Bringing 'connection' to your riding April 21 2016, 1 Comment

I was surprised, no, rather shocked, last week to read a post on my Enlightened Equitation Facebook group where the writer said that she was into natural horsemanship, to ‘better connect with her horse’ and that she would find my training ‘intimidating’. I queried why out of genuine curiosity, but haven’t seen a reply. Intimidating? But why?!! I have long promoted the strapline on my website of ‘A Kinder Way to Ride and Train’. Does this conjure up the image of the stereotypical riding instructress of old, who barked commands military-style, to her frequently terrified pupils?!

I see courses of many varieties offered on the internet which all seem to be based on groundwork, rather than riding, and which promise a better ‘connection with your horse’. But what does this word ‘connection’ entail? For many, it has even a spiritual element, for others it is mainly about developing a rapport with their horse. I notice that it is rarely taken up by riders who have spent a lifetime with horses, but seems mostly to be ladies who have perhaps come into riding later in life and can afford a horse for the first time. And I hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with that!

Arabian "Spanish Silver" with EE working student Tallulah
30 yr old Arabian, Spanish Silver. Heather bought him as a barely broken 7 yr old, with a reputation for biting viciously. And he lived up to that reputation, until he bit Heather badly one day and she didn’t retaliate. From that day, he started to bond with her. She had him gelded at 13 yrs, purely so that he could go out to play with other horses. Now aged 30, he is very much the stables pet, and adores working student Tallulah, clearly shown in this photo of him in blissful ecstasy!

For those of us brought up around horses, or who have ridden since childhood, this ‘connection’ if we are truly horse lovers, is automatic. We tune into our horse’s wavelength without even being conscious of it. I can tell at a glance if one of my horses is not right. It is not only years of experience, but it is ‘connection’ because I love my horses and know immediately if he or she is not quite themselves.

This ‘connection’ is very often sought because the owner is not getting on well with the horse under saddle. It seems to be assumed that once a better rapport is established on the ground, then the ridden side will also improve. Unfortunately this is seldom the case. Once on the back of the horse, the rider is actually entrusting her own life to the animal underneath her, and it is perfectly understandable for many riders to feel nervous of this prospect! But no matter how much the connection improves on the ground, if the rider is lacking actual riding skills, then it will fall to pieces again once the owner is mounted.

If the rider is blocking the horse, especially through a poor seat and, consequently, unclear aids, the horse will quickly become frustrated and the connection lost and that can mean the connection of the rider with the saddle!

The horse needs a leader. In a herd, the lead mare will keep the rest of the herd in line. The human acts as leader in the human/horse interaction. If the human is too weak, the horse will have no respect and walk all over her. Too far the other way and the horse will be tense and fearful.

All of my horses have hugely individual personalities, because we encourage that individuality, and do not stifle it, whilst still maintaining boundaries.

Hispano Arabe "Fanta" playing in the indoor school

Our late and much lamented Hispano Arabe, Fanta, who we enjoyed playing with, loose in the school. This was taken at our conference in 2009, when he was showing off particularly for the audience!

My PRE stallion, Sultan, if we turn him loose in the indoor school for a play, he will immediately go off in search of the sugar box, no matter where I hide it! However, if I want him to be with me, he can quickly be brought back to focus and will follow me like a dog, even though I have only owned him four months, having arrived from Spain in mid-December. My two older Lusitanos are cousins, out of the same grandmother, yet are totally different personalities. Rei, now 18, is still quite a scaredy horse, would be terrified if you entered his stable with a large plastic sack, yet won’t turn a hair if he were to meet a huge tractor or lorry on our narrow Devon lanes, whereas 17 year old Sudi would stick his head in the bag, but would still be apprehensive of a large vehicle at such close quarters on the lanes.

PRE livery, Lorca, is the soppiest of all the horses here and loves nothing better than to literally kiss his human friends! My 30 yr old Arabian, Spanish Silver, especially loves our part-time long term working student, Tallulah, and will stand, facing her with his whole  head on her shoulder, eyes closed, whilst she tickles his neck. At 30 he is still very playful and often is stirring Lorca up to play with him in the field. I bought him as a very difficult 7 yr old stallion, who bit so badly that he had been in solitary confinement for several years at the stud. I won his trust, and could happily put a ten year old child on him a couple of years later, to learn the feel of piaffe. I had him gelded at 13 yrs so that he could go out and play with other horses and enjoy a normal life.

My stunning black 6 yr old Lusitano, Faiel, who has been so plagued with injuries, to the point that we wondered if we would ever get him sound again after a major operation on his hock to repair the later injury, has had to endure months of box rest and in hand walking. We have had to keep him interested and happy despite his confinement. He has a real temper, but we can keep it in check by disarming him, rather than confronting him. Now he is hacking out like an old pro, having never set foot on the roads under saddle until 6 weeks ago and only having had about 4 months’ work under saddle in total prior to his injuries. Everyone who visits remarks on what a character he is, and that is because we understand him and allow that character to blossom, but equally, not get out of hand!

So for all of you who seek this connection, I will also be focusing on the connection when mounted, in my new video series in The Online Riding School, my new website (not yet live) which will be devoted to providing video lessons, unedited and spontaneous, on subjects from beginners right through to advanced riders, which I hope will give a flavour of how the Enlightened Equitation teaching is very compatible with all the groundwork based courses that many are undertaking. We have done in hand work and  long reining for years here, the latter with my yard manager Kay who is really expert in this area, and we also incorporate Mindfulness training with our excellent teacher, Ollie Frame,  in our ‘Confidence Booster’ and ‘Connect with your Horse’ ridden workshops which we will be introducing shortly.

We have a Pilates studio behind the indoor school whose owner, Sasha, also does Pilates for Riders, plus we have a Yoga school within half a mile of the farm and our own Level 3 Enlightened Equitation teacher, Joy Morris, is a highly qualified Feldenkrais teacher for those of you with various physical problems that may hamper your riding. My aim is to offer courses which incorporate exercises to improve flexibility and core strength to enable a better seat, in conjunction with our EE teaching methods on the Equisimulators, which will enable students to connect with their horses through synchronising their own movement, with that of the horse.

Heather