Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “riding lessons”

Lost Souls

sunnybrook bank barnFor those of us whose hearts belong to critters, this has been a very sad spring.  I’m still stinging from the loss of Trixie, whose absence makes itself known in strange, small ways as I navigate my weeks.  Several friends have lost long-time companions — dogs, cats, a sheep with a personality bigger than she was. 

And then came utterly tragic news in the early morning hours of Victoria Day (May 21).  This time my grief is shared with thousands of others, because as well as I knew the horses who perished, they were also loved by half of Toronto.

You might know where I’m going with this.  It made national, even international headlines (in fact, the friend who first alerted me, did so from Germany).  

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Sunnybrook Stables, a place where I taught beginner riders a couple of days a week, in a park in the heart of Toronto, burnt to the ground early that morning, trapping 16 of my good friends inside with no hope of escape.  

Here’s what I wrote for The Rider, an Ontario-based equine newspaper.  

HISTORIC TORONTO STABLE BURNS IN VICTORIA DAY FIRE

In the 21st century, horses and urban humans don’t often mix.  But Toronto’s Sunnybrook Stables, located in the lush Sunnybrook Park at Leslie and Eglinton, gave inner-city kids (and adults) a chance to interact with horses and learn to ride.  Along with its sister facility, the Riding Academy, located at Exhibition Place near the Lake Ontario waterfront, Sunnybrook offered a unique opportunity to Toronto’s urbanites:  stables that can be reached by mass transit.
The two-alarm fire that destroyed Sunnybrook’s historic bank barn in the wee hours of Victoria Day, May 21st, 2018, made international news.  Quick action by Toronto firefighters and police, who were summoned after an observer in a nearby apartment complex saw the flames, saved the newer barn which adjoins Sunnybrook’s indoor arena, and the 13 horses inside.  The Toronto Police Mounted Unit swiftly mobilized their own trailers to relocate the survivors to the stables at the Horse Palace.  Sixteen school horses, however, lost their lives in the fire, which totally consumed the bank barn.
The barn, which was built around 1910 as part of the estate of Major Joseph Kilgour, and was donated to the city of Toronto in 1928, became part of Sunnybrook Park, an urban oasis of trees, trails, picnic grounds, soccer fields … and a riding school. 
Walter Shanly founded Sunnybrook Stables Ltd. in 1979, leasing the facility from the city.  Shanly passed away in September 2017, and his widow, Jacquelynn, now operates the school.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.  It is not considered to have been suspicious, despite the rumoured presence of individuals setting off fireworks in the park that evening.
At this time, with future plans for rebuilding uncertain, Sunnybrook Stables has asked that fund-raising be put on hold.  If you wish to make a contribution, they suggest Greenhawk gift cards, which can be used towards replacing the lost tack for the surviving horses.  A permanent memorial for the horses, in the park, is in the planning stages. 

 

Axel Sampson SandyWhen a privately-owned horse passes away, those closest to that animal grieve, of course.  But the school horses at Sunnybrook were known, and loved, by literally thousands of Torontonians, each with their own special memories of a favourite horse or pony.  Some of the Sunnybrook mounts had been resident in the park for upwards of 20 years.  The outpouring of sorrow on social media has been overwhelming, as have been the offers of funds, supplies, and green field time for the survivors. 

I only had 1000 words to work with for the story, and I included a very brief description of each of the schoolies who were my work partners and my friends.  I could easily have written a thousand words on each of them.  So here, where no-one’s policing my wordcount, I thought I’d say a little more, so that they are not forgotten.schoolies

Sugar – one of Sunnybrook’s beginner specialists, Sugar was a red roan mare with a dished face and a big blaze.  Her history as a Western pleasure mount gave her a super-slow trot and a rocking-chair canter, perfect for nervous riders.  She had a sensitive mouth, which taught her young charges an important element of empathy.  

Axel – a chestnut paint gelding, narrow and long-backed.  A legendary grouch in the barn, Axel had to be caught in his stall by the staff, as he’d turn his butt and threaten to kick kids who entered his stall.  But he was a surprisingly willing partner for Sunnybrook’s intermediate riders in the arena, giving them just enough challenge without ever verging on unsafe.  He really shone over fences.

Sampson – one of the barn’s newer recruits, a cheeky black-and-white large pony who was a little green. He provided a nice challenge for the school’s more advanced riders, as he could get a little on the muscle — a change from the horses they had to kick to get moving.  

Sandy – a little Appaloosa pony mare who was winding down to retirement and only used lightly in the school.  I’ll be honest:  riding Sandy was like a free chiropractic adjustment:  she was that uncomfortable.  But those who loved her, loved her fiercely.  

Sutherland – the absolutely indispensible “Sudsy”, a 20-something gray Percheron/Arab cross, was beginner-friendly but forward, which is a fairly rare combination.  Sutherland had been at Sunnybrook so long that few remembered a time before him.  Low to the ground but sturdy, he carried adults and tiny kids with equal aplomb.  He wouldn’t bother heaving himself into the air over cross-rails and little verticals, preferring just to trot over them.  The jumps had to reach a certain height before he’d make an effort.  I loved him for that.

Hercules – a liver chestnut Welsh cross, Herc could shuffle in slow-motion or turn it up a notch.  He would mess with his small riders by drifting off the rail into the middle of the ring to test their steering skills.  I had to laugh at him.  If you can learn to ride a pony well, you can ride anything.

Poomba – 12 hands of pure cheek! Flaxen chestnut Poomba, much prettier than the Disney warthog, would babysit to a degree, but he could also be a handful.  Over fences, he was on springs, rocketing kids out of the saddle with his exuberance.   He also had a wicked set of brakes.

Blossom – a black-and-white medium pony mare with a kind heart and enough quality to have not been out of place on the A circuit.  She took exceptional care of the kids on her back and seldom displayed much pony-tude.  

Apollo – of Pony of the Americas breeding, freckled Apollo was under 10, but behaved like a much more seasoned pony.  We could always count on his level head — and we instructors thanked gawd for him sometimes.  

Phoenix — one of Sunnybrook’s more recent recruits, Phoenix was a gray Arabian mare who had been there just under a year.  Something of a nervous Nellie in the barn, she was surprisingly well-trained and confident under saddle.  A fun ride for the more advanced kids.

Tess – a bay Quarter Horse mare with a downhill build, Tess played the grumpy mare card but was very well-schooled, with some fancy dressage moves in her repertoire.  I sympathized with her lack of enthusiasm for ham-handed, bratty kids, and tried to make my students appreciate her as a hidden gem.

Misty – a red roan mare of predominantly QH breeding, with one split ear, Misty was goey, sensitive, and a little spooky, not for a beginner.  She knew her stuff over fences, and was a favourite of the instructors as a mount for themselves.

Marty – a dark bay Thoroughbred mare who was a nice junior hunter before arthritic hocks slowed her down, Marty was also for the more advanced students.  She defended her stall space like a barracuda, and gave students a taste of ‘more go than whoa’.

Gifford – Sunnybrook’s mini mascot, reputed to be about 38 years old, was adored by everyone.

Beau – an irreplaceable beginner hero, this big yellow Appaloosa gelding trucked around tiny children and large, awkward adults with equal equanimity.  For a first taste of canter, you couldn’t do better than Beau, who went off instructor voice commands.  On the list of horses who should be nominated for sainthood, Beau was near the top of the list.

Mr. T – another stalwart who had been at Sunnybrook almost longer than anyone could remember.  T was an almost-black Clyde cross, with a dignified Roman nose and the kindest eyes you could imagine.  The extra white hairs sprinkled around those eyes spoke to his long years of service.  Thanks to his size, T was another kind soul who got riders both large and small hoisted on his back, and he was our go-to for anyone who was special-needs, because we could trust him to the ends of the earth.  T never got grumpy about his lot as an uber-dependable beginner mount, and viewed the world with quiet bemusement.   I will miss him most of all.

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Ten Habits of Highly Effective Riders, for Dummies

Over at this blog (the subtitle for which rather confusingly defines it as being about “politics, men, Detroit, horses, and prayer” — um, okay), author Nancy Kotting has written a post defining the “Ten Habits of Highly Effective Dressage Riders”.  Being an inveterate Facebook-link-follower, I read through it.  It’s a wellypretty good list.  There’s a lot I like about it.  But in the usual manner of those devoted to dress-AHHHGGE (soft g, please, peasants), it’s … well, a little stuffy.  An eensy bit wordy and idealistic and brimming with the supposed nobility of the Classical Art of Dressage Which Is Always Capitalized.  All of which can get a smidge tiresome when you are a no-bullshit, “Give It Some Wellie” A-type eventer who’s aware that the vast majority of people calling themselves dress-AHHHGGE riders are total wannabes on an unending Quest For the Perfect Twenty Metre Circle.

(Is that harsh?  It’s probably harsh.  But then again this is a snarky blog.  Here be dragons.  Sorry.)

Because I’m forever and ever an editor at heart, regardless of my current shortage of employment in this area, I decided to re-write the post for the real world (and all riders as opposed to just those OCD and flatwork-obsessed), make it all a little more succinct and practical and easy to remember.  So without further ado, here’s the For Dummies version:

10.  There are no failures, only Teachable Moments.  AKA:  Every horse will teach you something.

9.  Leave your baggage in the car.  Your job blows?  Your boyfriend is bumping uglies with your yoga instructor?  Your parents won the lottery grumpycat1and absconded for Argentina, leaving you a diabetic Himalayan cat and 43 Murder, She Wrote VHS tapes?  Your horse is supposed to be your escape from all things wretched.  Don’t take it out on him.  Nothing productive is going to come of broadcasting your frustration, your rage, or your fear while in the saddle.  Admittedly, it’s a tall order, but one of the most valuable skills a rider can learn is the ability to let it go (or at least stuff it all into a remote broom-closet in a back corner of your medulla oblongata and slam the door).  When you put a foot in a stirrup, you have to Live in the Now, at least until you dismount.  (Or as an instructor of mine once told me, “The Pope has just come by in his Popemobile?  Doesn’t matter; carry on.”)  Essentially:  leave the tension in your skull and don’t let it reach your muscles.

8.  Be the boss mare.  Horses like a nice, clear hierarchical structure.  They like having a calm, confident leader to follow.  Be that leader, be firm but kind and not a pyschopath, and your horse will trust you to the ends of the earth.

7.  Corollary:  Don’t be a pussy.  It’s oft observed that the trouble with parents today is that they want to be a friend to their kids instead of a leader and a role model.  Similarly, an animal who outweighs you by 1100 lbs or so can easily lean towards taking advantage of popemobilethat little disparity if you prove to have the constitution of last week’s Yorkshire pudding.  I do not confuse horse ownership with parenting, and I hate the “fur kids” mindset, but the Boss Mare job description is accurate.  It means that you don’t let your horse use you as his personal scratching post, you don’t let him run all over you because he doesn’t like those horrid, restricting cross-ties, and you don’t let him abuse your farrier or your vet, either.  By all means, spoil your beastie within reason (I do not subscribe, for example, to the notion that hand-feeding treats is an appalling breach of discipline — horses are enormously food-motivated and I, for one, am not going to give up that powerful a training tool), but set firm boundaries on safe behaviour and be consistent about those rules.  As my own critters hear repeatedly, well-mannered horses live long and happy lives.  Nasty, dangerous ones, not so much.

6.  End each ride on a positive note.  Some days, that might mean you settle for a half-way obedient halt.  It’s good to have a plan for every ride — otherwise many people tend to just putter aimlessly around the arena for 15 minutes and then give up when ennui sets in — but when you’re dealing with horses, you can’t be rigid about said plan.  Maybe you began your ride hoping to work on your canter transitions, but your tom_corbett_space_cadet_comic_bookhorse is being such a space cadet that you realize you’re going to be lucky just to keep the shiny side up.  So throttle back, adjust your expectations, accept what your horse is able to offer mentally and physically on that day, and finish up with something you know he can do well, no matter how basic that might be.  Horses are short on rational thought, but aches and pains, opinions, and emotions, they have in abundance, and any of those plus whatever’s going on in the environment can influence your ride.  It’s okay.  Tomorrow is another day.

5.  There are no short-cuts.  It takes work to produce a horse properly, regardless of discipline.  Skimp on the basics and it will come back to bite you in the ass somewhere down the line.  Try not to get ahead of yourself and expect things from your horse that he has neither the strength nor the understanding to offer you yet.  Stop bitching and get your tender tush out the door every single day and do the work.  It’s amazing how horses respond to consistency.

4.  There’s more than one way to skin a cat.  It’s true that the basic principles of riding are the basic principles of riding because, by and large, they work.  They’ve done so for hundreds of years.  But horses are individuals, and not every critter responds to the old Training Pyramid exactly according to the equitation manuals of old.  Avoid the cliched definition of insanity, and be pyramid2prepared to change it up if something’s not working.  Horse just isn’t getting it when you ask for leg-yield down the long side of the arena?  Try asking on a circle instead.  Be flexible enough to approach some problems by the back door. If it’s true that the brilliant horses are always a little quirky, then why do we expect them all to be conformists?  You just have to keep your eyes on the prize (in other words, the end result has to be somewhere in the vicinity of correct).

3.  Don’t be your horse’s biggest handicap.  Be fit enough to do the work.  Gawd knows I’m nobody’s poster child for fitness, but I make an effort, on the theory that you really can’t ask your horse to give his athletic best if you are his biggest impediment.  See #5, No Short-Cuts.  If you can’t sit a trot, if your energy level fizzles before you ride that good downward transition, if your hands aren’t steady enough to allow your horse to trust that he’s not going to get whacked in the molars — in short, if you don’t spend enough time in the saddle to be solid and confident and have a truly independent seat, you really can’t expect Trigger to pick up the slack.  And the reality is, riding one horse once a day doesn’t cut it for most people.  Either find more horses to ride, or do some cross-training no stirrupsof your choice, both cardio and strength work.  (Oh, and it’s “No Stirrups November” — remember all that stuff you used to do in Pony Club, and don’t make yourself do anymore?)

2.  The cure for everything is forward.  I subscribe to this to the point where it’s on my business cards (the riding instructor ones, not the editing/writing ones).  When in doubt, close your leg and kick on!  If your horse is truly, truly working from your leg into your hand then his options for being naughty are minimized and productive things will likely start to happen.

1.  The horse comes first.  I was taught this from an early age:  feed your horse before you feed yourself, ensure his well-being before your own.  It’s not enough to be a competent rider.  You need to be a knowledgeable horseperson too.  Understand that your horse’s welfare thelwell icecreamtrumps all other considerations — like, say, ribbons, convenience, expense, and having a life.  If you didn’t sign up for that, I hear ATVs are sorta fun.

Well.  That really wasn’t any more succinct than the original post.  Thanks for the inspiration anyway, Nancy.  

 

 

You’re Doing It Wrong

Just for a change … a little rant.

The writing biz has sucked sufficiently lately that I have had to return to giving riding lessons in order to pay my internet bill.  That’s not really what the rant’s about.  I enjoy coaching for the most part, though it’s making it virtually impossible to keep office hours anymore.

The substance of the rant is that, like parenthood, horse ownership ought to have an entrance exam.  With a 75% flunk rate.

People get into horses for all kinds of reasons.  I get that.  I was a horse-crazy kid once myself.  Read all the Black Stallion novels, fantasized about taming a wild Chincoteague pony, imagined I’d be a Triple Crown-winning jockey.  Every cliche in the book.

Thing is, though.  Because my parents weren’t quite as susceptible to my Misty_of_Chincoteague_coverpre-pubescent persuasive powers as I might have preferred, I did what I could.  I read.  Voraciously.  I absorbed everything I could about the science of riding, the art of horsemanship, the nuts and bolts of stable management and health care.  My opportunities to actually ride were fairly limited, but I did everything I could to prepare myself for the day that I could change that.  Including buying halters and leadshanks and brushes and bell boots and every little semi-affordable do-dad I could collect for my future Phar Lap.  I begged for lessons whenever I could get them, and for years I pedaled my bike over a 3 km route at 6 a.m., delivering the Globe And Mail for tuppence a week, so I could put the money towards summer camp — my only opportunity for concentrated horse exposure every summer.

I get that not everyone makes the perfect choice for their first horse, too.  When I fnally became a horse-owner, at age 16, I was not picky.  That Pokey had four hooves and a pulse was more than enough for me.  Size?  Conformation?  Age?  Training?  Soundness?  Suitability?  Mere quibbles.  He was in my price range.

Fortunately, though he was far less broke than the schoolies which pretty much summed up my prior experience, Pokey proved to have a heart of gold, and we managed to progress together in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kinda way.  If you asked me today, I’d tell you green horse + green rider = trainwreck … but if you get lucky, sometimes it’s just a single car sliding gently into a ditch (no harm, no foul, call CAA and it’s all better) rather than a scene of mass destruction.  I got lucky.  Dear youre-doing-it-wrong_o_1092729little Poke taught me an enormous number of valuable lessons about horsemanship, and prepared me well for the many, many beasties I would ride later.  In that regard, he did the opposite of what my parents were hoping he’d do, which was dissuade me.

But.

I fail to fathom what it is that possesses some people to get into horses.  It’s like they just wake up one morning and go, “Hey, how about I go play with some plutonium?  Cuz that suddenly seems like a great idea.”

Because, you see, they’ve been having fantasies about just how beautiful and majestic and noble and cuddly plutonium is, since they were in utero, and now that they’re grown-ups they can have some plutonium for their very, very own and no-one can tell them not to.

OMFG.

So without consulting anything resembling, say, a nuclear scientist, or even a Wiki entry, off they go, money merrily burning a hole in their pockets, big red sign on their foreheads saying, “I’m a fucking idiot; please take advantage of me and get me killed,” … and believe you me, there are plutonium merchants out there who see these people coming a nuclear mile away and are more than delighted to oblige.

Think I’m exaggerating with the plutonium analogy?  I bet the horsepeople reading this don’t.  Horses weigh an average of 500 kg.  They are a prey species, and they’re stupid.  (I say that with love.)

This is not like picking out a gerbil at the pet store, folks.  And if you select the wrong one … well, this variety of plutonium has a long, long half-life.

The hook-up:  not always a success.

So … common sense might suggest that before you take the plunge on horse ownership, that you might, um, consult an expert.  Get some lessons.  Figure out what sort of animal might suit your needs, be within your capacity to handle, makes you happy.  Get a clue about some basic safety rules when dealing with a half-tonne juggernaut which tends to freak out first and think later (if at all).  Apply yourself to learning a bit about what you’re getting into.

Or, you know, you could just go out there and drag home the first homicidal quadruped you stumble across with a price tag on its halter.  Cuz how bad could it be, really?

I know a guy for whom owning a horse — multiple horses, now — is all about the bragging rights.  He sold a cottage and bought himself a horse farm, because basically, he could get all those acres for that price?  Not because he had the first fucking clue what to do with a horse farm.  Except, of course, buy some pretty horses to put on it, even though he had no idea what horses required and no intention of ever finding out, and he was only there on the weekends anyway and wanted to entertain his Rosedale buddies when he was.  He manufactured for himself the excuse that his kids were interested in riding — which of course, they are totally not.

Now he can go to the office and off-handedly toss off his vast sum of knowledge of gaited breeds and what the farrier is costing him — getting all the details laughably wrong, of course (here’s a hint:  there is no such thing as “fourteen five hands high”) — and he’s just smugger than shit about being a Horse Owner.

Then there’s the “rescue” scenario.  As in, I am going to rescue an abused, abandoned critter from a lifetime of neglect and restore its broken spirit (you know you’re in trouble the second you hear one of these well-intentioned whackjobs use the word “spirit”) by pouring oceans of unconditional love and treats at it.

So much virtue it makes your teeth hurt, right?

Given the current state of the economy, it’s only getting worse. People are giving horses away right, left, and centre.  It pushes all the right buttons.  Not only are you getting a bargain, but you’re doing a Good Deed.

I may set a new record here for the number of times I use “OMFG” in a single post.

Here’s the thing. Good intentions are sooooo not enough. If your facilities are unsuitable for the animal, if you don’t have the knowledge to care for the animal (and refuse to leave its care in the hands of paid professionals who do know how), if you’re not going to train the animal to be pleasant to be around, you are doing it no favours.  None.

And you’re gonna get yourself hurt.

I say it frequently to my own horses when they’re being asshats, and I preach it to my students all the time:  a well-mannered horse is a horse with good odds of having a long and contented life.

It’s simple economics.  Horses are expensive to keep.  Those who are a joy to be around, generally continue to be fed, handled, and appreciated.  Rude, ill-mannered, fearful, aggressive, or just plain ignorant and untrained horses are not so pleasant to be around.  And once they hurt someone (because see above: 500 kg, prey, stupid), they have started themselves down the road to the slaughter pipeline.  I’m not going to get into a debate in this post as to whether that’s good or bad, btw — that’s a subject for another day.  All I’m saying is, some of the horses who end up in the pen at the Ontario Livestock Exchange (our local “kill auction”, aka OLEX), are there for a reason.

And of course that’s also where the well-intentioned whackjobs tend to pick them up … having absolutely no idea that they have bitten off far, far more than they can chew.

It puzzles me that even people who readily agree that well-trained dogs are better than untrained ones … and who find sharing a supermarket aisle with a squalling, tantrum-throwing brat an appalling affront … never seem to make the correlation with the horse grammar doingitwrongwho just took a chunk out of an arm and then dragged them out of the washrack and across a gravel parking lot on the end of a nylon leadshank.

At the boarding stable where I kept Pokey, once upon a time, we used to call this No Star No Syndrome … after a fellow boarder who was regularly victimized by her nasty, aggressive mare and whose defense seemed to be tugging feebly at said leadshank and pleading, “No, Star, no!”

I am not saying that horses who’ve been abused, neglected, or otherwise screwed up can’t be rehabbed.  Absolutely they can.  I do it all the time.  So do lots of other people.

Knowledgeable, experienced people.

People who know how to gain a horse’s trust while setting up firm boundaries.  People who know how not to get hurt in the process (not that that is ever guaranteed … but at least when you understand how a horse thinks, what its body language means, what sort of discipline/correction makes sense to a horse, and how to establish yourself as the sympathetic but strict Alpha Mare, you have a fighting chance of coming out unscathed).

What never ceases to amaze me is the capacity of people who’ve been involved with horses for three minutes, to judge the actions of those who’ve been working successfully with them for decades.

Newsflash to the newbies:  there is absolutely nothing new or revolutionary coming out of the mouths of those bullshit-artist ’round pen guys’ you’ve all adopted as gurus.  There’s nothing genius about the idea of training a horse without cruelty.  It’s been done for thousands of years, with patience, good judgement, and a thorough understanding of how horses work (and how they don’t work).  Horses, being herd animals, understand cooperation, and they like to follow the mare in charge.  You start by being that mare.

This does not make you a monster.brenda starr

So when You the Newbie find yourself about to apply a snap judgement based on sweet fuck-all (one of the latest ones I encountered was, “Bits are cruel.  I don’t want to use bits on my horses,” and when I asked on what she’d based that opinion, she replied, “Well, they’re metal and I don’t think they like them,” …), take a moment,  remind yourself that there’s a lot of crap on the internet … then shut your mouth, open your ears, and try to learn from the Alpha Mare.

Haven’t got one?  Get one.  You ain’t it.

(I’m also not saying there aren’t bad professionals out there, people with short tempers and harsh methods.  There are some, no question.  But part of the education process is finding out what is appropriate, and what’s not.)

Don’t:

* assume there’s nothing to it

* think that kisses on the muzzle and handfuls of gummy worms are enough to make your horse’s trust and training issues magically resolve

* try to train a horse without the proper facilities, restraint (a set of cross-ties, people!  Is that so much to ask?), and equipment (and yeah, that might include the ultimate torture instrument, a bit!) because you’ve already dismissed all of those things as harsh, inhumane, and/or unnecessary

* refuse to admit when you’re in way over your head

* resign yourself to living with a horse who is incapable of cooperating for the most routine of procedures, such as having hooves trimmed or getting vaccinated

* further burden the health-care system with the gratuitous and inevitable results of your stubbornness.

This is not a cash grab.  Truth be told, I don’t really want (all that badly) to work with your ill-mannered, misbegotten critter.  I’m getting too old for that shit.  Given my druthers, I’d prefer to spend my days working with my own reasonably well-trained, self-confident, trustworthy, though admittedly quirky horses, than with your piece of work.  But I do take considerable satisfaction in turning bad horses around and making them good ones, and even more in saving clueless newbies from themselves.  (Ideally, of course, by not letting them buy that piece of work in the first place and finding them something actually suited to them.)

The trick is you have to be willing to listen.

(Could shit like the below be part of the problem, btw?)

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