Like many, I have been fascinated by animals, particularly horses, for as long as I can remember. However, as my involvement with horses grew, I began to feel unhappy with what I saw and experienced in the modern horse world, often seeing many (not all) horses trained and handled with too much coercion, pressure and fear. I was disenchanted by the focus on competition, sometimes at the expense of a horse’s welfare. Feeling that horses were not on this planet to solely do our bidding I was determined to experience other ways of being together with, and ‘working’ with horses.
In the summer of 2005, shortly after finishing my degree in Humanities, I left for the divine and majestic New Zealand where I spent 2 years living quite a nomadic lifestyle with horses. It was here where I discovered a very free and authentic way to live and work with these beautiful and intelligent creatures. Riding with the herd across the Manawatu Gorge River was a daily occurrence and a privilege to be part of. This special herd showed me it was possible to communicate over vast spaces without relying on equipment. Very often we would set off on long rides up in to the hills, camping over night in unfenced areas. The horses never left us. It was here I realised how emotionally connected horses are and the importance of being able to work together in nature as a family. They had enormous power as a group, which was clarified in their herd structure and how prominent this was in their day to day living. Powered by the complete fascination of the horse. I spent the next 9 years travelling the world, meeting and working with some incredible horsemen and women, not to mention horses.
In 2008 I took an opportunity to live, work and be a student at ‘Cardinal Ranch’, a working horse ranch in the spectacular Rocky Mountains of Canada. It was here that I learnt to train horses using the principles of Natural Horsemanship. This involved applying horse psychology and herd dynamics to communicate and encourage a greater understanding between rider and horse. I learnt to think like a horse. Thanks to the great training from 5* Parelli professional Don Halladay, Jack Brainard (Cowboy dressage), Less Timmons (cutting world champion), the wonderful Cardinals themselves and many more great clinicians that frequented the ranch, I really got to live out my dream of being a cowgirl and deepen my knowledge of horses on many levels.
My studies at the ranch taught me to communicate with horses on such a level that I could ride a horse with little or no tack (which was one of my dreams). Feeling in complete unity and harmony with your horse, both sharing the same idea and both ready to be there for each other is such an incredible feeling. It is a balanced dialogue based on understanding and trust. Riding without tack in complete freedom, in the moment, grew only from an honest relationship, where proper ground work and calm communication were in place. It is the premise for any further development. and the foundation to every horse’s training. It was at Cardinal Ranch that I learnt more about dressage (the art of riding) than I did back in the UK trotting in 20 meter circles.
A large focus of the ranch’s work was starting young horses and putting them through a series of training stages, making them ready for the human world mentally, emotionally and physically. Being part of the horse development team at Cardinal Ranch, I was able to work with a variety of horses on a daily basis of different ages, from different backgrounds and with different spirits. It was essential to develop solid foundations on these horses and to have a true partner who was willing and able to understand the many tasks a big ranch demands of you. It could be anything from multi-day cattle drives in 13,000 acre valleys, which were full of all sorts of challenging terrain, to roping and branding calves on horseback. Or a spot of Cowboy dressage!
After nearly 3 years working at Cardinal Ranch I decided I wanted to share and develop my skills so that I could teach others. I travelled with my horse Satori, to the United States, to take part in a series of courses and training. A journey that took us through 5 states of Canada and the U.S, covering 2,500 miles we eventually arrived in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I completed my instructor qualifications and became a Parelli professional in 2012. I am very grateful for the ideas and dedication of Pat and Linda Parelli. However, I still felt I had only scratched the surface of ‘good’ horsemanship and what horses were still trying to tell me.
As my fascination with the horse continued to grow , in the spring of 2013, I attended a series of clinics with Ingela Larson Smith, with my wonderful horse Ari. Her idea of ‘True Connection’ gave me a whole new perspective on the concept of horsemanship., showing how it was necessary to have a mental connection. I understood that to have control and clarity over your own thoughts enabled the horse to connect to this particular idea and the energy and intention behind it. Ingela drew attention to how a lead horse communicates in the herd, using lead phases, space and energy. It was at this point that I realised a lot of what we were doing with horses actually relied on how connected and aware we were of ourselves. It wasn’t so much about the pattern we taught our horse but rather the congruency of our connection. What are we actually saying to our horse? We can all see the difference between a fake smile and a genuine smile, and we can feel the difference between a real hug and an unreal hug. We know the answer and so does the horse. ‘Leadership’ a term used a lot in the horse world, isn’t about dominating and training a horse but whether your horse chooses to hear you. The answer is not how loud you can shout but how inspiring you are to your horse.
The following year, I spent time with Noora Ehnqvist, from Finland, a student of Klaus Hempfling. She spoke about protecting the horses soul and dignity, which required unselfish and genuine dialogue from the rider. Nora highlighted the need for authenticity and openness in our relationship with horses and the importance of being balanced and aware of our own body and mind. I realised that horses willingly engage with us if we stay fully present, aware and authentic. They can be our mirror and only reflect the truth. If we are open and honest to ourselves then our horse will be willing to join our conversation. “It’s not I that seeks the horse but the horse seeks me” (Klaus Hempfling.) This idea resonated with me and became a big aspect of my teaching and personal development. When I am with my horse Ari our dialogue is balanced. I listen to him as much as he listens to me., Allowing a freer interaction enables me to receive a connection from Ari rather than demanding one, Horsemanship was becoming much more than training and obedience of the horse. It now required more self reflection and awareness of my own alignment.
Throughout my years abroad my interest in Classical and Haute Ecole riding was growing . I was always impressed by the lightness and ease of these horses and their riders . I have spent much time in southern Spain, visiting the Spanish Riding School in Jerez and being involved in the famous Feria of Seville (the biggest horse festival in the country). Being so inspired by this culture and art of riding I began to seek teachers with this, almost lost, knowledge. With the help of Tanja Scherrer-Barbirotta , a student of Bent Banderup (who founded The Academic Art of Riding) my knowledge of classical riding grew and my desire to ride a horse in such a beautiful way increased.
In 2014 I became a student of Arran Parker, from ‘Student of the Horse’. For me, Arran demonstrates the true art of dressage and the freedom it can give both horse and rider. Encouraging healthy biomechanics, balance, and alignment in the horse, making it possible for authentic self carriage. I was starting to understand what true collection really was and how possible it was in absolute freedom. In traditional Classical riding, ‘dressage’ is seen as something for the horse rather than the horse being for dressage. To use the ideas and methods of the classical thinkers it is important that we understand why we are doing what we are doing with our horse and the essence behind our training. Why do we use a shoulder-in and why do we demonstrate a traver or half pass? How does it help the horse?
More recently, I spent some time at the Hacienda Buena Suerte in the Cadiz region of Spain where I took part in a series of training sessions in traditional Spanish Doma Vaquero riding. This art of riding is truly inspirational. Largely based on the principles of classical riding but with the speed, agility and great precision that is required in working with bulls. You have no option but to have fine communication with your horse, in addition to a good relationship. I was shown the subtle weight aids they use to communicate to the horse, relying on little or no tack. Although the tack is there as a secondary aid, the aim was to solely use your body and weight; the horse moving underneath you like a centaur. Doma Vaquero riding is a good example of purposeful riding with a highly schooled horse, and a great art form to admire. I look forward to incorporating this into my own riding and teaching.
And so my path continues……..