My round robin trip started with a weekend with Becky Chapman in Suffolk (or is it Essex, I am never sure) then, with the addition of a horse in tow, I went straight on to Mark Rashid; and topped it off with a week learning from Philippe Karl and his trainee instructors. I try my best not to be a clinic junkie, and am very, very picky about who I ride with. But these people all have a number of important factors in common, I hope I am not speaking out of turn if I say that they all:
1- Put respect for the horse above all else
2- Believe that horses can learn, and that punishment is pointless
3- Don’t resort to a gadget to solve a training issue
4- Know there is something about the inside of horse which can connect with an inside of a person, and to ignore this is to miss the pot of gold.
5- Care about mental and physical balance
6- Would not put the achievement of a ‘movement’, or the acquisition of a rosette, over doing the right thing for their horse.
So, with this basic checklist of principles ticked off, I knew that I wanted guidance and help from each of them about something in particular. Any one of them could probably have helped me with any aspect of my riding and horsemanship, but I decided to focus on something specific in each instance.
Staying with Becky is always a complete pleasure, she has every girls perfect horsey set up. She also has an utter gentleman of a school horse, Wackie, whose assistance I required. I originally contacted Becky after I saw her ride and decided I wanted to look as lovely in the saddle as she did.
At this particular stage in my riding there were a couple of key points I needed help with. The first was my tendency to have a ‘poop’ left hand. Poopiness is a term originally coined by my friend Sarah Guest, and it is hard to describe. It kind of means something which has gone floppy and feeble, like an old shoe. The fingers on my left hand have a tendency to creep forwards, so that I am holding my reins only with my thumb and index finger, with the rest of my fingers pointing forwards. Now that I know I do it, I see that many other people do it too. I didn’t think it was that important until I tried to change it and hold the rein in a soft fist and my horse immediately relaxed his jaw. There is something tight about a poop hand, and my horse didn’t like it.
The other issues I wanted to look at were a growing concern I have that I am creating right bent horses, and being quicker at spotting when my horse goes off on the wrong canter lead.
At each of these clinics I learned far too much to share completely, but my key learning points with Becky were these;
· All too often addressing the symptom is fruitless. The poop hand stems from my left shoulder rotating forwards – deal with that, and the poopiness disappears.
. With Becky and Wackie’s help I was able to experiment with my own asymmetry, and a horse’s asymmetry, and how I could address them both. I turns out I have to bring my left shoulder back a LOT more than I thought I did.
· The key to knowing whether you are going on the correct lead is to feel the point at which the horse is about the strike off – the rotation of the barrel will tell you what is about to happen with the legs.
· Blending with the movement of the horse and then changing it is so much more effective than just grinding mightily against it.
The other golden reminder I had at this clinic was how closely balance is related to impulsion. If your horse is on its shoulders (which any overflexed horse is going to be) then it will really struggle to freely go forwards. How often do you see horses who are being pulled in at the front, also being kicked on? This weekend provided a perfect demonstration of how changing a horses balance completely freed up her ability to go forwards, without having to resort to the stick or the leg.
After driving home through the night, I got up at the crack of dawn, packed up Des and his huge amount of belongings (he is such a demanding horse) and headed to the New Forest to ride with Mark Rashid. Now, I knew there were going to be some conflicts with Mark concerning use of the hand, but I also knew the man is something of a genius were horses and people are concerned and that I really wanted his input.
My horse Desmond is mostly a good guy. Yes, he has a natty 360 spin on him, and can spend a lot of time spooking at the jump stand he has seen every day for the past 6 months, but on the whole he is pretty compliant, combined with being very physically able. So you can ask him to ‘do stuff’ even when he is pretty tight - like horses all over the land I suppose. I have done a lot of work with him on the ground to help him be softer and it has been making a real difference, but his response to the bit was still a pretty bracey one.
I rode in front of Mark and showed him Des as his worst. I would usually employ a special flexion called action/reaction to help him extend his neck, but that meant lifting my hands when he lifted his head and that wasn’t really appropriate here. So Des trotted round with a tight neck, and a clamped jaw. At least Mark saw the issue in it’s fullness.
The help Mark and his lovely wife Crissi gave me was invaluable. Find the brace, and address it. I have basically been letting Des go around with this brace in his jaw and poll and have not been ‘seeking it out’ sufficiently to be able to show him that there is another option. I am pretty adept at helping other people to do this with their horses, I find it much harder with my own...
Crissi and Mark also gave me a few beautiful reminders which made me feel like the sunshine came back into my riding. Look up and breathe out. That’s it. SO simple, SO effective. Oh, and guess what, blending with the movement of the horse and then changing it is so much more effective than just grinding mightily against it.
The other thing which Mark reminded me to do was stop being so bloody serious about it all. On one occasion I exclaimed, ‘Before I ask for canter he keeps offering travers (quarters in)’. To which Mark replied ‘Well isn’t that nice?’. And when I was about to ask for something and I felt Des respond to this, I said, ‘The problem is, he knows I’m about to ask for something’, Mark laughed and said, ‘That’s because you’re about the ask for something!’. Oh yeah. Stop ‘minding’ so much about things, start enjoying your horses’ generosity. He also reminded me what a marvellous expression ‘Holy Mackerel!’ is, and that we should really use it more often.
Then home, two days trying to earn some money, a couple of lovely hacks on my considerably softer horse - testing out straightening my body and experimenting with balance, and then - Philippe Karl.
This was not the usual week with PK, where he teaches the trainee instructors and talks at length. I always marvel at his continued enthusiasm, passion, and utter commitment to a set of principles and approaches which really do fly in the face of modern riding. He does not always ‘teach’ people feel; but when he gets on a horse he rides with the most exquisite feel I have seen. He addresses balance and rhythm, offering softness and release within each step - transforming horses and leaving me speechless. As far as I am concerned, he is a master horseman. There are downfalls to his system when it is applied without his level of artistry I know, but maybe this is true of all systems...
This was a week of watching some great riders and horses work their way through his exacting exams; lessons where he insisted again and again, that we must really, really care about getting the basics right and that without relaxation, balance and rhythm you will be stitched up like a kipper ( to continue the fish theme).
At the end of the week, a few of us rode in front of PK in the hope that he might choose us for the next round of trainee instructors. I have to just briefly thank someone, as without him, neither Des nor I would have been there at all. Much as it may look like a life full of Iberians is a blessed one (and their presence in my life really is a complete pleasure), personally things over the past couple of years have been a little challenging. My close friends know this, and one of my oldest friends and boyfriend, Adam, has provided me with a level of support and encouragement for which I am truly blessed. Without his constant encouragement and unfailing belief in me and my horses, his never ending practical support (dashing to feed and rug my horses in the rain when I haven’t been able to drive for grief; holding duct tape in gale force 9 as I try and wrap a foot whilst standing in a bog) and reminding me again and again not to give up; I think I would have sold my horses a long time ago. Let alone got to the stage where I felt brave enough to ride in front of Philippe Karl.
Anyway, Des and I weren’t perfect. There were a couple of Des-special spins; I was mostly on the wrong diagonal and forgot to do loads of the things I meant to do. But I loved riding my horse, and for a short while I forgot everyone watching, even the Frenchman, and just enjoyed being there in that moment, riding my golden Lusitano. The likelihood of us being accepted is small – there were so many other great horse and rider combinations, and no one really knows what he is looking for. But to ride Des there, in front of my long term friends and trainers, AND to enjoy it, that is enough.