep folks interested if they never, ever come home with any prize. 

How then, in a world of competition that is ever-changing and one that can be entirely subjective and political (aside from the odd timed/scored event) do we navigate and find satisfaction when prizes are never guaranteed? 

Well, in my own mind I like to narrow it down to a few principles that help me stay grounded in my goals and aspirations and my "expectation management".

Here they are:

1) Be honest with yourself.

Take a good hard look at where you are at, the amount of time, energy and money you have put into it, and what it realistically takes to make it (in whatever discipline you are riding in).  If you have been doing the same thing, with the same horse for many years and achieving the same results, you may want to try changing it up a bit (unless of course the results are "always winning", which is highly unlikely in this ever-changing sport).  Try a new approach, get some new help, change your farrier, change your discipline ... whatever you do, don't keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results.  Einstein called this the definition of insanity.

That said, if you've only been doing something for a couple months, and you haven't mastered it yet, or you've been progressing (but maybe not as fast as you'd like) or maybe its not as easy as you anticipated, it may just mean a little more elbow grease and "miles" so to speak.  Regardless, getting an outside opinion (other than your spouse, who knows nothing about horses, or your lifelong riding buddy who supports you no matter what you do) may be in order. 

Either way, take a step back.  Look at your self.  Look at your horse. Often we go through stages where one party improves while the other plateaus or hits a wall.  The horse starts getting fit or more technical and the rider feels "left behind".  Or the rider makes great improvement but the horse's condition and fitness takes longer to catch up.  You have to be able to look at your situation and reflect on what's going on ... as unemotionally and analytically as you can!

2) Be honest with others.

Don't talk yourself up or talk up your goals and aspirations because you feel "peer-pressured" to.  At the same time, don't beat yourself up either.  When discussing your horse goals, talk about what you would like to do and maybe potential time-lines but don't get yourself backed into a corner by putting out unrealistic goals or expectations (especially if you are a people-pleaser and will later regret over-stating your abilities).  Also, make sure you don't play the martyr either, downplaying or negatively mulling over your struggles. 

Tell people your story.  Tell them exactly where your head is at.  Let them in on what excites you and what terrifies you and be open to them doing the same.  Share with your fellow horse folk honestly and compassionately and you will find that others open up, let down their own (sometimes defensive and over-competitive) guard and are far more likely to support you and your goals.

3) Be open to advice, correction and education...

FROM EVERYONE! You don't have to take it or use it, but at least consider it.  There have been many times someone has offered me unsolicited advice (about everything from farrier, to feeding, to training, to grooming, to trailering techniques) and many times my first response is defensiveness.  It can make a person feel inadequate or criticized.  After some consideration though, you can occasionally find a little gem in that pile of rubble and it could serve you very well.  Accept "help" graciously and remember, if they didn't know you, care about you, or have any investment in you at all, they would ignore you! 

Do consider all advice carefully though, and remember, no one person knows everything.  As hard as it is sometimes to take advice, it is equally as easy to turn someone into an idol and take everything they say as gospel (if you are my client and reading this, please disregard).  All jokes aside though, everyone shares, advises and teaches from their own experiences, and you need to take it all in with a grain of salt. Get educated, use good discretion, do your homework.  Find people with good reputations, whose expertise and services mesh well with your level of experience, goals and personality.  It is imperative that when you are working with someone in a training or lesson situation, that for the time you are with them you trust them and their instruction.  If not you will most certainly find things tense and uncomfortable in no time. 

4) Keep perspective.

As I said earlier, do your homework.  Get to know the industry, discipline and competition you will be competing with.  I often prep my riders by telling them things like, "You are going to find yourself in a very competitive class with say 12 horses, and 3 of them may have far more experience, more advanced/developed horses and more skill development than you (this may be a good time remember #1 above).  If you come in 4th, well in my mind, that's a FIRST!!" If you have no idea who sits beside you in the line up and have no context within which to place yourself in that class, you may pout your way out of that class feeling that you have no idea why you didn't win it and resenting your ride, your competition, your horse and certainly your trainer.  In addition, you'll start to make up excuses for why didn't come out with the roses, and lose your ability to constructively reflect on any goals you may have achieved in that class. This isn't really fair to anyone, especially you!

Also, as a side note on getting perspective, I tell my riders (jokingly, but with some underlying seriousness) that they all need to have a couple of very close, non-horsey friends.  These are the people who, when you go on a rant about how you cannot believe that Peggy Sue brought her horse 3 strides to close to the behind of your horse and he swapped his lead and it was just SOOOOO embarrassing and you just might die, look at you like you are crazy.  And you are.  We horse folk are "crazy about" what we do, and I am totally guilty of this.  We get so intensely focused and narrowed in on our little riding bubble, we forget that sometimes its just one class.  Not really the end of the world.  Really, "first world problems" in every sense of the phrase. 

I mean, at the end of the day, there are probably hundreds of thousands of folks, just in North America who would give an arm to ride or own a horse, let alone do what we do.  Sometimes we feel we had a crappy ride, and we squeak by with a ribbon. Sometimes the best ride we've ever had gets us the gate.  Especially for what our team does, its a subjective game.  Do your best, train your hardest and get good help.  But ultimately ... Some days they like you.  Some days they don't.  Spend enough time around the place and you'll  realize this is true for EVERYONE at EVERY LEVEL. 

As a last and final wrap-up point I have to mention having non-prize-related goals.  Although saying things like "some day I'd love to win a Regional or National Championship" can be totally fantastic motivation for working and training hard, never put this kind of pressure on one class.  You may have a feeling in the back of your mind (based on your very realistic, honest and well-rounded perspective) that you are a contender in a particular class, but you should STILL have other, non-ribbon goals.  Things such as pace, engagement, leads, correctness, transitions, balance, ring management and so-on provide great fodder for these goals.  Work with your instructor or trainer and pick one or two of these performance-related goals for every class, even if you think you have it in the bag.  It will give you something to celebrate and discuss, regardless of whether you win or get dead last.

And always remember one of my favorite quotes ... "I never lose.  I either win or I learn."

Happy horse-showing!

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Living the Dream

So I was just thinking this morning about how great God has been to me. I am able to do (more or less!) most of what it takes to keep this farm running and there's some great confidence and convenience in that.  From running tractors, trucks and trailers to fixing fences I am no different than generations of rural women before me.  I do what has to be done.  And don't get me wrong, I couldn't do it without my amazing husband and family and friends. I am not a feminist.  I dont particularly love the feminist movement. But I love that I've had teachers, friends and amazing family along the way who've supported opportunities to do and pursue whatever I wanted, even if it was a non - traditional role.

So I was pondering the "dream". Sometimes we jest in a sarcastic fashion, when things are particularly nuts, that we're just "living the dream".  But really, we are.  Its just that we were a little misguided into thinking that any dream worth dreaming might just be handed to us like a winning lotto ticket. And so I kept on coming back to why, and how, to keep pressing on.

I have found an answer, but not one thats all sweet and tied up with a pretty ribbon. It's
hard work and trust in my faith that God will provide.   Its late nights (emergency vet calls, loading hay bales at 10pm, and working horses into the late hours of the night) and early mornings (doing barns before Bren leaves for work at 7, hauling to horse shows at 4am and braiding 6 horses before classes start at 8).  Its hard work. Not romantic, "pretty" work,  but dirty,  exhausting and sometimes grueling work.  Its hauling kids around and forcing them to do slave labour (it "builds character" right? ).  It's having a job that you cant procrastinate or put off until tomorrow.

But what else is it? Why do we do it?

Its seeing the face of a young girl ride her horse proudly into the show arena, achieving all her goals, and coming out, smiling with pride regardless of prizes  knowing she nailed it!  It's my kids running out to visit all their barn "aunties", helping them out, and maybe scoring a quick spin on their ponies.  Its seeing that sick, skinny horse gaining weight, shining up and getting a sparkle back in his eyes, and swearing he's thanking you for helping him feel better.

Its walking up from the barn, late at night, holding Brendan's hand and looking to the beautiful starry sky to thank God for gracing us with far more than we deserve.

I think the reason a lot of people miss out on "living the dream" is because sometimes it doesnt look (or smell) as pretty as they imagined.  They get caught up in complaining about exactly the thing they would previously have given anything to get.  Disillusioment takes over and clouds gratitude.

I don't have all the answers but I believe we're a lot tougher than we think we are.  And I know when I start my day being thankful, instead of being critical and negative and throwing a pity party, I give God room to work some amazing things in my life. I know if I work hard, at the end of the day, He'll pick up where I left off.

Don't be afraid of hard work.   Don't be afraid of failure.  Laugh it off.  We've all been there.  Pick up, dust off and get right back at it.  To end with an old cliche...  the dream is not just the destination ... its the dance you do on the way there.

So be brave, be joy-filled, and just keep on "living the dream"!