Thursday, March 10, 2016

Guy McLean at the PA Horse World Expo: Staying in the Moment

Since today is his birthday, I figured this would be the perfect day to post this.  (Happy birthday Guy!)

As my readers know, I am a huge fan of Guy McLean.  In fact at this point I jokingly refer to myself as a Guy McLean Superfan, but I'm more like a devotee, a true believer, a follower.  Every time I see him work with his horses I feel renewed in my beliefs about what horses can do for us, and in my passion for this sport, and the strength of the relationship we can build with these animals.

The whole 2016 team. Aussie, Denny, Mate, Lightning, Guy & Ash
This year Ethan and I didn't bring his horse to the PA Horse World Expo, so we got to play tourist for a couple of days.  I'll do a blog post next about the Expo generally, but first we have to talk about Guy.  On Saturday, while we were perusing the vendors, Ethan and I ran into Guy and stopped to chat for a bit.  Well, Ethan did most of the chatting.  I mostly smiled and nodded along because I couldn't make conversation over the squeaky voice in my head going "Guy McLean knows who we are! Guy McLean knows my name! Guy McLean said he likes my writing! Wait until I get home and tell Tucker..."  

Major. Fangirl. Moment.

But let's move on to something of a little more substance.  This year Guy's performances left me with a different take home message than previous years, and I honestly don't know whether that's because it was what he intended for us, or whether it's what I needed to hear.  Things didn't go "perfectly" in some of his performances and demos, but that didn't stop Guy from being inspiring.  This year, Guy taught me not just about getting the best out of a horse, but also about how to respond when you don't get the best from your horse.  

As you know from last week's post, things didn't go very well in my last ride.  But after watching Guy work for two days, I know it wasn't karma.  Tucker didn't do what I wanted him to do when I asked him for a walk-canter transition.  He locked up, and instead of staying in the moment and thinking "how can I get his feet moving again," or "how can I get him working with me again," I kicked him.  And the thoughts in my head were "He needs to do this now, because what if this happened during a test?  We need to master this transition!"

After listening to Guy, it's clear to me that I wasn't staying in the moment, my mind was off in some hypothetical future situation where things were going wrong.  That's just not how horses work.

On Saturday, Guy brought his team into the arena for a demo.  He wanted to work with Denny and Lightning on some liberty work because during the performance the night before, Denny had trouble with the lay down, and Lightning in general is green and needs experience at liberty.  (Lightning is my favorite. He's beautiful, he knows it, and it's his striking presence that first drew me in and made me grab a seat at Harrisburg two years ago, where I learned how Guy works.  Lightning changed everything.)
L to R: Aussie, Lightning, Mate, Denny, Ash & Guy
Well, Denny and Lightning gave me a lot to write about.  One of the things I love to see Guy do with his liberty horses is gently touch them on the forehead, which is his signal to them to stay put, and then ride away.  It amazes me that they just stand where he left them, like wind-up toys who are waiting to be played with again.  Except Denny and Lightning didn't stay put this time.  Denny and Lightning ran off each and every time.

Lightning running off, Ash giving chase.
 (Denny, Aussie, Mate in the background)
Guy explained to us that the horses were acting based on what his instincts were telling him.  Horses are prey animals, and their responses are rooted in the prey-predator roles.  As Guy rode Ash back and forth chasing Denny like a cutting horse cornering a cow, he explained, "Denny's doing his best to upset me so I'll go away. But I need to not think about why he's doing it, just stay in the moment and try to make it better."  Ah, this.  Don't think about why your horse is doing this (I am so guilty on this one).  Stay in the moment.

Guy explained that he never lets himself get angry or upset. He kept a smile on his face, and cracked some jokes while he worked.  "Denny has his own Facebook page, he thinks he's smarter than I am." He also found something positive about it - while Denny wasn't acting like a great liberty horse in that moment, Ash was getting great experience as a ridden horse.  A horse who had trouble with his changes before Guy got him was now naturally swapping his leads in order to do his job, which in that moment was, "Catch Denny!"  (Guy explained that Denny was no longer a horse, but now an errant cow.)

Denny, laying down, rolling, rubbing his face in the dirt
(only one of these moves was on command)
Guy also gave us a little history about Denny, explaining that Denny wasn't always an easy horse to work with.  He explained that Denny only acts as educated as the most inexperienced horse in the ring.  At this point, that was Lightning (the horse I watched Guy start at the PA Expo in 2014, who has grown into an unbelievable athlete and could easily be an upper level dressage horse). As for Denny, he explained that "This is a horse it would never work for me to get angry at, I just need to keep working with him."  Does that sound familiar?

Denny, remembering he knows how to lay down,
and be side passed over.
As Denny and Lightning both played up, Guy muttered to the crowd, "Oh sure, I say nice things, I do nice things, and I get a little clap.  He carries on like a fool and you just eat it up.  You know, I used to not like when people laughed but now I understand you're just getting caught up in the moment."

And believe me, we were caught up in the moment. There are these moments in each of Guy's performances and demo's, where the horse he is working with steps sideways toward Guy's outstretched hand to line up next to the horse he's on. I've seen Guy perform about seven times now, sometimes multiple performances, so I figure I've seen this happen a few dozen times. It never ceases to mesmerize me. It feels like magic.

But it's not magic, really, and I don't think Guy would want me to say it's magic.  It's the product of patient, deliberate, focused but relaxed training.  It's Guy's ability to "stay in the moment," to not get upset, and to never let a horse feel that he's angry or frustrated with them.  And it's his innate ability to understand horses' instincts, how they think, how they'll react, how to get through to them, how to make them feel safe and get them trust him.  I think about half of what he does - the "staying in the moment" part, is something we can learn to do, with practice.  But the rest of it, well, that's what makes Guy so special.

Thanking the crowd.
On Sunday, I saw him work with a young mare who I believe he got on for the first time on Saturday morning.  He had told the audience on Thursday that by the end of the weekend, he was going to ride her and work his other horses at liberty off of her.  When the demo started, the little chestnut mare was in a very self-protective mode.

She started off really unsure about having horses she didn't know that close to her side.  She kicked out a couple of times, and not surprisingly, Mate and Aussie moved off.  Because, as Guy explained, that's what she "told" them to do.  I'm sitting there, wondering if this was the plan Guy had in mind?  It seemed, to my untrained eye, that things weren't going well.

Then something really interesting happened.  The little mare went from giving off this body language that was practically screaming that she was uncomfortable and uncertain about the whole situation, to working right with Guy as a team while he worked to get his two liberty horses back to resting.  You could see on her face that she went from "I don't like you on my back and I don't think I want to listen to you," to "Yeah let's go get those two horses!"  She started offering forward and soft transitions, even though she's not nearly broke enough to be expected to do so.

Here is a short video clip.  If I can, I'm going to edit this video and try to give you some subtitles so it's easier to catch what Guy's saying, but for now I just want you to see how this little (completely unbroke) mare went to work:

So my take away on Sunday was that sometimes when things seem like they're not going right, the end result can actually be better.  I have a bad habit of getting stuck in the mindset of "things aren't working," and start focusing on damage control, instead of thinking about what kind of (maybe unplanned, maybe better) results I could be getting. Again, staying in the moment, dropping expectations, letting go of worry and doubt, these are all things that Guy models for us so well.

One more thing I want to tell you about, the horse Guy was on for the first demo I watched, Ash,  is starting to look like the next Spinabbey, and I'm excited to see what he can do.  Guy showed us his abilities to canter sideways and canter backwards, as well as leap in the air (like he's jumping an imaginary jump).  He's learning to do his changes better, and just as Guy said he was "sure there's a tempi in there," sure enough, Ash did three one-tempi's in a row.  Just like a dressage rider, Guy explained that with this horse, he had to teach him to start lifting his shoulders. Don't let the cowboy hat and spurs fool you.  I am pretty sure we could stick Guy in a shadbelly tomorrow and send him up centerline.  We'll just have to take away his bridle....

Guy and Aussie
(from Guy's facebook page)
Guy is a man who exudes positive energy, I've never been around anyone else like him.  He is grateful, and genuine, and unendingly patient with fans like me who won't can't seem to drag themselves away from his booth.  To have the opportunity once a year at the Expo to talk to him about horses, and what he does, and to tell him a little bit about who we are, well it's something I'm just so grateful for.  (I'm going to sound a little nuts here, but...) When I talk to him, it feels like there are tiny broken pieces in me that are being mended.  He said something about me and Ethan - that we are already "married" - and I felt this little leftover shadow of a fracture in my heart just disappear. Guy and his wife Emily are such special people.

I know I've told you this before, but for my new readers - if you can get to an Expo or a Show where he will be - I promise you will not be disappointed.  Make the trip, watch him work, chat with him and Emily and tell them you read about him on my blog. You'll see for yourselves what I'm talking about. 


  1. Oh man! I could really take home a lot from a guy like him. I am all too guilty of getting upset when things are going wrong, instead of staying in the moment and working through it. It is *really* hard to let go of the old skool way of thinking that the horse is being disobedient. And then of course my ego and objectives get involved. And that is never the answer. Thanks for the great post!

  2. This is a lot of really great stuff to think about. And that mare is REALLY cute. I've never seen him or heard much about him, but I'm definitely interested now.

  3. definitely a ton of insights! i am terrible about 'staying in the moment' and always want to know 'why why why' haha. sometimes that's useful if the problem is ME... but generally yea, good to remember!

  4. Guy and Emiky are one in a million! They are both so kind and passionate about what they do...and i totaly understand what you wrote about how you feel when you talk to them...i feel the same way. I call Guy my horseman hero. Im their #1 Canadian fan. 😉

  5. Wonderful insight on your part. We were among those who so thoroughly enjoyed his work with Denny and Lightning at Harrisburg on Friday afternoon.

  6. I saw him at an expo years ago for the first time and i was in awe. and i have been following him ever since. he is true. no showmanship and no flamboyant moves or words. just a person with a gift for being one with the horses . and people and horses love him. i know i do

  7. I was there on Saturday with my daughter to watch both performances. I also have seen him several times before. My daughter treats me for my birthday. What could be better then to spend time with your daughter and see Guy?! The first thing I notice and my daughter commented on was how thankful he was of all the staff and other support people of the Expo. He handles his own horses. I turned also how to make the best of a situation. And yes I am how in love with Denny!

  8. I love this! I've never been lucky enough to see him but now I'm going to start watching for him!

  9. People like that are amazing. :-) So glad you got to see him again and wicked cool that you got to talk with him.

    Or at least that Ethan did. ;-)

  10. This post had me transfixed on my screen! It is incredible that there are people like him in this world


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