What the agenda?
Just before camp, we get quite a few people asking for the itinerary. It’s usually people who are super organised and want to plan ahead or they are slightly apprehensive first timers – sometimes a combination of both! But I think it’s only natural when you go anywhere new to be asking ‘What on earth is going to happen to me when I get there?!’
I often wonder if we should rename our itinerary and call it an agenda instead. But doesn’t that word go so much deeper than just a list of our plans? Do any of us have exactly the same agenda when it comes to going out and playing ponies somewhere?
Our itinerary in it’s simplest form is that you arrive of the first evening, set up camp for the next two or three days of lessons. But why do we do it this way I mean after all, I hate camping and I would much rather spend an extra day in my own bed than sleeping in a field! Well it’s because the advantages of getting you altogether on the first night more than make up for a sleepless night or two.
You see the first night is all about getting you guys talking, making connections with new people through your horses and breaking bread with others has long since been recognised as beneficiary to making connections (albeit garlic flavoured with a bit of pizza in our case!). It’s why we have networking breakfasts, do business over lunch or dinner. It does after all, make you stop for a minute, take time out of your busy lives and be still, therefore allowing time to get to know each other, share some stories and have fun.
To me it is also an indicator of how nervous or confident you might all be as a group. Sometimes the energy in the room on the first night is electric, lots of excited chatter, people discovering they know each other’s horses or have friends in common or have competed against each other but never had the opportunity to really talk. Other times it’s my job to get those conversations started because no one is eating anything as their nerves are getting the better of them. We used to have a hypnotherapist come and give us a talk to help us to get rid of a few anxieties, set some goals and just have fun. What was fascinating about that was how much calmer the horses in the stables became as their owners started to calm down too, even though there was quite a distance between the two buildings! There was rarely any food left after either because suddenly everyone was feeling much better and hungry.
This year has been a bit different because of the Covid 19 issues but normally we put everyone together in their riding groups to do the quiz. One of the things I am most insistent about is that absolutely no one feels left out at camp. I don’t care what you ride or how you ride, you’re as entitled to be there as anyone else and I don’t want anyone making judgements about each other based on their horsemanship skills or preferences. Save that for the show ring or facebook, better still don’t be that person! Over the years we’ve had a few people criticise others and I’ve stepped in. I want you guys to feel safe, to feel as though you can be who you really are with your horses and to get the most that you can out of camp. I don’t want you to be scared of asking a question you think might be silly or to be worrying about the fact that someone on your camp has a top class show jumper when you have a little cob off the moor, we’re all horse owners, we’re all on our own journey and that journey is different for everyone one of us. It’s about your agenda, no one else’s. I think a great saying is ‘What other people think is none of your business, it’s what you think that matters.’ I’ve no idea where I first heard that but it has stood me in good stead many a time when I have let the words of others push a few buttons.
As well as the quiz we’ve played a few games in the past and I intend to do that again in the future once we can get up close and personal again. My intention is to get you all laughing and chatting and believe me, some of the games we’ve played have made people giggle a lot! Especially the simulation ones where we have people sitting on each other’s knees and pretending to do rising trot! I’m not sure if it’s the jiggling that causes the giggling but it’s set a few people off in the past!
I do find that bringing people together in this way means that the fear of being judged by others disappears somewhat and as a result most people are a lot less worried about bringing their horse in to the arena for the first lesson because they’re no longer riding with strangers, they’re riding with friends! All that leaves you to worry about is riding your horse the way you always do – oh and maybe how scary your instructor is going to be! They’re not, I promise you!
Each day we encourage people to feed their horses at the same time. One of the highest stress factors for horses on livery yards is that people are coming and going at all kinds of times and feeding their horses or turning them out. Horses are clever and they know who is coming to feed them but we’ve built that in to them, it’s not their instinct. They move together in the wild, they eat together, they drink together, their base instinct doesn’t allow them to forget that when they are together they are a herd. Some get extremely stressed when their new next door neighbour goes out without them or has a feed and haynet when they don’t. Others seem to not bother at all. But to me if we are trying our best to reduce any anxieties that they may have, just simple things like feeding them together isn’t hard to do. After all, we have dragged them away from their usual environment, put them with a load of strangers, locked them in stables that they are unsure of and then gone to bed! I did have one group of horses that I had to leave the lights on for all night, if I turned them off a few of them seemed to join forces in screaming the place down and trying to kick the back wall out! Soon as the lights went back on…silence.
Both mornings whilst you’re at camp, we feed you a cooked breakfast to set you up for the day! We have cereals, toast and preserves for those who can’t handle that at 7.30 am but there’s plenty of choice. Riding times for the morning are at 9 am and 10.45 so some people get to have a lie in but on the other hand they have an early finish. If I get an inclination that some riders are nervous, I often put them in the first group so that they can get it over with and relax for the rest of the day! By lunchtime, around 12.30, everyone is fine, but I need strategies to make sure that you all are and over the last seven years I’ve learnt a few!
The first lesson can be interesting. Horses pick up on nerves, some more than others, riders all have different agendas and have come to camp for different reasons and try as I might, sometimes I can’t make the groups work perfectly every time! Six hours of lessons over two days is a long time for both horse and rider, even if they are fit it can be mentally exhausting so your first lesson is just an assessment really. There will be some standing together listening to the information that everyone is giving their instructor, this is a good way for the instructor to assess your horses temperament. It takes your mind of what your horse is doing for a moment and this often indicates how settled the horse is. If you’ve been holding him together whilst you’re out on the track, then him standing still whilst you talk is not going to be easy. I guess it’s about discovering which horses have more go than whoa and about understanding the other people in your group. You can learn so much from other people and what they’re being taught if you’re teachable. And when you hear an instructor use similar words to those they’ve said to you, then you can see what that other rider is doing. Also you realise it’s not just you that does that!
We always have tea, coffee, squashes and cake for you to help yourselves to so that you can refuel and of course the cake competition is vitally important! Recently it has become the dessert competition because some made the most delicious banoffee pie once and lots of people do gorgeous brownies and cookies, so the word cake became too restrictive! And of course it’s not about the competition, it’s about people bringing something nice to share, making a bit of effort to ensure that everyone else is having a good time too. You’ve no idea how much I appreciate the time put in to this little thing that makes a HUGE difference and I love receiving your gorgeous offerings in the piggery when you arrive, so exciting! So thank you xx
I think this might be long enough for now so I will write part 2 and post that separately so I don’t bore you to death – we have horses and lives for heaven sake, who has time to read my wafflings?! See you in part 2 x
This evening I attempted to fill in a survey and this was one of the questioned asked. I couldn't honestly answer it because in truth, I don't know if they get jealous or not. Is this an emotion they have the brain capacity to experience? Is this a human emotion that we project on to them because we want to feel as though they care? Or is it more to do with curiosity or instinct? I don't have the answer.
I have been very privileged to be the only handler, rider and owner of a horse and although she was kept on livery yards she knew it was me who did stuff with her. When I got a second horse, she appeared to be jealous of him, often muscling her way in between us if went to him first and then if I rode him and not her, she would stand there in the field, watching us leave, looking dejected and paying no attention to her field mate at all. The emotion I projected on to her was jealously, but was it?
In my experience, horses love routine, it makes them feel safe and secure. I only know this because when you break their routine they show signs of stress or anxiety. Perhaps a break in their routine that doesn't deprive them of anything doesn't cause stress, but it may cause a little confusion. Maybe Tico was used to watching me move from one step to the other, whether I was just checking them or whether I was riding them, I always had a routine. But with Star Ponyboy added in to the equation, my routine had changed and to her something had been lost.
I do know that stabled horses who are waiting to be fed and turned out very much look forward to you turning up. A yard I kept my first horse at, the horses would whinny when they heard their owner's car pull up in the car park! They're so clever. Soon after the door banging or the head tossing would follow. But is it the same for a horse whose only reward when you turn up a scratch or a fuss. My little miniature Charlie loves to have his nose kissed. Molly has to have her daily face rub. Anna likes her neck scratches, whilst Izzy and Tara just love to cuddle in to you and groom you back when you scratch them. And if I was anthropomorphising...omg that word is hard to spell - humanising - Tara, Izzy and Anna, they often make me think they're jealous of each other because they will push each other out of the way to get more scratches.
There were a whole load of other things I couldn't answer in this survey for the same reasons, but what it really made me think about is how often we assume our horses are thinking or feeling something that could be interpreted as human behaviour but in actual fact, these things have an awful lot more to do with survival. And do our survival instincts kick in when we're scared too? Are we projecting this behaviour and it's meaning on to them. Are we the cause of this behaviour?
I'm sure most of us have said at one time or another, 'This horse is determined to get me off, the little [insert desired expletive here!]' Suggesting that he is full of malice or just being plain mean. But the biggest threat to a horse is having a predator jump on it from above and attack it. Hmmm, we are predators so what if we are sometimes perceived to be a massive threat because we are hurting them/frightening them or just plain in the way of them being able to run from something else that is threatening their survival?
One of the things we see a lot at camp is people who are very nervous before and during their first lesson. I once had two riders talk themselves out of riding at all during breakfast! It's ok, we got them on and guess what? They survived and had a great time! Our nerves affect our heart rate and breathing - the two things that horses are designed to listen to if they want to survive. If you ever watch a herd of horses, one can lift it's head up, alert to something and a horse on the other side of the field, even if he can't see the first one move, will have lifted his head too. Their hearing is so sharp, their response to energy is incredible and the minute the heart beat and breathing of another mammal changes, that horse knows it.
So imagine...we have twelve riders getting on, their heart rate and breathing is all over the place. We've got twelve horses who have no idea what is about to happen to them, their pulses are high, they're taking short breaths and they're alert. This is a natural survival instinct for them, they're not being naughty (a very subjective word!) or disrespectful, they're just following their instincts. And although we may feel a perceived threat, we, the rider, are in no more danger than we were when we last got on that horse and rode him in the school or around the same track for the millionth time! Why? Because we know how to ride this horse.
Not so sure about this? Watch a young kid get on their pony in a strange place and see what their expectations of that horses behaviour are. Or watch a seasoned competition rider get on and warm his horse up at the beginning of a competition. If he knows his stuff and his horse there is no tension or stress, they just ride.
Also, notice the difference next time you're at camp, between the way everyone is at the beginning of their second lesson, compared to their first. Look up and observe, you will find people in your group who are just expecting to have a ride no different from the last one. Anxiety shows up when we don't know what is going to happen next. As a rule, you guys get to the other side of that anxiety by seeing the lesson through so that you then have knowledge and experience about what is going to happen. Before that moment, the crystal ball was out, predicting all kinds of near death scenarios!
But you can predict what that horse is going to do - without the crystal ball! You know your horses. You have trained them to move off your leg. So why are your legs clamped to his sides and expecting him to stand still?! And when you are riding out with your mates, do you sit there waiting for them to get on going 'Omg, what is she going to say about the way I ride?' or 'My horse looks so scruffy next to hers, I wonder if she'll want to ride with me and my hairy cob?' Maybe, 'I am so crap a getting him to canter, I hope no one notices!'? Or do you sit there having a laugh about the fact that you still have half the field in your horses mane or that Bob the Cob is going to do his fastest trot ever rather than break in to that illusive canter? I imagine it's going to be the latter and ten minutes in to your first lesson with your group, you'll all be doing the same. So predict don't project. He's not being naughty, he's just being a horse. Unclamp those thighs and ride him like the horse you know he is. Ditch the negative crystal ball and pick up the one that is full of experience. The one that tells the truth about the hundred and twenty times you've ridden this horse without incident. Stop worrying about what might happen and just ride your horse because if you ride him in the way you always do, he will do what he always does - he'll be awesome.
And you know who taught him to be that way?
You did - because you're awesome too!
Which I think leads on to the next topic I've been talking about a lot with a couple of the Riding Pool Members lately...that horses learn to do the things we want them to as quickly as they learn to do the things we don't want them to do... So until next time, don't be a predator or a pussy cat, be the rider that you know you can be and let your horse be the awesome horse you've taught him to be
Much love to you my camp family xxx
It's hard to know where to start a blog when you've been planning on doing it for seven years! I thought I would start with now because in truth 2020 could have been our last year. No one could have predicted how the whole Covid - 19 pandemic was going to affect us all. As luck would have it, I had decided to go and work for someone else for the first time in 15 years and felt relatively safe financially - yet utterly miserable because I honestly thought all camps would be cancelled for the entire year.
I think the pandemic has led many of us to reflect on our lives. For me it made me realise just how much running camps meant to me. I live in a dark pit of despair in winter. I'm like a bear who wants to hibernate but financially that doesn't work! No one is going to pay me to hunker down in a cave and sleep for 6 months of the year. So I drag myself out, cheer myself up by running trainings up at Knightswood and at Chyverton, wonder where the next haylage payment is coming from and LIVE for the beginning of camp season! There isn't anything else that I love doing as much.
It's hard to put a finger on why. It's hard work but it's not stressful (apart from doing groups and stables and praying I don't upset people!) and it feels like I am making a difference. I think we all want some significance in life. Purpose. For me I live by the mantra, 'I just want you to be happy'. It sounds simple, but for many of us in this day and age, being happy is anything but simple. I appreciate that we can't be happy all the time. Without a bit of hardship and misery, we would have no idea what happiness was! But surely a good 80% of our lives should be that way - otherwise, what is the point?
I don't believe in doing anything that doesn't make me happy. That's one of the reasons I've recently handed my notice in at my safe job. I loved it, but the contrast between the unity, the team work and the sheer joy being part of camp, was just too much for me. I want to be with your guys. I want to meet all of your gorgeous horses and watch you all achieve. The transformation over such a short space of time can be HUGE! And it is so wonderful to see. I can feel the euphoria. When you become overwhelmed by tears because something awesome has happened, I want to (and often do!) cry with you! I understand those feelings. Horses can be so frustrating, so challenging and hard to master, there is just so much to learn and each horse is an individual. So sometimes, just the smallest thing can feel like a major step forward. Like when my dear Tara managed to get left canter lead in the school TWICE in one session and everyone else around me was wondering why this crazy lady was laughing and scratching her horses neck, shouting 'Good, girl! Good girl!' Over and over again. It's the little things.
And choosing only to do things that make me happy, doesn't mean that I quit when the going gets tough, it just means that I can recognise that something isn't serving me well, that there are better ways to live and thrive than by doing something you don't like. I believe the key to my happiness is never being afraid to leave a job or relationship. Believing in myself, knowing that I am a fighter and I will find away to support my family and my animals. Maybe I'm weird, because I love hard work, I love to be challenged, these things make me happy! But I think us horsey folk are all the same. How many of us build a great relationship with our horses, get to the point where everything is pretty much perfect, then decide to buy a new one? I can't part with them, so I collect them and share them in my Riding Pool! But I've designed my life so I can do that. I can only do that if I have some faith in myself.
This year I've been doing talks for you all. It would never have happened if it wasn't for Covid-19 because our speakers would have been there. But it's funny how things happen. I started them because it was making me so sad listening to you all beat yourselves up about not being good enough. I've been there. I still go there! But I know that we don't have to feel like that. We spend hours telling ourselves how rubbish we are, but fail to recognise how far we've come. So many of you told me you didn't have goals. But I know that's not true. I know that none of you want your horse to come out of the stable, breathing fire, running you over, biting you, kicking you and bucking like a rodeo pony when you get on! True? So your goal is that your horse is calm, content, trained to not walk on you, will stand whilst you get on and walk away quietly when you ask him to. Let's face it, sometimes in spring achieving that goal can be hard, but it's still a daily goal! How often do you achieve that? How often do you celebrate it? You're dealing with a huge beast who could chose to do his own thing quite easily. Yet how often do we just stand and marvel at the fact that he will walk by us, come to us for scratches in the field, stay in a stable or get in a trailer?! I said it's the little things but actually these things are massive. If you don't believe me, go and talk to an unhandled 5 year old horse, you'll soon be grateful for your occasionally unpredictable but well mannered horse!
I hope these talks have helped you to appreciate that you are good enough. That if you look back you will realise that you've achieved loads and it was all because of you. No one else. And that those achievements are the things that matter to you. I'm sure most if you don't have to get stupidly excited about a left canter lead, but I do, because I know the journey that we've been on to get that left lead. You know your journeys. You know your horse. Are you are enough. Perhaps I will keep doing these talks next season. Maybe I will plan something for November for our first winter camps. Is there anything you're really struggling with? Let me know, tell me what your dreams look like. Let's see if together we can help you get there.
Because of you guys, my year has been utterly awesome, my dreams live on and I thank you all so much for being there, for being part of camp. For playing your part. For caring for and about each other and your horses. You're all superstars in my eyes xx
Hey Folks, I'm Lorraine and the picture is of one of my horses Tara - in our office! I really am the luckiest person alive to get to do what I do.