By Martine Greenlee
I was super-excited when I saw that Horse Junkies United was looking for new contributors. Then my usual self-doubts set in.
I’m guessing here, but I reckon that the average HJU reader is probably half my age, if not younger. More to the point, the HJU site seems to be a very much oriented towards traditional competitive English riding – dressage, jumping, showing, eventing…
Would a 50+ happy hacker who has started dabbling in Natural Horsemanship appeal to them?
Who dares wins… I sent off an email and was surprised and delighted when I got one straight back, inviting me to send an introductory post.
So where do I start? With a ponyless ten year old girl playing on her bedroom floor with her toy horses and stables? With that same ten year old writing a book? (No, it never got published, but she still has it. She still loves to write, though, and she has the blogs to prove it!). Or we could fast forward a bit… how about a sixteen year old girl playing on her bedroom floor with her toy horses and stables? Drawing horses nonstop? (She wasn’t bad at that, actually, and keeps trying to get back into sketching – and failing.)
Fast forward some more: a twenty year old home from college playing with her… ehhh, no! She was just tidying them up, I swear.
Finally, at the age of 25, the dream became a reality and I became a horse owner. Soon after, I trained to become a British Horse Society Instructor and I spent the next twenty years running a livery stables and being very involved with the horse scene in Cork. I hunted, hunter-trialed, show-jumped with my riding club and competed in low-level dressage. I bred and broke a few ponies and horses. I bought and sold, with big losses and small profits – I wasn’t cut out to be a dealer, it seems.
Everything I did was very much done the ‘traditional’ or BHS way. Horses were clipped and rugged in winter, shod every six – eight weeks, stabled most of the time with a few hours turnout every day. Lunging was done à la BHS, with a perfect triangle formed by the lunge rope, the whip and the horse’s body and commands barked : “Walk-On! Aaaand Terrrrott! And CANterrrr!” I did come across Natural Horsemanship – although that term was yet to be invented – when a well-known American cowboy came to town in the early 1990s. There was massive skepticism about his methods amongst the Cork horsey set, myself included. I experimented a bit and came to the conclusion that it was all very well for cowboys, but it wasn’t relevant to how I kept or used my own horses and I stuck to my very conventional methods.
My kids started to compete and I sidelined my own riding career to become the dreaded Pony Mum. That was a fun few years, but suddenly it was all over and I picked up the reins again. This time, the reins were attached to a sturdy dun cob called Flurry. He’d been hunted and pony-clubbed but had little formal training. I liked dressage a lot at this stage (my daughters had been quite good at it) so Flurry and I competed in dressage. At a very basic level, I hasten to add.
Fast forward again, two years this time. I’m in France, doing a 500 kilometer trek for charity with my best friend and our horses. And I’m falling deeply in love with a foreign country. Thankfully, my husband is, too…
Fast forward another twelve months and I’m back in France, hopefully for good, this time with two horses. Flurry had been joined by my daughter’s homebred ex-competition horse, Aero. Aero is an amazing horse – far too good for a creaky old lady like myself. We could have sold him numerous times over the years, but we never did. I think this point underlines how ill-equipped I was to be a horse dealer!
Chance, fate, karma – call it what you will, but I ended up finding livery for my horses on a farm, on top of a hill, in the foothills of the Alps. A place where my horses could live a natural, outdoor life style which suited their barefoot status – they had been barefoot for about a year (why barefoot? That’s a whole other story.). It’s also a place where Natural Horsemanship, or Equitation Ethologique in French, is the order of the day. Loads of people ride their horses in rope halters and there seemed to be a lot of in-hand stuff going on, which involved the feeding of carrots and the waving around of an orange coloured stick with a long cord on the end. I viewed it all with a suspicious curiosity. ’Twas all very well, but my horses didn’t need that kind of thing, thank you very much. They were just grand the way they were.
Another year zips by and my curiosity about this Natural Horsemanship lark is now outweighing my suspicion. I regularly saw some of Alexandrine’s younger students in action with their ponies. They rode in rope halters all the time – how weird! How could you steer? Where were the brakes? Yet I saw them jumping a course of fences with nothing but a halter on their ponies’ heads. And the in-hand stuff looked like a lot of fun – ponies and kids alike seemed to enjoy it. I learned that the French have invented a form of competition for testing Natural Horsemanship skills – it’s called Equifeel. I watched Alexandrine and co. practicing for competition. It just seemed to involve having complete control of the horse from the ground. Simple, I thought, as Flurry hauled me towards a tasty clump of grass. I mean really, my horses were perfect, I mused, as Aero stepped away from the mounting block yet again.
Towards the end of my first year, I felt my French had improved enough to ask Alexandrine for lessons. Just to try her out, you know. I needed a little brushing up on my flatwork with Flurry, as we had both settled into a cozy, lazy rut, and I needed guidance with Aero. I just never felt ‘right’ with him. It’s hard to explain, but I didn’t feel comfortable and balanced on him and we didn’t have a connection or understanding of each other, unlike me & Flurry.
After a couple of lessons on the flat, I let my curiosity get the better of me and I asked her to start teaching me Equitation Ethologique. With Aero at first, thinking it might help to improve our relationship.
And it was strange and difficult, unlearning things I’d done all my life. Learning new things, like when to stop asking and when to keep insisting. Learning to escalate a request and teaching the horse what the escalation steps are. Learning to always be aware of my posture. Learning how to handle that damned orange stick and its stupid long cord, for goodness sake! Some of the things I learned merely underpinned what I had known for years in theory, but had been weak in practicing. Learning how important it is to ‘let go’ when the horse has done the right thing, for example. Or learning to recognize and acknowledge an attempt.
It was equally strange for Aero, who had to unlearn fourteen years of being handled from the left hand side and lunged à la BHS. Flurry cottoned on quicker, not because he’s smarter (he’s not) but because he’s younger and more tuned into me. Last summer, he was by far the better of my two horses, and we qualified for the Equifeel National Championships. We didn’t do very well, but HEY we were there!
Over the last five months, though, Aero and I have made a breakthrough. There are still holes in our work, but he works well at liberty 90% of the time.
My goal this year is the Equifeel National Championships with him. But it’s a flexible goal. To me, the destination is less important than the journey. Working with Aero is a joy. I love finding out what he can learn and what he can understand. Some of what we do can only be described as tricks and is not part of Equifeel – but that’s ok. In this country, if you want to dance with your horse, well – you dance with your horse. In Ireland, the neighbours would have thought I’d finally cracked if they had looked into my arena and seen me doing half the stuff I do with my horses today. There would have been raised eyebrows and plenty of comments like “That one? She’s away with the fairies! Dancing with her horse! Mad altogether!”
Right now I’m wondering, will I manage to improve Aero’s bow? Will I ever get him to go through a slalom while I’m twenty feet away from him? Or to jump a narrow jump at liberty, every time? Will I succeed in teaching him to lie down? To understand more subtle signals to turn, or side pass or back up? To do at least some of the above while I’m mounted on Flurry?
But I’ve got an Equifeel competition next weekend so I have to work on our Equifeel skills. Jump at liberty and return to me afterwards. Lower his head so I can put on his head collar while kneeling. Stay like a dog and then come when called. Side pass. Turn on the haunches or on the forehand. Reverse over poles on the ground and return to me when I call him.
In my next post here on Horse Junkies United, I hope to go through the tasks we had to do for our next competition and how it all went.
P.S. I do still ride, on the trail and in dressage competitions! While I ride with a bit most of the time, I find that riding in the rope halter makes me less reliant on my hands for steering and makes me more aware of using my leg and weight aids. A good reason to be called a horse hippy, methinks!