Physiotherapist Saskia Heijkants meets up with Maarten van Stek
Article by Dutch journalist Tessa van Daalen- de Graaff from Dutch magazine Dressuur Magazine
Pictures: Miriam Voorwinde
Translation: Liz Barclay
‘LESS IS MORE’
Physiotherapist Saskia Heykants is always looking for improvement. Hence the reason for her to ask Maarten van Stek whether she could possibly pay him a visit. ‘It intrigued me how he manages with his one arm to train a horse into the Grand Prix. That is unusual to say the least. I think we can all learn from that.’
Saskia is fascinated by rider position and seat. How, as a rider, can you become more efficient with your aids through your seat, that is what she is after all the time. She thought Maarten a brave man to want to cooperate. ‘Maarten is extraordinarily clever. You ought to give it a try, ride with one hand and make something as difficult as a pirouette. He has to be able to ride straight as well as bent. How on earth does he manage that? And how does this work as far as connection, submission -you name it-, how do you do all that and, at the same time, send your horse into the direction you want it to go with that one hand?’
Before meeting Maarten, Saskia assumed Maarten was mainly riding by shifting his weight in combination with unusually quick follow-up aids. This was only partly the case. ‘Of course, we should all be riding like that, the horse can’t do anything with a load of aids at the same time. In Maarten’s case this is a necessity. His coordination is extremely well-developed; he has enormous control over his body. I think he was probably clever in that way by nature, but through circumstances developed this to an extreme level because he needed it to ride in a far subtler manner. We can pull with two hands and push with one leg. That doesn’t necessarily make it better, but at least it looks like something. He is not able to do that.’
First Saskia put Maarten on the flex-chair. It was clear from the start that he is super at finding his centre of gravity. ‘He has developed an extreme sense of finding the exact middle with his weight. Because of this he is, as a rider, ‘with’ his horse always. He has to be, otherwise his horse would continuously want to turn left or right, because Maarten can not compensate with a strong one-sided rein aid.’
Saskia wanted to know how Maarten trains his horse, whether it is similar to what she sees around her or how she does it herself. ‘It does match for the greatest part. Only, he rides into a movement with very little rein pressure. This makes it much clearer for his horse what he wants for when he does use pressure. It makes a lot of sense, we should all be working on that. When you always ride with pressure, how can the horse feel when you want it different? Maarten himself says that he let’s go, ‘allows’ his horse. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t maintain a connection. Also, he does occasionally also use the reins; when he wants to slow down and nothing happens. But it is about the very moment you give the horse the information for a movement. That you don’t ‘hang on’ at that moment, so the aid you give has a chance to be digested by the horse.’
A resisiting hand
Even with two hands riding with a resisting hand is difficult to fully grasp. Saskia explains it as ‘making a horse wait’. ‘It is a difficult concept to explain in words. When a horse pulls on the reins, you do not go with it. You stay where you are, without pulling back and work backwards. Maarten instigated that it is not his cup of tea. I do also think we have to work to ride towards a more relaxed contact and less with the resisting hand. Too many riders are riding with too much contact and maintain that throughout. You must keep a connection without that extreme pressure. You could really see it in Maarten’s riding style how he does that; connection without that tightness. The moment your horse accelerates you have to brake, so, yes, you do interfere. Only, do not hold on for ever. Also, not to pull him towards his hindleg, which happens so often. A horse will not relax its jaw when you ride with a lot of pressure or the bit is shifting constantly from one side to the other.’
These days, many horses are so used to that pressure, that they respond negatively when released. By going faster or even becoming confused. For the riders this is the reason to increase the pressure again. ‘Practice and more practice’ is Saskia’s opinion.
Because Maarten keeps the connection with one hand only, the bit lies very stable and quiet in the mouth. Or rather bits, because Maarten rides in a double bridle. So, all four reins are held with one hand. How does he adjust his reins? ‘That is so unbelievably clever, in one very quick movement he lets all of them go and picks the whole lot up again. Praising was another thing. He simply drops everything, gives his horse a pet, picks everything back up again and continues as if it is the simplest thing in the world. I tried it; of course, my horse and I are nowhere near as far in our training. Impossible, I’d been around the school four times before I had myself organized. That is again all down to Maarten’s coordination.’
Changing direction Maarten does by moving his reins sideways. ‘You could compare it somewhat to Western riding, but in a very mild form so that it barely shows.’ Maarten’s position between exercises is according to Saskia neutral. ‘He sits in the middle with his shoulders over his pelvis. And that so incredibly relaxed, that he follows his horse to its maximum and never is restricting it. He is neither forward or leans back, also not to the left or the right. So, he does not push his horse with his weight through one shoulder, which I do by accident because I’m a bit stronger on the right. I know I do it, but it still happens. I make up for it with my outside rein. He cannot do that, it would show, so there is no other option but to sit where he sits.’
As far as the theory and technique there is no difference. We all want to ride our horse from back to front and that in combination with a beautiful light contact. But, in real life this is very different. According to Saskia most riders know how it is meant to be, but do not practice it. Compensating with the reins, whether as an aid or as unfair pressure, is more or less standard. Maarten is simply not capable of doing that. What does Maarten do which we ought to take to heart and get better at? Saskia thinks this a very relevant question, because of the image problem dressage is undergoing at this very moment. ‘Riding lighter and friendlier; we will have to accept that this is the way forward so that we can avoid for outsiders to look at us as cruel and possibly for the sport to even be prohibited. This sounds a bit over the top, but I think that we should not close our eyes for the foreseeable. So, look at people who approach things differently, try to take the good from that. Less is more. Think about that for a minute. And go out there and keep trying.’
‘It is all in the preparation’
‘Is what Saskia observed correct? Maarten has to think about this. It happens unconsciously. ‘I am predominantly busy with where to go next. Through being very clear to your horse about this, it is easier to ‘stay together’ and less corrections are necessary.’
Maarten thinks what he does seems easy, because he is always so focussed on where to go, in which tempo and which position. ‘It is all in the preparation. The horse itself wants to go somewhere and seeks a tempo that makes him feel ‘safe’. Safety is all he cares about. If I can beat the horse to it, by being super clear about our direction, then it will do that. Horses are herd animals so it is in their make-up to follow. I am pleased it looks easy, but of course it is not. It is a long road to get to that point. However, it is not any more difficult with one hand. If that would be the aim, anyone could do it.’
If your message is not clear, the horse will choose its own direction, tempo and position. That is why Maarten never uses the term ‘running through the outside shoulder’. ‘It is not a bad thing when a horse is escaping, as long as it is not its own escape. When you think that it is running through the shoulder or a circle is too big or too small, it is you who did not make the direction sufficiently clear. The horse is absolutely not interested in a too small or too big a circle.’
The advantage of a decent preparation is that Maarten does not have to correct anything. ‘When you change direction, or start a movement out of the blue, the horse will inevitably start to make it up by itself as it goes along. Imagine changing the rein across the diagonal, the diagonal being line zero. Without clear aids it is ever so easy to be one or two metres on either side. With a correction the chances are you overshoot the mark by another meter, which makes it minus three. That is never going to be tidy, to say the least. You cannot change the past, so put your efforts into the future, be ahead of the game. Only then you will get the chance to sit still and light, because nothing much has to change. When the picture in your head becomes the picture in the school, you are able to relax.’
Maarten does think that he has more rein pressure than Saskia imagined when watching him. ‘Yes, the connection is soft, but not non-existent. My right arm is pretty much permanently overstretched, because it has had to work so very hard for so many years. So, it simply hurts when I use too much power. At such a moment it flashes through my brain that I can’t afford to lose that one too. Through all the years I’ve trained with Alex van Silfhout, he has hammered on keeping it light. I always thought that a few seconds more pressure was okay. But an endless amount times a couple of seconds is a lot, when you are trying to save your one and only arm. So, it works both ways: I want to be light for my horse, but also for my own body. It does mean the road to the top takes a bit longer, but I don’t mind that.’
No pussy footing
Maarten emphasises that he is not holier than the pope. ‘There are certainly moments that I am a bit tougher and tell my horse clearly what it actually is I want. That is not always ‘pretty’. But just look how a mare treats her foal, no pussy footing around there either. Only, she doesn’t keep moaning about it. Which is what people do. I also use the resisting hand occasionally, but only as a very quick correction. When a horse learns to use the hands as a fifth leg, it is up to you to change its mind. At that moment it might help to maintain a temporary unpleasant pressure for the horse to want to get rid of it by itself. But you must then immediately lessen the pressure. When the pressure continues, not every rider understands where it is coming from. At the moment it releases its jaw, the horse must use its body in such a way that it can maintain this softness, this suppleness. Which means, the hindquarters will now have to step under and the horse carry itself. That is often the moment it goes wrong. When the horse releases but does not move sufficiently forward from behind, it ends up on the forehand and it will meet that bit again. The more the horse goes on the forehand the more the pressure on the bit continues. When you as a rider answer that with a resisting hand, you give it the option to lean on you and the horse will go even more on the forehand. It cannot go soft because it is literally falling forward and there is that bit again. When you let go and give leg, you teach it how to carry itself, without using you as a ‘coat rack’. Learn to understand where the pressure of leaning on the bit comes from and then teach yourself how to solve that. At that moment it doesn’t really matter how many hands you’ve got.’
In theory most of us can follow this. But, why oh why, do we see so many riders pulling with horses on the forehand? Maarten believes this is because many do not really spend enough time and energy on learning to understand what they are actually sitting on. ‘More often than not, riders do not understand why a horse does not carry itself from behind. So, that is what their task is. Six hundred kilos of moving meat which wants to go forward and downward. And achieving that with your body which isn’t even one tenth of that weight. The horse wants to move on its front, that is its build, its nature. It doesn’t matter whether you are on a Shetland pony or Valegro or anything in between, this principle is the same for all. You must teach your horse with patience and in a relaxed way so that it can also carry itself with its hind legs. Then it will try for you. So long as it feels safe. When it does not understand or gets tense for any other reason, it will try to get back on the forehand. To make it easier for itself. At that moment the horse does not realize anymore that we want it to use its hindlegs for self-carriage. Riders often think their horse ought to understand all this. But it is not like that. When the frustration kicks in because the horse does not understand, that is the moment when assertive behaviour from the rider becomes counterproductive.’ However, dressage or any form of riding is too difficult to be negative when it doesn’t look quite so pretty for a minute. On the other hand, Maarten is pleased there is a reshuffle going on as far as lightness and harmonious riding. ‘At the Europeans the two tests which moved me to tears were those of Sonke and Cathrin, which gives me hope for the future.’
A SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP
MANY YEARS AGO AT THE ROYAL CORNWALL SHOW
It must have been some twenty years ago, during the time the Whitaker and Smith brothers still travelled all the way to Cornwall to jump at the Royal Cornwall Show.
A little girl with the cutest little pug nose covered with freckles was holding on for dear life to a post on the edge of the main arena where the first class of the day was in full swing.
'YOU'VE GOT A PROBLEM!'
Having gotten closer, I recognized the parents who were both trying to convince their young daughter to let go but she stubbornly held on for dear life. I had to laugh so hard. Neither parent had anything to do with horses, as far as I knew, and their worry and disbelieve was somewhat hilarious. The father, Michael, told me they had been there for quite a while with Chloe completely mesmerized watching the horses jump.
'You've got a problem!', I laughed as I continued my stroll, not knowing that this was the beginning of an adventure which would also touch my life one day.
A FRESH AND SUNNY MORNING IN THE AUTUMN
It was a beautiful and fresh sunny morning at the end of autumn and Buz and I were plucking geese in the shed with the doors open to catch every ray of sunshine when I saw my horses in the field prick their ears for the sound of hooves coming up the drive. It was Chloe, by now some 14 years old, and her dad Michael.
I had not seen them for years. When Michael, some years ago, decided to give up his business of making musical instruments, build a wagon and buy a horse in order to go traveling, I looked the other way. This with the thought of dreading animal abuse out of ignorance. I could just see myself yet again trying to solve someone else's equine problems and did no way want to be involved.
FROM APPLEBY TO FRANCE
How wrong could I be! Michael not only is a most diversely talented man, but also did his homework as far as horse care and, more than that, soon managed to understand the art of breaking horses, not only for the wagon but also under saddle. Both my farrier Paul Martin and my vet had huge respect for how Michael educated himself and we often talked about him and his adventures, travelling to Scotland, to the famous Appleby Fair and across the ferry to France.
Chloe, from when she was about eight, travelled with him for some years and earned her own money playing her fiddle with Michael doing the same with his bagpipes. But what filled up quickest was the jam jar for the 'carrot fund for Dominingo', the donkey, who helped pulling the wagon with the lovely cob mare Jessica.
SCALLY, THE NAUGHTY PONY
Occasionally, on his travels, Michael was virtually given unrideable ponies and horses and always managed to make something of them. Scally was one of them, by now nearly ten years old and backed three times without result. Michael showed his daughter that this is something you can still turn around; a wonderful start for a young girl who wants to spend her life with horses.
Chloe rode Scally beside the wagon all the way from Cornwall to Brighton. A most effective way to make a horse traffic proof!
DRAMA ON THE ROAD
It was an extremely tough learning curve at times. The year they found us in the shed plucking, not only did Chloe lose her beloved first young horse, but also Michael lost a horse in a traffic accident and little Chloe was there. Romance and drama are often closer than we would like...
That sunny morning in the shed, when I mentioned their losses, I saw two big tears well up in the eyes of this young and shy girl and thought, yes, cry, it's good for you. Pony girls are often tougher than is good for them.
ON TIME AND SWEEPING
A few months later Michael had gone off again, now possibly forever, and Chloe was staying with me. She wanted to become an event rider and it was up to me to lay the foundation.
It was a challenge! Chloe was very clever with horses, but getting up on time, sweeping and brushing needed some attention. So, without taking any notice of the grunting and angry wrinkles in her nose I managed to get across the rules of a well-managed horse yard, so that I could send her to event rider Lucy Wiegersma without running the risk of embarrassment.
During the time with me she rode successfully around the x-country course at her first proper event at Lanhydrock with Scally. Of course I was more than proud to watch her tidy dressage test.
THREE YEARS ON
And then, two weeks ago, there Michael appeared in the yard. What a warm reunion! Both a little older, possibly a bit wiser, and it was bliss to sit in the back garden exchanging stories. I was grateful to hear Michael's pride when he talked about Chloe.
Her life had taken an unexpected turn when she decided that one year in the eventing world was sufficient to know she wanted to do it differently. After having done some agricultural courses she now is doing relief milking, in order to have her hands free to play with horses the way she wants to.
She sold her pony Scally to a wonderful home and brought back a thoroughbred on loan, with which she's done some hunting, some competing and on Facebook I just saw her little clip doing some lovely well-balanced canter work on the circle in an outdoor school, without a bridle. The apple did not fall far from the tree...
And Michael? Oh, he's building another wagon, the fourth one, I believe. The old one he sold to someone for their garden.
Every now and then we play music together, he on the whistle or bagpipes and I on my guitar. I do so enjoy those moments, so different from everything else I do. And such an honour to have a good friend who works with horses in such a very different way, but with the same interest and greed to learn. Someone who is not scared to start a new adventure, building a new wagon, finding a new young horse to train -the previous one sold to a more sedate home after some 12.000 miles-, weld another little wood stove and hopefully back on the road in the spring.
Sometimes I am, just a tiny bit, envious of my friend...
Pictures, top to bottom: Royal Cornwall Show; Michael leaving my farm; Chloe with Scally; Michael with his wagon in Scotland.
GOOD BYE DEAREST PRIDDY, A HORSE WITH A BIG HEART
GOING DOWN MEMORY LANE
When I saw Katie Nicholas' message on Facebook about her lovely and loyal mare Priddy having gone to horse heaven, I immediately went down memory lane.
Katie and I go back a long time and I've seen her on quite a few different horses. Her first lesson with me was organised by Claire Daniels, who got a group together for me to teach during the time they were still at Duchy College.
Katie was riding her sister's thoroughbred and from there we grew a wonderful relationship which continued in her riding arena at her home on the south coast. Either her mum or dad would provide me with cups of tea whereas several dogs would keep me company.
A BIG HEART AND KEEN TO LEARN
When I saw Priddy for the first time, Kate was a little apologetic, 'Sorry, Liz, she is not exactly a big mover.' Katie had bought her from Claire Rushworth to event and when Novice was achieved and Katie decided to have babies, it was time to focus on a dressage career.
Now, lack of movement has never affected me much as long as it is a horse that is eager to learn and has a half decent canter. Priddy certainly had that; she had a big heart and was keen to learn. She was also a mare, so a little moody at times, but together with Katie's endless patience we tinkered away and waited for when Priddy was ready to step up the game.
FLYING CHANGES, HOORAY!
Having learned from her previous horse not to get too carried away with the flying changes, Kate and Priddy took their time and, blow me, there they were! From every six strides to every four strides and then every three strides!
The real fun started when the basics were there sufficiently to start the half steps into piaffe. She was good at it and from there the trot, which had already improved through the canter work, got better and better. It would never be huge, but it was correct and Kate and Priddy were a lovely picture together.
PRIDDY PRIX ST GEORGE
We had already worked on the quarter pirouettes in canter but they were difficult for this sweet mare when moody, so we had to pick our days. Still, there was a moment that Kate, after some decent Advanced tests entered her first Prix St George. For me as a trainer a fantastic moment. My first pupil at that level!
PRIDDY STOLE MY HEART
I think back of those days with great fondness. A rider always willing to give everything, a horse willing to give more than ever thought possible and all those lovely cups of tea...
I am with you Katie,I miss her too. Priddy stole my heart many a time and we will never forget her...
CARL HESTER RINGS THE BELL!
JUDGES OFTEN HAVE TO TAKE IT ON THE NOSE
It is not easy, being a dressage judge. No matter how hard you try, there will always be a disgruntled competitor who does not agree with either score or comments. I know the feeling both as a competitor and as a judge. It is not a great moment when a rider makes a rude comment behind your back but within earshot.
As a rider I used to be quite philosophical about it and rely on the fact that too low a score one day probably meant too high a score the next time and it would all even out in the end.
Only the time when I missed my qualification for the Advanced regionals, I was stunned when I saw my score. The fact that the winner, standing next to me at the scoreboard, said, 'you should have won', made me feel slightly better.
So I can say without hesitation that I didn't really have any sleepless nights over it.
A 'COMMON' HORSE
At the lower levels the type of horse at competitions varies; from cob to thoroughbred and of course increasingly the warmblood.
Marie, with whom I rode PSG and a couple of Inter II's, was a 'common' horse. Whenever we qualified for the regionals, I had to accept that we were going to have to be satisfied with some 65% and if we were lucky end up somewhere in the middle, but I was just pleased to be there and ride in such a great atmosphere.
Marie's mediocre movement was partly the reason for our score. At the regionals the quality of the horses shot up and I sometimes wondered why I hadn't bought a warmblood from one of my Dutch friends. Not for long, though, as we had a wonderful time together and she taught me everything about how to deal with a complex character.
DRESSAGE... OR SHOW HORSE?
But still, I don't quite understand. Yes, when I watch an extravagant moving horse I do get goosebumps. But isn't that about the caliber of horse and doesn't that kind of thinking belong in a showing class?
Is dressage not that a horse, because of correct technical riding and training, gives itself to the rider for 100%, and through full use of its back and hind legs does all the demanded exercises correct, accurate and to its highest ability? Doesn't the 'common' horse, when producing that, deserve a similar mark as the more quality horse?
Okay, the quality horse should get a 10 for movement, but it is so disheartening when the amount of money you pay for your horse decides on your dressage score.
DRESSAGE IS A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE AND COMPARES TO ART
At the moment opinions are not shared but start to vary, dressage becomes a personal experience and is so much more complicated than jumping, where a pole down or a refusal is what it is. At that moment dressage is more art than sport. Not unlike a painting, a play or dancing which are able to unleash so many different emotions.
FIDDLING WITH THE JUDGING CODE
I am going to be brave and move onto slippery ice. Is it so that this problem occurs at all levels, also the highest , also at international shows? Take Valegro as an example, not a huge mover but still called 'the King of Dressage'. This wonderful horse had a fair bit of international criticism for its high scores and winning two Olympic titles.
Is this one of the reasons for the FEI to want to fiddle with the judging code, in the hope to make the system more watertight? This in combination with the problem that, when three or more judges are looking at the same test, scores can differ; yes, the personal experience can get in the way.
It must be a competitor's worst nightmare to miss, at a crucial competition, a qualification for an international team, possibly undeserved. And how horrible to think that you have missed an Olympic victory because of one unlucky score, which pulls the final score down just enough (something I can't even begin to imagine). A chance which may never happen again.
GROWING AND ADJUSTING IN TUNE WITH THE EVOLUTION OF DRESSAGE
It is extremely important that the sport is alert on growing and moving with its own evolution. There is so much more at stake than some 30 or 40 years ago. What once was for most a run-out-of-hand hobby for the rich - take German Olympic rider Reiner Klimke for example, he was a lawyer- has become a profession for many in which huge sums of money circulate. For starters the horses cost a fortune these days and the whole business is stuck together with sponsors.
SIGNED LETTER FROM SIXTEEN INTERNATIONAL RIDERS TO THE IDRC
So, with the pressure building it is increasingly important that the judges are correct and as uniform in their opinion as possible. But how...I know not enough to answer that. However, I am extremely grateful for Carl Hester ringing the bell in the Horse and Hound and urging dressage riders to give their opinion.
Also, sixteen international dressage riders -among whom Carl Hester, Laura Graves and Edward Gal, just to name a few- wrote a signed letter to the International Dressage Riders' Club, which is advising the FEI, in order to vent their worries about a potential fast-forwarded change of rules to the existing judging code. This after they were informed at a meeting about this subject at the world championships in Omaha. They urge for the commission to not speed things through without having listened sufficiently to all involved; this of course must include the riders.
Something which has become an increasingly sensitive subject, can not turn into a 'quick fix' with even more problems than before. Something which can not only affect a rider's day, but an entire season. And do not forget the judges in this. I want to believe that they are trying their best to turn competitions into a fair happening.
Still, when I watched the freestyle at Aachen I wanted for Sonke Rothenberger to win from Isabell Werth. When I watched him and Cosmo moving so perfectly light-footed and completely in tune with that ping-ping piano sound, I felt moved...
THE DRAMA OF DARTMOOR
Translation of my blog for Dutch equine magazine, the 'Hoefslag': THE DRAMA OF DARTMOOR
DICK FRANCIS OF THE MOOR
Why does Dutch equine magazine the 'Hoefslag' publish the possible new policy for the wild ponies on Dartmoor? Because the Dartmoor Pony is very much loved by many Dutch youngsters.
And why does there need to be a change of policy? Not too long ago the moor was overgrazed and limits were put in place in such a way that the bureaucracy of it did not make things easy for the hill farmers and others keeping ponies on the commons.
Through no fault of their own many were pushed into gradually losing heart to keep their ponies which could potentially become a serious problem. Together with the sheep and cows, the ponies are maintaining a landscape and ecosystem and it would be a tragedy if it were lost.
So the reoccurring problem of how to keep the numbers just right needs to be correctly addressed time and again.
I felt compelled to find out more, so I allowed myself an exploratory little trip in order to indulge on the beauty of a countryside I love so much and where some 30 years ago, sitting on a tor, I made the decision to move from the flats of Holland to the green and lush hills of the Southwest of England.
Of course I was also hoping to find some 'pony people', who could shine their light on some of the issues I did not quite understand.
Ha! After yesterday I could start a new career as the Dick Francis of Dartmoor. There's all kinds of intrigues going on in this rugged part of Devon; only, sadly the ponies are the victims...
A DARTMOOR PONY OR A DARTMOOR HILL PONY, THAT IS THE QUESTION!
Just to make things clear for those who didn't know yet. The Dartmoor Pony is a breed with papers attached and the Dartmoor Hill Pony is the wild pony who through an evolution of some 4000 years has learned to survive on Dartmoor. It comes in all colours and sizes unlike the Dartmoor Pony, which has to be bay, brown, black, grey, chestnut or roan, no piebalds allowed and excessive white markings discouraged.
A contraception program for the Dartmoor Hill Pony mares was brutally put on hold by a dramatic and long-winded investigation, which was a huge blow for the volunteers of the charity organisation 'Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’, who were in charge of the execution of this potentially great solution of not having to shoot some 400 foals every year.
After yesterday I know quite a bit about the commitment, the management, the fights; in short, the problems of humans and beasts on Dartmoor. This, because on my six-hour adventure I quickly found two of the key figures involved...
EVIE AND LILY, CHLOE AND ROSIE
But not until I had met little Chloe and Rosie on the backs of their two delightful grey ponies, Evie and Lily, led by their patient mum. Evie and Lily were typical Dartmoor Hill ponies, happily re-homed after having been rescued. Not every person buying a hill pony knows what they are getting themselves into, which causes for some terrifying animal abuse.
'If you stroke Evie you must stroke Lily also', Rosie told me with a very serious face.
THE LADY IN THE PUB...A HORNETS NEST DISCOVERED
After leaving the two frantically waving mini horse riders, I drove through Two Bridges to Hexworthy, slowly passing Huccaby farm, gazing with nostalgia at the few tents in the little field on the river Dart. This is where my then boyfriend and I used to camp nearly 40 years ago among the South Devon cows with Bertie, the bull, who decided to check out our tent one evening.
I went to the same small hotel 'The Forest Inn' where we used to have dinner on a rainy night, when cooking outside the tent was not fun. There, at the bar, used to sit some locals with their pints; very likely the hill farmers I was hoping to find. Wrong time of the day for that, of course. 'But', said the landlord, 'that lady at the food bar will tell you everything.'
Well, This lady, SJ (short for Sarah-Jane Norris) was keen to talk. An enthousiastic hands-on woman with two long black plaits gave me a waterfall of information and not all was that uplifting.
Having lived and worked on Dartmoor for many years, SJ was now the photographer at all the events organised by the ‘Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’. Also at the traditional drifts in the autumn where the ponies are gathered in the pounds. There the owners can divide their ponies into what gets sold, what goes back on the moor and, sadly, what will have to be shot.
Have a look on SJ's timeline; her photographs are stunning!
CHARLOTTE FAULKNER, DRIVEN AND A FORCE TO RECKON WITH
With a huge amount of respect SJ talked about Charlotte Faulkner, the unstoppable engine behind the ‘Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’, a registered charity. Charlotte has been battling for years to drop the numbers of foals which are denied to grow up. She has been working tirelessly to try and make life for the hill farmers as easy as possible in order for them to want to carry on keeping ponies, to improve the life of the ponies themselves and with that maintain the Dartmoor ecosystem, with all the little plants and butterflies that go with it. Not only the sheep and cows, but also the ponies who don’t mind eating gorse and other prickly things, play their part for Dartmoor to survive the way we love it so very much.
One of my questions to SJ was: why not the ‘pony pill’, which I had read about? Why this new idea to keep the ponies up to three years, when there is still the issue of slaughter? And, by the way, are people really going to eat horse meat in the local restaurants?
SJ said that, although she wouldn't be able to eat horse meat herself, that she saw the reason for trying to give it a go. But the surprise of the day was when she talked about the contraception project.
'Have you not heard of the investigation?' SJ became clearly emotional when she talked about how this project, which had already been proven to be successful in its very first year, had been obstructed in such a vicious way. But she felt that Charlotte had to tell me this herself.
When I left, SJ thanked me warmly for listening, 'this was fate,' is what she said...
UNJUST AND UNDESERVED
Back in my little car, I marvelled at the colours, even on a rainy day, cruising slowly through one of the bleakest and dramatic parts of the moor so as to end up in Ashburton where I found Charlotte at the hairdresser. An unusual place to meet, but otherwise I would have missed her altogether.
Charlotte Faulkner, a formidable woman, with a beautiful natural presence. Her hands tell the story of hard work, not spoiled with fancy garden gloves.
Hair wet, with the hairdresser quietly working away, she explained, how some charities for whatever reason took offence to her contraception project and drug her into an unjust and undeserved investigation.
After having done endless thorough research, Charlotte was given the official permission to inject the mares with a dart gun without needing to have a veterinarian present. Why these charities found it necessary to demand a ‘government agency investigation’ against a scheme already having proven to be successful, Charlotte doesn't really go into that. She clearly is still very angry but does not want to lower herself to wild accusations.
Charlotte paid for her own defence, but the point is... she won!
BACK TO THE PILL BUT SLOW PROGRESS
So the 'pill project' has been started up yet again but it's slow go. Sadly, through this wearing and messy investigation, many hill farmers and owners got scared off. It has given the pony community more exposure than these people, of whom many live a lonely life, cared for. Charlotte will have to work hard to convince as many as possible to join the scheme again.
And this is why the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association has now launched the scheme to let the youngsters live up to 3 years-old before a decision is made about their future. Yes, some will still have to be culled, but if at least their meat is used, they have had three good years and not died for nothing. Also, it gives Charlotte the chance to oversee their well-being during transport and at a small local abattoir, where the promise was made that the ponies will be received early, when all is still quiet, so as to make the process quick and as little invasive as possible.
THE TRAGEDY OF A DRIVEN WOMAN
Charlotte told me, and I could read the sadness in her eyes, that it never was, nor will be, the goal of the organisation to produce ponies for meat. Only, it is a temporary measure to cover the time it takes for the contraception project to become generally accepted. This had not been necessary if she had not been stopped in the first place.
And of course there will be foals...only not too many!
GET RID OF THE STALLIONS
Yes, why not get rid of the stallions, some say? Dartmoor is a vast country with a difficult terrain. No matter how well you tried, there will always be a clever little colt (like the little one in the picture having a pee) hiding behind a big boulder of granite in order to bounce from behind just at the right time in spring and do his fruitful job.
Charlotte said, 'really, to decrease the amount of foals, it would have to be the other way around; very few mares and lots of stallions.'
LEGENDS, ROMANCE AND DRAMA HAND IN HAND
Somewhere I read that in the 16th century Henry VIII wanted to get rid of any horse under 15 hands, because they would not be able to carry the heavy armour. This caused for the farmers to let lose any small horse they had on the moorland where hopefully they would be safe. This was part of the evolution of the Dartmoor Hill Pony.
In the story my great friend Brian Webber, farrier and born and bred on Dartmoor, told me, romance and drama meet yet again.
'In the sixties, during one of the fiercest winters Dartmoor has ever known, the hill farmers were not able to reach their ponies for weeks because of the vast amount of snow. When finally the thaw kicked in, they found circles of dead ponies.'
'The older ponies had circled the little ones in order to keep them warm, but in their desire to save them their feet had frozen to the ground.'
Brian was a great story teller; whenever he was shoeing my horses he would just tell tales, often about life on Dartmoor, which made me love it even more…
A HELPING HAND
These days, not only the quad bikes help to reach these little survivors when the going gets tough. Social media also plays its part. On Facebook I saw a post for donations of hay this winter, when the moor was not anymore able to supply anything decent.
But the ‘Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony’ need more. All volunteers pay their own costs; every penny they get goes straight to the ponies.
I have done my best to give you my story and I so hope you will want to help SJ and Charlotte and all those other wild pony lovers who dedicate their time and endless effort to keep the hill ponies happy.
It is because of them that we can enjoy a day, or a weekend, or more in this soul haunting piece of ancient countryside, Dartmoor.
Top picture: Dartmoor Hill Ponies near Princetown
Second picture: Chloe and Rosie on Evie and Lily
Third picture: a little colt recovering after castration
Fourth picture: this tiny thing, having a pee, could probably next year's rascal covering the entire neighbourhood!
Bottom picture: one of SJ's stunning pictures
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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...
My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' with the subtitle 'A Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World' has been received with more enthusiasm than I possibly could have hoped for. Click here to contact me and I will send you a copy. £7.50 + postage, or click here to order from Amazon.