Thursday, 21 March 2013

About Me Chapter 2

The summer before I turned twenty-one the family I worked for started talking about selling General. I couldn't contemplate staying there without him so I decided to use it as my cue to move on. It was easier in the summer than it would have been in the winter as General was turned away so I wasn't spending much time with him.

A lovely family had fallen in love with Rocky and had been asking to buy him for some time. That gave me the money for a little breathing space so I moved Ben to a big livery yard nearer to home while I decided what to do next. There were over forty horses and ponies there and I loved having so many people around after working mostly on my own for the last few years. There was also that undreamt of luxury - an indoor school, which I made full use of, along with the wonderful forest trails.

After a few weeks the girl who had been running the yard decided to give up horses and get a proper job and I was offered the post. I snapped it up, moved into the on-site mobile home and worked ridiculous hours, often from 5 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night. I loved every moment and no-one could get me to take so much as one day off!

I was offered the ride on a 15.3 bright bay seven year old gelding called Robert. He had been having some fun with his previous rider and it had got to the point where he refused to even leave the yard. I put him in long reins and drove him in and out, and up and down the road for a bit, and then rode him out looking for things to test out our new found forwardness. He was a pussycat really and very quickly decided his previous game was a waste of energy and from then on nothing phased him at all.

I soon discovered that he loved to jump and he soon became the most willing horse on the planet! We started small and worked our way up to 3'9" opens but they were a bit too big for me, as I don't have a reliable enough eye for a stride, so we settled on courses of up to about 3'3". The only problem I had to to begin with was getting Robert into a lorry but, when all else failed, I decided to try riding him in and it worked like a charm. He enjoyed the shows so much that he soon became eager to load, trotting enthusiastically up the ramp, and it was never again a problem. Robert was a very sociable horse and loved shows and being in a crowd.

         Robert and I jumping at home - that looks HUGE to me now!!!

 A couple of years later I was offered Jonesy on permanent loan. I'd looked after him at the hunter yard for a while and had always liked him so I jumped at the chance. He quickly became Ben's best friend and I took my two horse team to shows together. We always had at least one full lorry going to shows from the yard, and sometimes two, and it was really good fun. I'd certainly achieved the ambition of my teenage years!

I met my late partner just before the owners of the livery yard decided to apply for planning permission to convert all the stables into houses. He offered me the chance to start my own livery yard here and it was perfect timing. I came to have a look at the place and basically never went home! Ben and Jonesy had pride of place and a new chapter began.

When Ben and Jonesy started to get old I acquired two more ponies, a beautiful 14.2 palomino mare called Kelly and a little 13.3 bright bay mare called Rosie. I really bought Rosie to break in and sell on but couldn't bear to part with her. We put her in foal when she was 4 and bred Russell, who is still here today, now well into his twenties.

Kelly was the perfect show pony but she preferred to keep her feet on the ground so I mostly stuck to showing and unaffiliated dressage with her. Rosie loved to jump but didn't have a lot of scope so we just had fun around small courses.

Russell is a beautiful mover and did very well in unaffiliated dressage competitions but he was a bit too narrow for my liking and we always seemed to have unfortunate things happen which always resulted in my hitting the deck. For example, I was warming him up at a show once and a heavy jump stand blew over just as we were trotting past and hit his hind leg as it fell. He understandably shot sideways, catching me totally by surprise, and I fell off and dislocated my index finger. Little things like that always seemed to happen, even out hacking, and they ate away at our confidence in one another. He was incredibly quick and athletic and, in an effort to try and sit his sudden manoeuvres, I read everything I could find about improving my position and worked really hard at it but the harder I tried the stiffer I became and the more easily I fell off. Eventually neither of us was enjoying it at all any more so I stopped riding him. Luckily he is very sociable and kind with other horses so he's always performed an invaluable job here as a companion to youngstock, Rico being the latest. He took very good care of Bella for years after she arrived here as a yearling and I owe him big time for that alone!

When Kelly and Rosie started getting towards the end of their lives I found Bella, and a year later I was offered her half brother, Jack, at a price I couldn't refuse. Bella and Jack, with their huge personalities, led me to clicker training.

I guess I'm documenting all of this here to show that, pre-clicker, I was muddling along OK with horses, if you leave Russell out of the equation, I enjoyed a challenge and mostly managed to find ways to get horses on my side and co-operating. I turned to clicker training specifically to try to fix two problems - Jack being so lazy to ride and Bella's reluctance to accept the bit properly. I had NO idea of the power of the clicker and how it was going to revolutionise everything I did with horses, and beyond, and open up a whole new world of possibilities.

I found out all of that very quickly and it's allowed me to achieve things I could never have dreamed of before. It really has changed my life, and my horses lives. It's given me so much more empathy with them and really opened my eyes to just how incredibly sensitive and intelligent horses are. It's allowed me to communicate clearly and precisely with my horses and opened up a two way dialogue between us. And, best of all, it's given us SO much fun and sheer, unadulterated joy along the way.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

About Me and Horses, Chapter One.

My first introduction to horses was a pony ride at a fete when I was three years old. I don't remember it but I'm told I was heartbroken when it ended and I was lifted off the pony's back.

At the age of eight I announced that I wanted to learn to ride. My parents knew nothing about horses and my mum told me that I'd have to find a riding school and book some lessons myself, thinking that would put me off. Not only did I do that but I also managed to buy some second hand riding clothes from adverts in the local paper, all by myself! I've always been resourceful.

I continued to have lessons for years without learning very much. When I was about ten I got a bike which I pretended was a horse, and cycled far and wide looking for horses in fields to visit. In the following years I used plan my weekends by looking up in Horse and Hound where the nearest horse show was and, if it was too far to cycle, I'd work out bus routes to get there. I would end up in the nearest town or village with no idea exactly where the show was but I always managed to find it somehow. I loved watching all those horses and riders gathered together and dreamed of the day when I'd be there too.

After finishing my O' levels with good results I realised two things; that I couldn't face two more years of school and that I'd never be any good at my passion, horses, unless I devoted myself to them full time. My parents were horrified (my mum was a school teacher and had planned on my going to university) but I was adamant. I left school that summer and got a full time live in job at a small riding school. I loved the horses, all the riding and being there all the time but there were a few problems at the riding school. The person who ran it and I lived in two caravans, side by side, on site. She had a boyfriend who she had violent arguments with, culminating in him trying to strangle her one weekend. He went missing after phoning for an ambulance, there were police and ambulance men everywhere and I was a bemused not-quite-seventeen year old who had led a sheltered life up to then, right in the middle of it all!

With the help of a lady who worked there part time and the children who helped at weekends we managed to keep the riding school running, lessons included, for the next few days until the owner was released from hospital but, in the meantime, I had to deal on my own with some irate feed suppliers who hadn't been paid and were threatening to cancel deliveries. With about twenty five horses and ponies to feed, some fully stabled, we got through a lot of feed.

The next drama made me decide that working with horses wasn't for me and to try going back to school for A-levels instead. I was at the riding school alone one day when the hay barn, right next to our caravans, caught fire. There was no innocent reason why it should have done - no bonfires, no smokers around - and suspicion fell on the, now ex, boyfriend. I called the fire brigade and dealt calmly with the incident but, strongly encouraged by parents to do so, handed in my notice shortly afterwards.

I went back for the first year of A levels but didn't settle and couldn't think of anything I wanted to do with my life except be with horses so, when I saw a part time job with hunters advertised in the local paper I applied and was offered the job. It was within cycling distance of home and school and I did carry on at school, fitting in looking after the two hunters as well, to begin with. The crunch came a few months later when the family who owned the hunters - General and Joss - told me they were moving. By then I was totally besotted with them ,especially General (16.2 bright bay 6 year old who was as honest and kind as anyone could ever wish for), so I left school for good, bought a motorbike, and commuted to their new home each day.

I had been winging it until then really - looking up how to feed and care for hunters in books because their owners were as clueless as I was. Their new home had been home to a hunt master and his family and horses and there was a bit of an overlap between our horses moving in and their horses moving out. This meant that I got to work with their very experienced  stud groom for a couple of months and he loved having an earnest, keen pupil. He taught me how to clip, plait and turn out horses to a high standard, and how to get them really fit and feed them for peak performance. I loved every moment of working with him and learning so much and I was like a sponge, soaking up all the information I could get. He was a bit tougher with his horses than I would ever want to be (General didn't like him at all and wasn't his usual enthusiastic self when he was around) but I did learn from, and try to copy, his determined, confident attitude around horses.

I stayed with the hunters for a few years and finally acquired my first horse (pony) while I was there. I didn't have much to do in the summer so, when I heard that a little eleven hand black pony who I passed everyday on my motorbike and had always liked the look of, was for sale for £25 I bought him to give local children lessons on. Rocky was so cheap because he was traffic shy but I led him out around the roads from General's back and he soon became bombproof in traffic. He was a lovely pony and the children always thought they could ride because he'd just follow me around so they never had to be led.


I soon had requests to teach older children and the family I worked for were keen for me to find a way to earn enough money to stay on over the summer and offered to buy a cheap bigger pony. I saw one advertised and went to meet a hugely overweight fourteen hand eight year old barrel called Ben. His owners had bought him from a dealer a couple of years before for their daughter but he'd been too strong for her and had frightened her so she'd given up and left him in the field. He was the grand sum of £150, very cheap even then. He was very nervous but had big, kind eyes and I wanted him to be mine so I bought him with my own money.

Ben was scared of everything and a nightmare to catch but he was all mine and big enough for me to ride. I figured he'd had a tough life to end up at a dealer's yard and he just needed a friend. I spent as much time with him as possible and he quickly became steady enough to lead children around on but would run away at the drop of a hat when I was riding him so I dared not let him off the leadrein.

A young friend of one of the daughters of the family I worked for used to help out at weekends and holidays and she took a shine to Ben. She was a competent rider and wasn't put off by his lack of brakes and she riding him out with me and the hunters. A few months later there was a show locally and she begged to take him. We hacked there together and she tried to get him around the clear round jumping but, although he'd jump anything in front of him, he was too strong to steer. She has a go at some gymkhana games with similar results then asked to take him in the Chase Me Charlie. For anyone who doesn't know this is a knockout competition with one fence which starts as a  pole on the ground and gets higher and higher until only one pony clears it. The ponies queue up one behind the other to jump it.

The young girl who was riding Ben had never jumped more than about two feet nine inches in her life. Ben just kept on jumping until it was just him and one good showjumping pony, who we knew, left in. The fence was measured at four feet and the serious showjumper went first and refused. Ben grabbed the bit, took off with his by now petrified jockey and cleared it with inches to spare! His rider promptly fell off as he landed and had to be treated by St John's Ambulance for a sprained wrist but was smiling through her tears - they'd won! He was admired and congratulated by everyone, including the showjumper's parents, and we were all stunned and in shock! Ben had arrived at the show as an unreliable pony with no brakes and no steering and he went home a hero and the yard superstar!

From that day on Ben never looked back. He basked in our admiration and became the most trustworthy, sensible, kind, friendly and honest pony anyone could ever wish for. I had him until he had to be put down due to the ravages of Cushing's Disease at the age of twenty eight and I did everything with him from dressage to showing, gymkhanas to cross country, and he always came home loaded with rosettes.He was highly placed in a Pony Suitable for Riding for the Disabled competition, missing the winning rosette only because he still took a bit of a hold going into a jump.  I used to do a show in Family Pony competitions where I removed his bridle and did the individual show, jumps and rein back included, with just a neck strap.

We qualified for the South of England Family Pony Championships where he was seventh with his own fan club of spectators who took an instant shine to him (the jumps were quite big, which didn't worry Ben but did worry most of the other chunkier ponies, and a lot people said he was the only true family pony in the final line up). Everyone, from judges and spectators to vets and farriers, loved him and he radiated happiness. He was the most gentle, kind, friendly, affectionate pony I've ever known and he was the reason for everything I did, from getting up in the morning onwards.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Why Riding a Horse in Self Carriage Matters So Much to Me.

Years ago I had a pony called Jonesy who I loved riding above all other horses I have ever had the pleasure of sitting on. Jonesy was a very confident, bossy character who thought he ruled the world, never spooked at anything and looked and carried himself like a stallion. I could ride him out with my reins in loops and he always carried me everywhere in proud self carriage. Everyone recognised and admired him and I always felt like a 'professional rider' when I was on his back, even though none of it was my doing!

Jonesy had never been taught to carry himself this way - he was a pony who lived to jump and hated being schooled on the flat, and as for dressage, don't even mention it!!!! - he just did it naturally. Riding him was pure, effortless joy and I could never get enough of it. He led a long, very sound life and died at the age of 30 and I've missed him ever since.
                                 Jonesy doing what he loved best

Since then I've tried to school my horses to carry themselves in good balance but it's always been hard work and never felt free and joyful like it did with Jonesy. I always felt that I had too much weight in my hands and, although dressage trainers have told me this is correct, it didn't feel good or desirable to me and the horse always seemed keen to revert to slouching along whenever possible so I didn't think it could feel good to them either. I didn't want to work through loads of resistance - I wanted harmony and co-operation not a battle of wills. I wanted us both to feel good about working together.

Clicker training and Alexandra Kurland's 'Riding with the Clicker' exercises have changed all of that. Riding Bella is now very much like riding Jonesy. She doesn't have his boundless energy but she loves to carry herself proudly and even when I'm leading her out to the field she will draw herself up through her withers at the slightest glance in her direction from me. She loves to impress and, judging by her expression which I can only describe as 'smug', it obviously feels great to her too!

That's what I love best about Alexandra Kurland's methods; she has given me a way to train my horses to carry themselves (and me)  in effortless self carriage on a loose rein and to do so voluntarily and with great pride and satisfaction. I never thought I'd be lucky enough to have another Jonesy but riding Bella is just as joyful with the added benefit of her loving flat work so much that we can work on the higher level movements together.

Hopefully Bella learning to carry herself in good balance like this will keep her sound and well long into her 30s - that would give us at least another 20 years of joyful "feels like heaven" riding together!

I'm presently studying Alexandra Kurland's 'Hip Shoulder Shoulder' DVD and there is loads of stuff on there for me to work with and play with but that's for the next post!

Thursday, 14 March 2013


The horses featured in this blog are:

First and foremost, my lovely Bella (Daloumie Arabella) a registered Dales Pony who will be 11 years old this year and I've had her since she was just turning a year old. I found out about clicker training when she was 5 and it has revolutionised everything about our lives together, but that's all been written about in previous blogs. Suffice to say that Bella did not like being told what to do and did as little as possible (although that was more than Jack, who would hardly break out of a very slow walk if he could help it). Clicker training has turned that around to the extent that she loves working so much I'm always ready to stop before she is, and she gives everything we do together her total attention and maximum effort.

Then there is Jack (Daloumie Crackerjack), Bella's more than half brother (same stallion, closely related mares). He's a year older than Bella and I've had him since he was an unbacked 3 year old. He would be as much of a superstar as Bella if he hadn't been born with only partial sight in one eye. He has come a long way from the youngster who used to go into full blown panic mode on windy days, even when turned out in the field, but I've long ago accepted the fact that he'll always lack confidence in strange places and unfamiliar surroundings so we just play together at home these days; that way we both stay safe, happy and relaxed in each other's company. Jack is the lateral work ace and he's very supple and athletic for a heavily built horse.

Waterside Grace is my other Dales and she is 14 years old this year and a darling. She's never a moment's trouble and totally safe and reliable. She was a bit nervous of traffic and a few other things when I first got her 5 years ago but clicker training has restored her self confidence. Grace is worth her weight in gold to escort riders with young or nervous horses out on hacks.

The other main equine character in this blog will be Rico (Escaro Novillero) who is an Andalusian colt and he will be 2 years old this year. I bought him as a weaned foal. He is very friendly and bold. I haven't done much clicker training with him yet - so far we've only done targeting, manners training and foot handling - but he's very familiar with the click and what it means. At the moment we have no fear issues to work through as I've yet to discover anything he's scared of! Occasionally things make him jump but he's always keen to investigate everything no matter how strange. His dad is a performing circus horse so I guess it's not surprising really!

There are photos of all of the above at the bottom of this page.

My other horses are Dougal, a young mini Shetland and Merlin, a Fell Pony, who were both rescues, and Russell and Guinness who are both elderly and retired. Russell and Guinness are Rico's mentors and keep him from getting too big for his boots but in a tolerant, kindly way. Guinness also plays endless games with him and keeps him exercised. I'm hoping to keep Rico entire but if he gets too much for Russell and Guinness I will have him gelded as I want him to have a normal social life with equine friends and companions.

I use clicker training and Alexandra Kurland's 'Riding with the Clicker' combined with various other influences (Marijke de Jong's Straightness Training being the latest) to improve my horses balance and performance so they can carry me with ease and hopefully stay sound all of their lives. With Bella, who loves to perform and show people how clever she is, I'm hoping we will manage to teach each other piaffe, passage, tempi changes, etc, which I think would make her the first Dales to do so. My dream is to take her to a few advanced dressage competitions and be in there with the big boys, showing how far you can get with clicker training and a rare breed pony from a breed far too talented and versatile to have been allowed to become rare. In a perfect, sensible world they would be one of the most prolific breeds around!

And Rico? Who knows! I'm looking forward to him growing up and showing me what he loves to do the most and we will go from there.