Thursday, 19 July 2012

In which I have a day out, and meet some admirable horses who actually make a difference in the world

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

So sorry about no blog yesterday ; I suddenly decided to go to a natural horsemanship clinic across the county. A gentleman had come all the way from California and I wanted to hear what he had to say. It was a long day and very cold; it was seven in the evening before I left, and it took from Oldmeldrum to Tarland with the heat on full before I regained the feeling in my feet.

As I drove, the clouds lifted for the first time that day, and a faint gleam of light appeared over the mountains. The north of Aberdeenshire is quite astoundingly green. The country here is blue and purple and brown and green; there it is twenty shades of emerald and sage and bright grass green and dark racing green. It is rich farming country, the famous black Aberdeen Angus grazing quietly in the shadow of the mighty woods.

It is very beautiful, but a quite different beauty from where I live. I found myself oddly glad to get back to my own landscape. There is a moment when the road turns, and I come over a rise and my country is suddenly revealed, in a long, blue, welcoming vista. Perhaps it was because I was tired, but I felt a passionate sense of homecoming, even though I had only been forty miles north.

I was thinking of this, and of my dear mare, when an extraordinary thing happened. I was listening to Radio Four, when my car radio just retuned itself. It does this sometimes; it must be a glitch in the electronics. Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto came flooding into the small space. It was one of the most beautiful renditions of it I had ever heard. There was a small rustle and I realised it was a live performance. It was a dear old prom. The proms have started, I thought, that great stalwart of the British summer.

The unexpected music was the perfect soundtrack to my mood, matching the beauty of the blue mountains, the thought of my glorious horse. It felt like a tiny existential present.

The clinic was interesting. I learnt a couple of new techniques. I saw things that worked, and things that did not. Mostly, it confirmed in my mind that I shall never follow one strict regime. There is an irony about the natural horsemanship movement which amuses me. Although it is a lovely, gentle thing, all about working with the essential equine instincts, rather than against them, it contains raging rows and rivalries. Proponents of this approach or that theory duke it out on forums and message boards all over the internet, accusing this guru of being a charlatan, or that movement of being a cult. One of the things that did shock me, when I first started investigating it, was that there is an absolutely ruthless marketing side. Buy our DVD set for the low, low price of five hundred dollars! (Slight implication being: if you do not, then you will never have a truly happy horse.)

Luckily, there are places where you can learn the essentials of this school of horsemanship for free. My current favourite is a brilliant Australian called Warwick Schiller. I love him because he is a no-nonsense Aussie, and because he very generously puts up excellent demonstration videos on the YouTube, where anyone may watch and learn, and his horses are supple and responsive and relaxed and content. Also, I have my brilliant Horse Talker, who has impeccable instincts, and has taught me, more vitally than any specific technique, to be graceful with a horse. (She moves around equines like a dancer.)

As with all things in life, I find it impossible to follow any dictated set of rules. What I like are founding principles, abstract ideas. The principle I take from this new approach to horses is: to listen, to be patient, to work with them rather than against them, to understand their ancient instincts, to reward the good rather than castigate the bad. Take the word horses out of that sentence, and you have a pretty good rule for life.

I had been shy to go, afraid that I should find I was doing everything wrong, be awed in the presence of a master, to feel my green novice status keenly. Even though the first thing I knew in my life was horses, and being around them was as natural as breathing out and breathing in, this method of working is quite new to me. Instead, a rather miraculous thing happened.

I had gone along as a spectator. I had no transport for Red, and as I arrived horseless, I did feel very regretful that she was not there with me. In my mind, I had a little fantasy of her being excessively admired, and of course going straight to the top of the class. But watching the morning session was very useful, and I had the great pleasure of seeing some very special quarter horses.

These horses had come along from an amazing outfit called Horseback UK. They are based up the road from me and they do something, quietly and without fanfare, that is quite remarkable. They run courses for wounded soldiers. The wounds may be on the body or in the mind. Men who have seen unimaginable horrors spend a week working with the beautifully trained horses, riding Western in the rolling Deeside hills, and find peace. I have heard many stories; in all of them, what seems to happen, in some mysterious way, is that the horses give the scarred soldiers a sense of coming back to themselves.

One of these lovely horses was being worked by a man with two prosthetic legs. Disabled is an ugly word, but I suppose there is no better one. The interesting thing about this man is that he was so present and confident and at home in his skin that after my brain initially registered the lack of legs, I forgot all about it. However, the long morning standing had left him sore, and so the Horseback people asked if I would work his mare in the afternoon session. I was flattered, delighted, terrified. I should have to stand in the middle of an arena with a highly qualified instructor, in front of an audience, doing a method of which I knew only the outlines. Then I was told that the mare’s name was Red. I could not say no.

At first I was uncertain, tentative, busking it. But the mare was the dearest, most willing partner, and much more experienced than I. After a slightly ragged start, we were doing quite complicated manoeuvres; she was walking at my shoulder without a rope; trotting in beautiful, balanced circles about me. Through the thoroughbred ancestry of the quarter horse, I saw the familiar outlines of my own mare. This one even had the same wobbly lower lip. I thought of what she did, with men who came to her bashed and battered and broken, and felt a surge of awe and profound respect. Working with her was one of the finest privileges I have ever had.

So I spent a day watching some great horsemanship and some great horses, and it gave me confidence and some useful information, and it was a very worthwhile thing to have done, in many ways. But the odd thing was, that what it really gave me was an appreciation of how lucky I am with my horse. It’s not that she was better than any of the horses I saw, or that I am still convinced that if she had been there she would have got gold stars. It’s that she fits me so well. We fit each other. Our temperaments mesh; there is a mysterious harmony between us. Seeing so many other horses made me mark anew all the things I love about her. I even love her smell. (The delightful quarter horse smelt quite different, and I realised how much time I spend with my nose buried in Red’s neck, breathing in her glorious, soft scent.) When I went up and worked with her this morning, I got the same feeling as when I drove over the rise back to my own hills last night. I felt as if I had come home.


And, in other horse news, friend of the blog Shirley Teasdale is riding today at Brighton, on two quite fancied runners. In her honour, I have had a tiny each way double. I shall report tomorrow on how she got on.


And just a few very quick pictures for you, as I must get on with my work:

My girls:

19 July 1

19 July 2

19 July 3

Red’s view:

19 July 4

The hill:

19 July 5

Here is a link for Horseback UK:

They really do remarkable work, and if you wish to support them, you can easily donate through the Just Giving button on their website.


  1. I do keep meaning to recommend 'Buck' to you - have you seen it? GLORIOUS doc about a horse whisperer. Utterly beautiful as a tale of man overcoming overwhelming difficulty, as well as his amazing nature with horses.

  2. What a thought . . . what a horse can do for a damaged human. Sure does make you feel humble.


  3. What a wonderful day. Whenever you describe your homecoming I feel a little part of it too. :) It's those darling faces, that view, the hill... just lovely to share it x

  4. Your writing as always is wonderful. Thank you for sharing such a marvellous day with us. Horseback sound like an amazing organization I will follow the link.
    Animals are so important, my son, who is home on leave said that when the sniffer dogs arrive everyone feels happier, he said he watched some of the younger soldiers visibly relax as they stroked and petted the dogs, it was really moving to hear him talk about it.
    Have a lovely weekend, and I hope you made some money at Brighton. Jude x


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