Now that we're home and settled, here's some final thoughts on the whole experience. This is the final instalment in this series.
The seminar on Friday, and the demos/clinics on all three days had much larger audiences than I'd expected. The seminar room was almost full and I had full grandstands for the most part (I was pleasantly surprised considering my clinic times clashed with a number of very popular international clinicians in natural horsemanship, dressage etc). In terms of the Sunday night Top Talent performance, we won the Fan Favourite competition, and came 3rd overall in the Open division. So all in all, a very successful event!
And that's all you need to know really!
....however, if you're interested in a bit of a blow-by-blow account of Equidays Top Talent, with some "behind the scenes" insight, read on.
Thank goodness I'd had the foresight to get some help for the weekend! Asking for help is not my strong point but Equidays gave me extra passes for 'grooms' so I took advantage. I had Tash Pearce to help me with Hokey, making sure he was spotlessly clean and fed and walked out and all that stuff, Becca O'Byrne who helped with horses and was #1 organiser for the Top Talent props/performance as well as general dogsbody (horsebody?), and in the end I also had my dear friend Jane Lenaghan who drove up to support me over the weekend and though she couldn't stay for the performance she helped keep me sane and (mostly) on the rails during the lead up to Sunday night's show. Thank you so much all of you xxx.
We were some of the first to arrive on site on Thursday, while event setup was still underway. We found our spot in the far corner where we'd be camped with all the other Top Talent competitors and the Wilson sisters' eleven horses. Vicki Wilson (despite her arm being in a sling after shoulder surgery) helped me to re-arrange the barriers to make Hokey's yard bigger which meant he had the best one of the lot.
With spectacularly bad timing, I had caught a cold off my pre-schooler (aka the sweet little germ factory) the week of Equidays, and by the time I arrived I was feeling relatively ok but coughing a lot. At one point during Friday's seminar I had to let the audience silently read the slide while I desperately drank water and sprayed numbing spray down my throat until the coughing passed. All fairly mortifying but everyone was super kind about it. One lady came up and pressed Strepsils upon me at the end. All that aside, the audience seemed to enjoy the subject matter ("How animals learn and how best to motivate them") and were engaged, asking lots of good questions.
Saturday afternoon, after a massive audience showed up for my "De-spook your horse using clicker training" clinic, I was looking forward to the night show and the opportunity to just sit and watch rather than have to do anything myself. My 15 minute Top Talent rehearsal (the first and at that stage possibly the only time we would be allowed to take our horses into the indoor arena before the performance on Sunday night) was scheduled for 9.45pm, directly after the night show. I didn't find watching the night show as relaxing as I'd thought I would, knowing that it would be me and Hokey in that enormous spotlighted arena tomorrow.
We nipped out of the night show before the finale in order to get Hokey plus props up to the arena and be ready to go in when we were called. It took ages until they let us in but when we finally got in there, the audience was still filing out, there was aerial silks and cables hanging down from the ceiling with workmen dismantling things, and the whole place smelled strongly of gunpowder from the last act. Hokey was beside himself, at one point rearing up (basically unheard of) and totally unable to even walk straight let alone think straight. I was so tense that I was not able to help him at all, so Jane took him for a few minutes to give me a chance to take a breath. He improved somewhat with time, but was not able to come back down to earth sufficiently to even consider doing any tricks. By the time I got to bed it was close to midnight, and we were told to be back at the arena at 5am for another session (the arena was busy all day with clinics and competitions, hence the crazy timing for getting in there). I coughed my way through the few hours until my alarm went off, hardly sleeping at all. Despite that, the early morning familiarisation session was much improved on the night before. He was still very tense but we were getting there. By the time we took him in again in the afternoon for a brief walk around while the show-jumps were being built, he was fetching the ball for me, and he opened the chilly bin to bring me the bottle of wine. I had my horse back. Kelly Wilson also gave me a lengthy pep talk, along with some much-needed perspective.
My clinic (Tricks & Liberty) at 9.15 on Sunday morning went REALLY well, Hokey was on form and did everything I asked of him. I had a good size crowd despite being the first slot in an out-of-the-way arena. So that boosted my confidence somewhat.
I had a phone chat with the wonderful Jane Pike of Confident Rider before the Top Talent performance. She gave me some absolute gems of advice but amongst it all these are the bits that really stuck out for me, in that moment:
The indoor arena at Equidays is huge (40x75) and lined with grandstands. We stepped through the door and the curtains closed behind us as the music started. The whole place was positively humming with energy - even I could feel the crowd's presence - and for a horse who is so sensitive to energy it must have been incredibly intense. I didn't take the halter and rope off when I had intended to, choosing in the moment to keep him attached, and towards the end I just removed the rope (despite my friend Ellie Harrison having helpfully relayed to me a Russell Higgins quote that "doing liberty with a halter on is like making love with your socks on").
We didn't get to show off everything we'd intended, but he did the tricks he needed to do, including fetching the wine bottle from the chilly bin. He was very tense in that arena, and I was incredibly proud of the way he held it together and stayed reasonably connected with me. Warwick Schiller commented on the complexity of the chilly bin trick, and Dan Steers and Vicki Wilson both commented on the fact that he stayed connected despite his nerves. Dan Steers said "he was clearly nervous in here, but he was comfortable with you".
We won $500 and a lovely wide sash for coming third, and another sash for winning overall Fan Favourite.
I really enjoyed being a clinician, teaching comes easy to me and it was amazing to be able to share the positive reinforcement philosophy and techniques with a mainstream audience. I'm not sure I would say I "enjoyed" performing in Top Talent, but we survived it and even got a pretty good result in the end. It certainly put me well and truly outside of my comfort zone and it's massively satisfying to have faced my fears and overcome them.
So here's some lessons learned from the whole thing, in no particular order:
I truly felt SO supported throughout this process. All of you who were at Equidays and watched my clinics, asked intelligent questions, came and said hi when you saw me, wished me luck for Top Talent, gave me hugs and generally surrounded me with love and positive vibes. And everyone who couldn’t be there in person but followed the journey online and sent me your thoughts and good luck messages through private messages and FB comments etc.
Thank you all from the bottom of my heart xxx
This is part 3 of the "Equidays prep" series. If you are joining in late and would like to catch up, here's part 1.
So how's my plan progressing? Well, I've walked Hokey down the road to a friend's arena and taken him to the RDA indoor again by himself, and each time he's been calm and connected (more or less). He's getting the hang of all this and I think being off grass and on supplements is helping too.
I've got costume and props sorted for the night show - can't show you what it is but I think it's pretty cute. Also have the routine pretty much decided. He has really been struggling with his 'park' while in the new environments though, so I guess we'll have to see how that goes during rehearsal. I might have to minimise that particular part and let him stay close to me.
We've got our rehearsal times - we only get one 15 minute slot the night before the show to familiarise the horses with the big indoor arena. Not as much time as I'd hoped for, but it is what it is.
Since I don't have any relevant photos for this blog, here's some cute ones from the Multi-Species training clinic a couple of weeks ago. So much fun! These gorgeous faces belong to animals from Bullswool Farm Park.
Another interesting tangent (my favourite sort): I talked in the first of this blog series about training my nervous butterflies to fly in formation. I thought it was worth pointing out that while this has in fact been done in real life, with real butterflies!
Using careful shaping and positive reinforcement, Ken Ramirez trained 10,000 butterflies to fly in formation between two points. Here's the description of this amazing feat and how it was trained, it is well worth a read. So there's my reality check. Training like THAT is happening in the world right now. Incredible, and humbling.
Next week I'm teaching the RDA holiday program as usual (Mon-Wed), and then heading straight to Equidays. Not sure if I'll get a chance to do another blog from the event, but you never know.
I will leave you with this rather entertaining video in which Dan & Dan demonstrate exactly how one should handle the situation when carefully laid plans go awry - with humour and calm confidence. May I channel that attitude in the days to come!
So there you have it. Once this is over it'll be back to normal programming. I've got a ton of topics to write blogs about but don't hesitate to suggest a topic or ask a question and I'll add it to the list!
OK so as I said in part one of this series, a key part of my nerves about all this is the fact that I don't feel I have had the time to get him out and about to the extent that I would have liked, in preparation for Equidays. That said, any person's definition of the appropriate degree of preparedness for any situation is going to be different from the next person, and I do tend to be a worrier / over-preparer. So to me, we are feeling very under-prepared.
However, I have had this horse his whole life, and taken him to numerous ribbon days and in-hand shows as a youngster. When I broke my arm I sent him away to be started under saddle by Ben Longwell so he spent a few months in a busy working "ranch" type environment. And during that time, Ben actually took him to Equidays 2015 to be the green horse in his "First 50 rides" demo series. So actually Hokey might argue that it's ME that hasn't been out and about enough - he has spent more time in the demo pens than I have.
All that aside, he has never been the "easiest" of horses in new environments (or even his home environment, half the time!). So I need to do what I can in the time I have to help us be successful.
Here's the plan:
And here's the results so far. I took him to the indoor arena on the weekend for some familiarisation. Basically, it looked like this. Hmmmm yeah not ideal.
To be fair, this happened mostly because I brought Cadence along and she was outside neighing to him. In hindsight, I should have kept his leadrope on and kept the rate of reinforcement super high. I probably should have brought her inside too, for a while at least. I thought maybe it might help him to have a run and let some of the adrenaline jiggles out, but it was clearly the wrong decision. He did come back to me numerous times, and gave me some focused work, but he was far more over threshold than I expected and the whole experience didn't exactly inspire me with confidence. However, there's nowhere from there but up I guess!
I've taken him out twice this week and he's been MUCH better. I am a little more optimistic now than I was after Sunday's episode. The second time I took him to the RDA arena (Wednesday) he was focused and connected with me almost the entire time, and when he did run back to the gate he turned and came back to me almost immediately.
This is us having a liberty play in the arena after my lesson with Cadence on Tuesday. He's never been to this arena before. He struggled a little with his park, but was totally connected and responsive the whole time. I'm keeping my rate of reinforcement a lot higher than usual of course, and not asking for anything hugely difficult.
More about him next time.
There's this amazing TED talk by Kelly McGonigal, called "How to make stress your friend". She basically talks about how our perceptions of stress are far more influential than we realise and that by viewing stress responses as a positive and helpful thing we may actually change the physiological and mental impact of that stress. Basically, when our hearts are pounding and we break out in a sweat, we often see these things as a sign that we're not coping well with the situation. Kelly argues that we should change our view, to see these as signs that, for example, our body is preparing us for the situation and making sure there's plenty of oxygen getting to our brains: "This is my body, helping me rise to this challenge".
Coincidentally, a friend sent me this talk by Mel Robbins today, the central message being that the state within our bodies of fear vs excitement is exactly the same. We just need to tell our brains we're excited rather than scared.
So when I head on into that Equidays arena, I'm going to try to remember that I'm excited (not scared). My heart is pounding in order to give me strength and energy. I will also focus as much as possible on being calm and connected in the moment with my little dude and supporting him through this. After all, this is my silly little game and he didn't ask to be part of it.
"Chasing meaning is better for you than trying to avoid disappointment. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life, and trust yourself to handle the stress that follows."
If you haven't heard, I've been invited to be a clinician at Equidays, New Zealand's biggest equestrian festival. This is pretty huge for me, and I'm super pumped to bring positive reinforcement training to Equidays in a really practical and accessible way. My goal is to show the audience that this is something they can (and should!) all implement to some degree into their training programmes, no matter their chosen discipline or level of experience.
But wait! There's more. On the last night of Equidays there is a new night show, called Equidays Top Talent. So the OTHER thing that's happened, is that Hokey Pokey and I have been selected as one of the finalists to perform on the night. This involves a performance in the indoor arena, in front of grandstands full of people, complete with lights and music. ("Woooah nelly!" thinks me, while lying awake at 3am. This is waaay outside my comfort zone!) I am by nature a teacher, not a performer. However, I have discovered that I harbour a deeply stubborn streak that makes an appearance when I'm scared of something, insists that I won't give in and makes me dig my heels in and do it anyway. Who knew. But yeah, suffice to say this is not a small thing for me. So as there's little to be gained by putting on a show of confident nonchalance, I will be blogging about the process between now and then. That will hopefully help me to work through my feelings and also might provide some interesting reading or learning for you guys.
As I break through my comfort zones ("stretching" is for sissies! (just kidding)) I am, according to the wonderful Jane Pike from Confident Rider, "a Neural Highway Ninja". Who am I to disagree with that?! She says, "Basically, all those neural networks in your body are connecting up new pathways, joining the dots together and building both your mental and physical muscles in ways that will allow you to get out there and repeat the same task much more ease-fully in the future. You getting out there and actually doing it- not thinking about it, talking about it, or drinking coffee about it- is the only way that you are going to make this happen. The only way." (Yes ma'am).
The main reason I'm nervous is that this is all rather last minute and I have not had the chance to prepare Hokey by getting him out and about much. He has hardly been in an indoor arena before, let alone a huge enclosed arena at night with packed grandstands, lighting and sound systems! So I am not really abiding by the clicker trainers mantra of "set them up for success", by any stretch.