Two of my lovely relations are staying, one grown-up, one small. The small relation has, to my great delight, decided that Stanley the Dog is a canine of immense quality and loveliness. She was asked to do a sample of her handwriting yesterday. She wrote, very neatly and well on a piece of white paper: ‘I like Stanley. I like Stanley. I like Stanley.’
This morning, along with The Mother and Stepfather, they came to see the Red the Mare. I gave them all a little demonstration of groundwork.
I always feel a bit bogus when I do this. The kind of horsemanship I practice is a variation on what is called natural horsemanship or intelligent horsemanship or empathic horsemanship, and I’m still pretty new at it. I grew up in the old school, and this is all quite novel to me.
I don’t follow one specific method, but have picked and mixed from the various books and videos I have found. The three men whose theories I like most are Monty Roberts, Warwick Schiller and Mark Rashid. All of these new schools share a pretty basic foundational idea: you should try to communicate politely with the equine in horse, rather than literally or metaphorically yelling at it in human.
There are two central tenets to which I cleave. One is, always ask the horse, rather than tell it. Every question is an invitation. I sometimes imagine I am in a quadrille, holding out my hand to my partner. When the mare is responding softly it does feel very like a dance. The other is: reward the try. Even the slightest move in the direction asked is rewarded with lavish love and scratches. I never wait for her to do something perfectly before congratulating her.
There are other, wider, more abstract notions. I base everything I do with her on gentleness, firmness, patience, consistency, clarity. If something goes wrong, my assumption is that it is my fault. I don’t use the word naughty to refer to a horse any more. I think: unclear human rather than mischievous horse.
When I say I feel a bit bogus showing people all this, it is because none of these ideas are mine. I’ve taken them and adapted them and learnt from Red what works and what does not. She is really my finest professor. But there I am, sounding like I am a gnarled old hand who came up with this stuff on the back of an envelope.
Still, I like the lovely relations to see it. I do feel proud of the mare, who has learnt so much so quickly, and who is so willing and clever and trusting. The other thing which is enchanting is that people really are quite amazed and impressed. She is a thoroughbred, after all, out of racing and polo, and the rumour is that there is nothing more impossible to work with. (The rumour is wrong, but it dies hard.)
Because I do this work with her every day, I sometimes take it a bit for granted that she walks kindly on a loose rope and stops when I stop and will back up when I nod at her shoulder. She will match her paces exactly to mine; if I walk faster she picks up, if I go at a snail’s crawl, she shuffles slowly alongside. When people watch it, I see afresh, through their eyes, what miracles she has achieved.
It’s very simple, in many ways. All the things I do with her are so basic a child of ten could master them. In other ways, it’s absolutely astonishing and profound, to get that level of trust and harmony with a flight animal.
And it’s not just spurious circus tricks. It means that when I get on her, there is no uncertainty or hesitation or fear. I can ride her in a rope halter with no irons and the bond is so forged in fire that there is only a singing feeling of delight between us. The days of the knee-jerk spook and - her speciality when spotting an unexpected pheasant - the vertical leap three feet in the air with sideways Spanish Riding School of Vienna passage, are long gone.
What it really means, when no one is watching, when I’m not showing off or getting a picture taken for posterity, is that everything we do together is a high pleasure. Everything is easy now. She is happy, I am happy. There is no tension or doubt. We know each other and love each other and understand each other.
Someone said: ‘Goodness, that must have taken a lot of patience.’ Yes, it did, I suppose. But it was more worth it than almost anything else I’ve ever done. It was the tiniest, tiniest price for the most glittering of glittering prizes.
The garden, suddenly, almost overnight, is in flower. Which is very kind of it, since I have shamefully neglected the whole thing on account of too much work and too much horsing:
Down in the paddock, in the very slightly crazed obstacle course we have set up, the Horse Talker gets going on Autumn the Filly:
The obstacles are partly to build trust, partly to desensitise, so that when we strike out through the woods and over the hills, the girls will have encountered so many different strange things that not much will faze them:
This item has BELLS on it. The Remarkable Trainer says she will have to go back to the drawing board to find something that will startle this mare:
Over the tarp like it was nothing:
Round the tyres:
Meanwhile, Myfanwy is sleeping:
Red the Mare, with me up:
(Holding the reins up like that is because I’m trying to use them hardly at all, but steer with my body and my seat.)
No irons, no reins, maximum joy:
And, my gracious duchess, shall we go this way? Yes, we shall:
I like Stanley. I like Stanley. I like Stanley: