Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Red mares and life lessons.

Author’s note:

This is for the horsey ones. To the other ones I apologise and say please do come back tomorrow. It does contain some human life lessons, but it centres around the horse. It is also absurdly long. So sorry about that.


The kind of horsemanship I practice has many names. The one that people seem to dislike is natural horsemanship. I can see why. It is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing natural about horsemanship. You are taking a herd animal out of its native habitat, strapping a bit of another animal to it, this one dead, and asking it to perform actions it would never dream of in the wild. You carry your hands exactly where its predators sink in their claws when they strike. You stroke it in the exact place that those predators plunge in their sharp teeth, to sever the spinal cord. Just because you keep it in a field and work with it at liberty and try to mimic its lead mare does not mean any of this is natural. That is why working with a horse is so elemental and astonishing, because, mostly, it gives its consent to all this.

I think of this new horsemanship, which is in fact very old but never had a name before, as mostly practical. Sure, I get a bit misty and hippy from time to time, and think about the universe, and believe that my mare contains it in her deep eye. I like to believe that these methods have taught me to understand her and be in harmony with her. But mostly, they have a strict utility. I grew up in the old school, where the solution to most problems was hard schooling and more tack. The idea was that you got so good at riding that you would not come off when they bronced or bolted or bucked. If a horse was a rearer, it was a rearer. If it was a spooky bugger, it was a spooky bugger. If it was a bolter, it was a bolter, and you either rode it in the strongest bit you could find, or you just stuck on and prayed. There was absolutely no notion that you could change any of these behaviours. You might be able to teach a horse to settle in a race, to conserve energy, and you could brush up its jumping; you could educate a pony to go on the bridle, and make some nice transitions; but that was it.

This new school says that you can get a horse so relaxed and responsive that it will not pull, or buck, or shy, or rear, or charge off into the blue horizon. You can teach it not to barge, not to rush, not to bash into your personal space. The techniques for this are not complicated, but they require a lot of patience, consistency, thought and time. You can’t get lax or skip bits. You can’t take your frets and tensions down to the field and expect your horse not to notice. You have to be your best self, the good leader, who will keep your kind equine safe from mountain lions.

The red mare has been a bit reactive and tense in the last couple of days. She went from dozy old donkey, walking out so relaxed that I dropped the reins and the irons and just rode her with my body, to fired-up thoroughbred, snorting and staring and jumping at shadows. She even did a fabulous cartoon spook at a duck, with skittering hooves and airborne leap, something she has not done for months.

Well, I thought, she was a racehorse. Her grandfather did win the bloody Derby. I’m still riding her in a rope halter. We have not ended up halfway to Inverness. And she is a horse, after all, whatever human methods I apply to her.

There is a tremendous Australian horseman called Warwick Schiller, whose precepts I follow. There are many great horsemen and women on the internet, and I learn avidly from all of them. Some of them are no longer here, but their words and wisdom survive, in the ether. I learn from the late Ray Hunt and the Dorrances; I learn from the very much alive Buck Brannaman and Ian Leighton and Richard Maxwell and Robert Gonzales.

Schiller is particularly good, because he puts up practical videos, where one can see the ideas in action, and he also has a forum, where he patiently answers endless questions about groundwork and lateral flexion and all sorts.

On this forum, yesterday, I posted a question. Will a horse always be a horse, I asked, and have its moments of reaction to unexpected stimuli, or, if you are doing everything right, should it remain relaxed and soft and focused? I think I was looking for excuses. I think I knew the answer to my own question. I think I knew that when the tense snorting comes, it is always to do with human failing. Still, everyone was thoughtful and kind, and people wrote of the importance of building the foundations and remembering to take Square One with you wherever you go and minding your body language and getting your head straight.

Inspired by these good reminders, I took the red mare out this morning and went through all the foundational steps, one by one. I did not let anything slide. I was firm and rigorous and fair and even. I thought a lot about feel, and practised it. And I got my lovely, low, easy girl back again.

SUCCESS, I shouted in my head, like John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. Success. We were Olympians; we were Grand National winners; we were golden.

And then, fatally, I got cocky, and pushed her a little too quickly, and everything fell apart. I could not get the canter. Her stride was all broken up, her head was in the air, her neck was braced, she was rushing and pulling and not listening to me. I had envisaged a beautiful cowboy lope, and instead we had a Calgary Stampede plunge. (My old dad once rode in the Calgary Stampede. It was not his most glorious moment. ‘On for nine seconds,’ he said, laconically, afterwards; ‘and out for nine hours.’)

I was furious with myself. Fuck bugger bollocks and arse, I shouted in my head. My unbalanced horse was all over the shop. Her unbalanced human was all over the shop. Failure, I thought bitterly. Failure, failure, failure.

I took a deep breath, and went back to the beginning. We are going to be here for hours, I thought, in rage and I’ve got work to do. I counted to ten. I did the lateral flexion. I got the easy walk on a loose rein. Her ears flicked back towards me, listening again. I thought beautiful thoughts and relaxed my body and invited her into a canter, trying not to expect the awful ragged gait we had just suffered through.

And suddenly, like a miracle dropping from a fine blue sky, there it was – light as air, easy as breathing. ‘Yes, yes,’ I said, out loud. The reins were loose, and I kept my hands soft, opening the door for her. She went through the door. She was carrying herself. I went with her, keeping out of her way, letting her feel the confidence of being a horse at home in her own powerful body.

We went round again to check it was not a fluke.

It was not a fluke. We were flying like the swallows which swoop over this wide green meadow. We were of the earth, the sky, the trees, the hills. There was no telling where the world began and we ended.

As we walked back, her head low, my hands off the reins, I gently scratched her withers in love and congratulation, and I thought about all the things this great professor teaches me.

There were two huge lessons. The first is: everything is my responsibility. Mares have different moods and off days and mornings when they get out of bed on the wrong side, just as humans do. But if I am doing my job well, she will be well. I can’t blame her, or her high breeding, or her previous job. I can’t blame what is going on in the world. If I am right, she is right. My absolute number one job is to let her know, at every moment I am with her, that I have what it takes to keep her safe. Actions have consequences, one of the great rules of life.

There was a small sub-lesson in this one too, which is: you have to be dogged. Never give up. Don’t let discouragement whack you round the head. Keep on until you find that lovely shining note, on which to end.

And the second lesson was how I thought about that morning. I could have taken the negative from it. The rotten part was pretty rotten. We were both at our worst, for those horrid minutes. I could have seen this as a rank failure and castigated myself and decided all the work I have done so far was for nothing and I should not be allowed to keep a gerbil, let alone a thoroughbred. Instead, I decided to take heart from the beautiful parts.

There were two steps backwards, and I shall learn from those. But there were floating, dancing, magical steps forwards, and they cannot be sullied by what came before. They existed; they shine in my memory as I write this. Nobody can take those away from us.

And perhaps my last great lesson is a very simple one, which I should really know by now, but which I need to be reminded of, often. It is: if you want something lovely and fine and effortless, you have to strive. You have to practice. You have to be rigorous. It’s exactly like writing. Gleaming prose is not sent by the language gods. It is the result of daily struggle. If I want a soft and happy and light horse, I have one great tool at my disposal. It is free, and it is available to everyone. It is the most valuable bit of kit in any horsewoman’s box. It is: time.


Two quick pictures, after all that ridiculous prose -

After a hose-down and a damn good roll, she moseyed over with her Minnie the Moocher face to have one last scratch before I left her:

8 July 1

And then a very well-deserved drink:

8 July 2

Oh, that face. It never fails to make my heart sing.


  1. Beautiful as always. Your honesty speaks volumes about your relationship with the Red Mare. My equine days are long over, but reading your writing is as good as riding myself, if you get my drift.

  2. I don't think any animal is anywhere near as "complicated" as human beings are. That's not saying that animals are "dumb" and/ or humans are "smart" or even "smarter".
    That's one.
    Two, I don't know a lot about horses (despite having been a horse crazy kid), however, I don't think being ridden is a "natural" state of things for them. And I believe you have written about this much and more thoroughly than I could -- or would (dare to do!).
    So. This is again another (wonderful) life lesson from horse to human about patience & loving perseverance....which you "got" & did in spades. Brava!

  3. Thank you for this - I had a similar experience with my little black mare just a few days ago and I've felt horrible about it since. Your words are a reminder that it's a process - and that just watching Warwick's videos doesn't make my brain channel him during my sessions with Star. You gave me a needed reality check - learn from the mistake but don't dwell on it and KEEP GOING! Be diligent and practice and it WILL happen. Thank you!! Laurie

  4. Wonderful article, gorgeous horse.

    I couldn't agree more with the last sentence- time is indeed the most crucial ingredient in the mix, and accepting that diversions from linear learning is just a chance to learn even more and more broadly is a gift rather than a chore or throwback.

    I've got a red mare that doesn't catch for anyone but me, and every night, when I bring her in, I try reminding myself of this. The first "conversation" we have every night is therefore bringing her in. If I succeed in a relaxed and open mindset, she will come willingly and we can take it from there- ride her, go for a walk, just have a good scratch, do whatever else we feel up to. On the nights that I am tense and just want to get on with things; already thinking about our transitions or whatever else, I feel she doesn't want to leave the herd and come with me.

    Each conversation we have is the chance for an achievement.
    And I'm more proud of us being able to act as partners and try and understand each other than putting up the bar on a jump one notch. We still learn, just something else than originally planned!


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