I have just spent almost a month with Kathleen Lindley Beckham, her husband Glen and her student Katie, working together with a wonderful collection of students and horses. Kathleen and I made contact a few years ago when we clocked that what we were doing with horses was same,same, but different.
I get to ride and work with lots of horses and believe me, I like all horses. They all have something great about them - like people I guess, if you look hard enough. However, it is rare that I get on a horse and enjoy the experience so much that it makes me laugh out loud. Or, it has that other worldly feeling of coming home. Out of the many horses I come into contact with this is so rare that if it happens I tend to do everything I can to buy that horse. I have ridden some very highly schooled horses who have all the 'buttons' available and are super obedient...And it's not been those horses that make my heart sing.
I was fortunate enough to ride Kathleen's two key horses, and work a lot with a young horse on the ground. These horses were such a pleasure that I had to have a word with myself about extracting my arse from saddle. They didn't do the fanciest tricks, they didn't have the most amazing gaits, they didn't even have the most swishy manes. And, they had been trained by someone from a different school to the one I train in, whicusually means I have a bit of a job on... However, riding these horses was easy, they understood what I was asking and could respond to my aids and requests. So, how come?
Well, first of all, there are more similarities than not between the French classical school and those working in the Ray Hunt lineage, so the horses have a similar foundation in place. These horses are more similar to mine than say, most 'dressage' horses in the U.K. They are light to the hand and light to the leg. They understand about lateral flexion, bend and turn, and the rider is easily able to communicate with the front feet and back feet separately. And Kathleen has done a particularly good job of not putting her two riding horses behind the bit (a somewhat common downside to a 'soft feel').
There are also a couple of additional elements which I think made these horses such a joy to work with. They are happy to be asked new questions, and they are confident to ask questions of the human.
Let's start with the first part - these horses are happy to be asked new questions. I was privileged to ride River, a 4 year old I have hankered over ever since I saw pictures of him. However, I know from bitter experience that just because a horse looks good in a photo, it doesn't necessarily make him an interesting date. Kathleen has been working on foundational phases with this horse, and very sensibly has not been hammering him physically.
There were a couple of things I wanted to experiment with, largely about balance and posture. It is very rare that you can sit on a horse and ask them to carry themselves differently and for them not to worry a little or initially resist; even a small amount. Horses usually enjoying being in balance so much, that once they understand it they really go for the new offer, but initially this can be tough when they are used to something different. With River, my first ask received an immediate thoughtful response, without worry or bracing, and then he just went straight into a different way of moving. He is so sure he can find an answer, is used to being ridden 'in release', and is so mentally balanced that being asked to carry his body slightly differently was of no concern for him. Now, had I asked him to accept an ongoing heavy contact, or to carry himself in some physical contortion I suspect he would still try as his initial response, but that way of riding would probably knock the joy out of him pretty quickly. He is a horse who is used to being asked reasonable questions and understanding that when he answers he feels better as a result.
The horse that asked me some questions is Kathleen's hackamore horse, Henry. Henry is older and wiser, and is Kathleen's colleague and partner. He is therefore in a position to ask questions, especially when working with a cow-moving novice like me.
Kathleen is an advocate for low stress stockmanship, so moving cows is largely about doing as little as possible and not adding energy unless absolutely necessary. Henry knows how to move a cow in this way, and showed me how not to get involved when cows suddenly set off bucking and farting, or when some stupid dog (who shall remain nameless) does fly bys in an attempt to draw the cows. However, someone else's horse started to boil over at being around the cows and became a little acrobatic. Henry's energy picked up and his ear started flicking over towards the horse. If Kathleen was riding Henry this would be the point at which they would head over to help the horse and person out. Henry was clearly asking whether we needed to get involved in that situation over there. I picked up a rein to say to him,'Not today' and his energy dropped right back to neutral. This sounds so small, but was a really remarkable experience, and along with a number of things I saw Henry do, set a new benchmark for me as to what a really good working horse can do, without anxiety or stress.
There are many reasons I enjoyed my time in the States so much, but riding Henry and River, and working with the delightful Gus, were certainly highlights. And interestingly, I don't think Kathleen just 'got lucky' with these horses....