Author’s note: This really is FOR THE HORSE PEOPLE ONLY.
I’m doing something different today. Some of you will know that I use a method of horsemanship with my red mare which comes down from the great founding fathers of Ray Hunt and the Dorrance brothers. The very specific techniques I use are learnt from a brilliant Australian horseman called Warwick Schiller. He has a very good internet forum, where I occasionally post stories about the red mare, and everything she and I are learning together, and the happy progress we are making in what is, to me, a new school. I like sharing with the group, with people who are going through the same process. Since this is an absurdly long story, I thought I’d post it as a blog instead of cluttering up the Schiller timeline. It is a Sunday, and I don’t normally write a blog on a Sunday, so I felt I could indulge myself, and that the non-horsey Dear Readers would allow me the latitude.
Here we go:
I’ve been away for a while and it’s been raining non-stop for three weeks, so the mare has not been worked, and has mostly been standing still under her favourite tree. In the weather, she and her Paint friend do that stoical switching off thing, and some of their field is flooded, so they don’t work off their energy in the usual way. The clouds cleared for five minutes on Friday, so I rather rushed into a bit of groundwork, eager to fit it in before the downpours came again.
Whoop, whoop, cried the mare, rodeo time. I’m not sure whether it was a bit of boundary-testing, general high spirits, the fact I had hurried her instead of slowly going through our usual steps, the sun on her back, the stored energy, or a combination of all of them, but instead of my dozy old donkey, I had a leaping, bucking creature on the end of the line. (We don’t have a round pen, so I was doing circles on the rope.) She has not done anything like this wild carry-on for months and months, and for a moment I watched in awe as all her thoroughbred blood asserted itself, she grew a hand before my eyes, and she stuck her posh nose in the air and snorted like a steam train. Her tail was vertical and flying like flags. Her trot was that high, flinging, Spanish Riding School of Vienna gait that almost defies physics. That, I thought, is half a ton of flight animal, with her adrenaline up.
In the old days, I would have been afraid. I would have toughed it out, even though quailing inside, probably called out whoa, whoa in a too-loud voice, pulled on the line. I would have thought she was being ‘naughty’ and possibly even got a bit cross with her, out of fright. I might have taken it personally. As it was, after everything I have learnt in the last year, I had remedies. I stayed steady and sent her on and let her get it out of her system. I absolutely refused her random attempts to change direction and kept her going forward. More snorting and some plunging, farting bucks. (The fart-buck slightly ruins her duchessy image.) It took about three and a half minutes before she realised that none of this was getting her anywhere, and the inside ear twitched towards me and she began responding to cues in her usual light and intelligent fashion. In the blink of an eye, I had my beautifully schooled girl back, and there she was, doing an enchanting collected trot to some inner music, carrying herself with composure, describing perfect circles around me.
I think a lot about this method of horsing and why I like it so much. It’s very practical. It makes all the daily things we do easy. There’s no pushing or barging or pulling. I don’t have to get nervous that I will be knocked over at tea-time, as she takes her polite three steps backwards and knows that she is required to stay out of my space. It’s also that working this method means that 90% of the time I have a calm, reliable, responsive horse.
But, perhaps most importantly, it comes into its own on the rare occasions when everything goes a bit Pete Tong. Horses are horses. You can school them and teach them and trust them and get them to trust you, but there is always the possibility of the unexpected. The difference is that now, when it does go a bit wild and woolly, I KNOW WHAT TO DO. I know that sounds very simple, but for me it is a revelation. Because of the new knowledge, I don’t have to be scared; I have a steady purpose. I don’t have to get cross about the wrong thing, I just make it hard. Sure, I say, you can leap and buck if you want, but you’ll have to work. Over here, I say; here is the right thing, which is easy. Oh yes, she says, I remember. And she makes the good choice and remembers her best self and all is harmony again.
After all that drama, this morning I woke to find the sun had finally, finally returned. Scotland was in her pomp again. I ran down to the field, ready to celebrate the weather. We would work, we would ride, we could do anything. The Horse Talker was there, working her Paint. The red mare was watching with interest. I noticed that there was a glittery hula-hoop propped against the gate. Ah, I thought. Desensitising. We have not done any imaginative desensitising for ages. Every morning, I do our regular version, throwing the rope across the mare’s back and whacking it on the ground while she does not move a muscle, and then rubbing her all over her neck and back until she is so relaxed that she practically goes to sleep. In the early days we did tarpaulins and flags and balls and even one of those silvery capes that marathon runners wear after a race, but lately it’s just been the standard version.
A glittery hula-hoop, I thought with glee. There’s fun.
I picked it up. It had lots of little maraca beans inside it which made a shushing, swooshing noise. UH-OH, shouted the red mare. Off she galloped, tail back up in the air, doing the steam-train snorting again.
‘Oh, dear,’ I said, ruefully to the Horse Talker.
‘Yes,’ she said sagely. ‘You are going to be here all morning.’
The red mare tried to pretend she was rounding up her little Paint friend, but was in fact clearly trying to hide behind her.
‘No,’ said the Horse Talker firmly. ‘You can’t come here.’
The problem with this kind of horsing is that it’s like Mastermind. I’ve started, so I’ll finish. If I show the mare a thing she’s afraid of, I have to work through it, or she’ll get the idea that she can escape a problem with a bit of gallopy snorting.
Bugger, I thought. What was I thinking? We were supposed to do lovely, slow groundwork. Why the hell did I pick the damn thing up? And why did she decide that swooshy maraca beans sound exactly like an evil tree snake that is coming to get her?
So into the small paddock we went. I had to remember every single thing I’d ever learnt about pressure and release, about timing and feel, about body language. She was genuinely frightened of this mad new object and was off in the clouds, doing her wild tail-in-the-air trot, snorting as she went, trembling a little at the same time.
It took an hour. I approached, I retreated. I did everything in tiny, tiny steps, so she would not be flooded. After a while, as she was dropping her head and the snorting and eye-rolling had stopped and the tension had left her neck, I rather naughtily threw away the rule-book and decided that singing would be fun. For no known reason, I went through the entire Simon and Garfunkel back catalogue. ‘Cec-il-ia, you’re breakin’ my heart, you’re shakin’ my confidence daily.’ The mare twitched her ears and relaxed.
It suddenly made me laugh that she can deal with the genuinely quite frightening sound of me singing, but the shush-shush of a maraca bean hula-hoop sends her into transports of fright. By the end, I was walking round her as she stood like a statue, waving the terrifying object over my head, shaking it all about, and singing: ‘I’m one step ahead of the shoe-shine, two steps away from the county line, just trying to keep my customers satisfied, satisfied.’
At the very end, I stood by her shoulder, and showed her the glittering article one last time. She bent her head and sniffed it. I rubbed it on her wibbly lower lip. ‘There,’ I said, ‘that didn’t eat you, did it?’
I did not expect that I should spend this morning teaching my mare to accept a sparkly hula-hoop. But who knows how many mad hula-hoop-wielding maniacs we may meet out on the trail? Now we truly are prepared for anything.
I love teaching this beautiful creature the ways of slowness. That’s the point of all this, for me. I’m too old for a crazy horse. I’m not the wild thruster I was when I was young. My middle-aged bones creak. My body does not spring back in the way it used to. I want a dear, stately, dowager duchess, so I can feel safe. I’ve got her so that most of the time she is so soft that a child of six could handle her. But I do rather love that every so often, that thoroughbred spirit does still rise. It’s mostly for the aesthetics. When all those wild ancestral voices are calling to her, she is a truly ravishing sight to behold. I can see all those Derby winners in her bloodlines, and right back to the three original sires, who came from the sands of Araby. It’s as if, in those high moments, she is a living history lesson.
The weather is going to hold and tomorrow I’ll go back to basics and we’ll return to our good, serious routine. We’ll work the steps in a proper manner and eschew the unorthodox. We’ll get back to dozy old donkey and I probably won’t see that floating, tail-in-the-air, snorting horse for a while. But I’m oddly glad that she is still there.
After all our work this morning, waiting for her very well-deserved breakfast: