YOGA, PILATES EN ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE, FITNESS WITH FEEL
DRESSAGE STARTS WITH YOU!
When we think of dressage our attention immediately goes towards training the horse. We want for it to move with balance, because we know that is one of the most important ingredients to achieve the desired results.
But how can a horse be well-balanced when 50 kilos of weight is not exactly in the middle or leaning too far forward or back? One hip is higher than the other or the shoulder blades are stuck out?
So, let's be honest...dressage starts with you!
My pupils Hazel Clewley and Liz Bailey, both extremely fit women, convinced me of joining a yoga class because I saw how their balance and position on their horse got very quickly much better from the moment they joined.
HEAVY WHEEL BARROWS AND RUGS
Especially when you're young it is easy to forget about body wear and tear. To underestimate the toll on muscles and joints, especially in the muddy autumn and winter. Wheel barrows are heavily loaded to avoid an extra trip to the muck heap and heavy rugs for in the stable and out in the field are thrown on many times a day.
FITNESS IS IN!
Fitness is in! Everyone knows about spinning, weights are lifted and marathons run. What a difference between some fourty years ago and now. The fitness development to help us grow old happy and healthy has taken such a flight in the last ten years or so.
It is very available and a wonderful development and for many the perfect option to work on weight loss and/or stamina. But when, as a rider, the rest of your day is also fairly physical, you may need to consider other options. You might need to work on suppleness and learn about engaging without tension. And it is not not cool, even when you are still really young, to join a Yoga or Pilates class.
After a relatively long recovery from a back injury from many years ago a friend suggested the Alexander Technique to me. A one-on-one method where you are retaught your body to sit, lift and bend -and all other kinds of banal movements- in a novel and uncomplicated way. We forget as we grow up and it causes endless damage.
What a shame, if had learned that before my injury my position as a rider would have been so much better early on and it would have made my riding so much more effortless and effective!
WHERE ARE MY SEAT BONES?
To be able to ride we think quickly about fitness and strength, but riders are often fit and strong because of their way of life. So, choosing an option of a work-out with a focus on balance and suppleness is probably a better plan.
The Alexander Technique has helped me tremendously to 'find' my seat bones. It has given me a body awareness of which I pick the fruits every single day.
It is called a technique because once you have learned how to use it you just do not forget and it stays with you forever. On days when my back is not very cooperative I can still function fairly normal because of it.
YOGA IS NOT BORING!
Having started yoga this spring has given me a very different view of what it entails. I thought it was a bit too vague for me, possibly a bit boring. How wrong I was!
If ever there is a way to work on your core strength it is yoga, this together with learning to breath from a lower part of your body. The perfect combination for the dressage rider where breathing correctly is so very much part of successful training. Think rhythm and transitions.
FITNESS WITH FEEL HELPS YOU AND YOUR HORSE
The exercise classes and/or techniques I have mentioned not only make you stronger but specifically focus on learning how to be strong without abusing your body. That not only helps you on your horse, but also with pushing your heavy wheel barrows (with a little less muck in it from now on!) or sitting behind a desk.
It is fitness with feel and when you take the time to feel and realize how it improves your own balance, you will be able to feel better what your horse needs to improve its balance.
WE ARE PLENTY TOUGH!
We learn everything about how to warm up our horse before the more difficult exercises and movements. We seldom think about our own warm-up and the negative effects because of it, especially on a cold day, on our horse.
Horse riders are a fairly tough breed. The sport demands a certain toughness. But especially because of that we should not forget to develop that other side of ourselves, learning to feel, and allow time and space for that.
It is not only our body which will benefit but also our horses. They will soon show you their appreciation during their training. And it is just so great when you are able to 'feel' that!
Top picture: Liz with George
Bottom: Hazel with Trundle
TEAM BLEEKMAN, FROM DEVON TO GELDERLAND AND BEYOND
A VISIT TO TEAM BLEEKMAN
When I walk into the kitchen of the Bleekman family, the first thing my eye catches are the wooden shoes of Edward. Also I still wear them regularly in the yard, although I have learned the hard way they're no good on slippery muddy hills.
It has been a while since my last visit, when Edward helped me patiently with his stories, of the beginnings of the KWPN horse, for my book 'The Farmer, The Coal Merchant, The Baker...'.
But Team Bleekman is a work in progress and they have had a great year, so it was certainly time for another visit.
After the international event in Boekelo in Holland I wrote a blog for Dutch equine magazine the 'Hoefslag' and here, for the 'Bleekman groupies', is the translation.
A SMALL PIECE OF GELDERLAND IN DEVON
Whorridge Farm became Whorridge Stud after Edward and Clissy started life together and what began with some four or five stallions, among whom Grannex, Mayhill and Karandasj, has gradually become a stud where the rolling fields are filled with some fantastic young stock, from carefully selected parents.
It always added something extra when in the past dropping my broodmares off with Edward. Talking our own language with the charming dialect of Gelderland floating through it. As much as I feel at home in Cornwall, a part of my heart stayed where I was born and bred.
But of course the main reason was those wonderful stallions. For my halfbreds Mark Todd's Mayhill, who he had competed internationally, was particularly interesting. This was nearly thirty years ago and there were not that many proven stallions around at that time. Also, to know my mares were in the safe and experienced hands of Edward made the choice extremely easy.
A YOUNG ENTERPRIZE
You felt it at the time, when you were there; this was a young enterprize run by two people who knew what they wanted and now, some thirty years later, Clissy has come back with her oldest daughter, Alfie, from the Boekelo event in the Netherlands, just in time to prepare for Aldon.
There are the three of them, three daughters, Althea (Alfie), Janou (Nui) and Katie, who all are naturals on the back of a horse.
Alfie had been to Boekelo three times before with mixed results, so she is pleased as punch to have had a great ride, a proper confidence giver. The only nine year-old mare Dasj had one refusal x-country and a pole down show-jumping and that is quite an achievement for a horse so young and inexperienced. Not a surprise therefore that Alfie is more than ready for and looking forward to next season.
HOME BRED AND PRODUCED
Of course Edward gives me a smug grin when I congratulate him with this great achievement -Dasj being one of their homebreds-, at the same time pointing at the wall where there is a smart picture of Bintang II, also bred by Edward. Bintang, together with his rider Laura Renwick, is proving himself to be a top quality show-jumper with a great future still ahead of him. Both Bintang and Dasj have the same granny -probably not a coincidence, knowing Edward- who is by Grannex, whose name keeps on turning up during my visit.
Grannex stood at Whorridge stud for several years and there is still sperm available, as is also still from Mayhill and Karandasj. Edward tells me Grannex is particularly useful in the mare lines.
Karandasj came from the Venderbosch family (jointly owned with well known equine veterinarian Jan Greve), which yet again proves the importance of their close connection. This is where Edward learned to be an expert at handling stallions from the great character, Freriks, possibly one of the greatest stallion handlers Holland has ever known.
When Alfie joins us at the table and I ask her about the decision to ride for the Netherlands, she is very quick to stop her dad, who only just managed to say, 'not my decision...'. She wants to make very clear that it was her idea and her decision to use the fact that she has a Dutch passport as well as an English one.
She explains that, as a young rider, she had a very lovely and brave horse, which unfortunately was not super fast. With the enormous amount of young riders available in England on expensive and often ready-made horses, she wouldn't have stood a chance to ever qualify for a team, which is what she so desperately wanted. So it was an easy decision: Holland did want them and at the Venderbosch family there was always a bed and a stable.
JOHAN VENDERBOSCH IS LIKE A DAD
Go back fourty years or so, when Edward and his uncle would drive into the now internationally famous stud 'De Radstake', owned by Johan Venderbosch, on many a Sunday afternoon, which soon became Edward's second home.
Not only his second home but also where he learned every trick of the trade. 'Johan was like a father for Edward, still is', Clissy says.
At that very moment grandson Bjinse Venderbosch walks into the kitchen. He came back with them from the European Young Riders Eventing Championships at Millstreet in Ireland having competed there for the Dutch Junior team. Nui, together with Granntevka Prince (Hah, there's Grannex again!), got a grand bronze in the Young Riders Section. Bjinse stayed on with the Bleekman family for the rest of the competition season. Obviously the love between the two families goes both ways.
I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE
Alfie continues, 'I am not the only one and so don't feel vulnerable because of it. There are so many foreign riders based here in England. The availability of good courses is so great and relatively easy to get to. Can't compare it to anywhere else, really.'
'I may not speak the Dutch language, but I feel as Dutch as I do English and our life style, with our second home with the Venderbosch family in Holland and all the international events we go to, I have friends all over the world.' (Oh dear, Mrs. May, shot through my head at that moment, what are you doing!)
Both girls (Alfie and Nui, Katie wasn't home) do indeed have a very direct 'Dutchness' about them, although, their mother's genes could have helped that along a bit, too. I can imagine that at that lovely big kitchen table there will be the occasionally heated discussion.
However, democracy certainly reigns in the Bleekman household, with room for everyone's opinion. Nui and Alfie get help from different trainers. Nui has chosen to train with Mark Todd and dressage rider Anna Ross, whereas Alfie visits Lucinda Green and Ferdie Eilberg. Together they do share show-jump trainer Allen Fazakerley when he is coming their way.
BOEKELO: TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE...
For Clissy every year at Boekelo is a 'trip down memory lane'. It was the great Dutch trainer Roeli Bril who got Edward on Clissy's lorry some thirty years ago, Clissy being a regular there. Edward had to be on a flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles for a horse transport where he worked in the racehorse world in the States at the time.
Well... and then this horrible gale arrived and kept them a bit longer at Boekelo because the ferry didn't run...
Clissy puts a huge bag with pictures on the kitchen table.
UNBELIEVABLE, MARK TODD THEN AS WELL!
Loads of pictures, loads of great and also very funny moments. A very young Mark Todd who, during one of the first events at Boekelo went straight through a little bridge of railroad sleepers, with horse and all! The time was stopped, the bridge rebuilt and Mark continued. It was early days for the Dutch to be involved in the sport of eventing and the quality of course building has improved since then!
That was somewhere during the eighties. Now, a full generation later, there Mark was, this time in the same section as daughter Alfie who is becoming as much a regular as her mother.
When, during my visit, Alfie led the small but ever so brave Dasj out of her stable for the picture, I could not help but think of Mark Todd's very special Charisma, who once stole everyone's heart. 'Yes, Mark certainly has a soft spot for her', Alfie says.
EDWARD HOLDING THE FORT
And Edward, he stayed behind holding the fort. There are to many valuable steeds roaming the fields for all to up sticks. Seven mares in foal; 22 competition horses of which half of them home bred. Plenty of youngsters, among which two stallions which Edward particularly likes. But he is a Gelderland man, born and bred, so he is sparse with his his words.
A SMALL HORSE FACTORY
All in all this is a small but extremely efficient functioning horse factory where all involved are fully committed and no unnecessary luxuries permitted. Every penny goes to where those pennies are most needed. Which are the dreams and goals of and Edward, and Clissy, and their three enthousiastic daughters. Because you can feel that in their kitchen with a cup of coffee in front of you, the desire to move forward and think big by young and old.
Like Alfie said, ‘we do not have the money to buy expensive horses, so we have to breed and make them ourselves.’ Well, they certainly have the best mum and dad for that!
A HAPPY DRIVE BACK HOME
I left the Bleekman household and Whorridge Stud with a happy feeling. It was a wild ride back. When I left home the clouds were yellow and the sun an eerie orange. In six hours back and forth with hurricane Ophelia breathing in my neck. But, I have heard the wooden shoes clump through the yard and the familiar Achterhoek dialect from my beloved Gelderland. Back to Cornwall, home away from home...
You can order my book 'The Farmer, The Coal Merchant, The Baker..' on Amazon for only £7.50
It tells the story how the Gelderland horse helped to make the KWPN horse internationally famous. Interspersed with the great anecdotes from Johan Venderbosch, founder of Stud De Radstake and Henk Nijhof of Team Nijhof among others. They were once farmers, coal merchants and bakers, hence the title.
Top picture: Team Bleekman, from left to right: Clissy, Edward, Dasj, Alfie, Nui
Middle: One of the Mayhill offspring I bred with her mum Bodrigan, the mare Claire Daniels show-jumped so very successfully into Grade A. The best foal I ever bred, but unfortunately died of a colic.
Bottom: Mark Todd on Mayhill taken from my 1996 Whorridge Stud catalogue
ADRAIN JAMES BRANNELLY: HORSEMAN, HUMBLE AND HONEST
FINALLY, A CHANCE TO BUILD A TINY BRIDGE
Just over two months ago I had a phone call. Audry Cole, who occasionally has lessons with me, had had a nasty fall of her young horse, breaking three ribs and her collar bone. Her show-jump trainer was now taking the horse to a local event for her. Could he please book a dressage lesson.
Hah! This could be the moment I'd been waiting for. Maybe I could build a tiny little bridge...
Always keen to see a new face and only a few days later I was in an extremely good mood and heading towards Plymouth.
Adrain was the name of the young Irishman who was on his way back from a small hack before his lesson. Audrey had told me about him before. This young guy was one of the riders for Monty Roberts, also teaching show-jumping. Audrey told me he had helped her terrifically with her jumping and she took it upon herself to organize the odd clinic for him.
I have blogged before that when I hear any name connected to some form of Natural Horsemanship I do feel slightly uncomfortable and not because I am against these techniques, but because in the past I have been pushed around a bit by the odd trainer who advocates these techniques as the one and only way and so we, 'conventional trainers' are therefore seen as narrow-minded and stupid. This was extremely insulting and humiliating.
But I had heard from several people what a nice chap he was so I was determined to make it into a fun and productive lesson in the hope that afterwards, with a cup of tea, I would have the chance to air myself, of course giving Adrain the chance to air himself, if he felt the need.
On arrival, Audrey told me with a mischievous grin on her face that he had even polished his boots for me. Very naughty, two middle-aged women making fun of this young Irishman.
Adrain arrived, we shook hands and went to work. I did not need long to see that this was a confident and experienced horseman with a secure jumping seat. Only, he had let his stirrups down for his dressage lesson, so I asked him to put them up again. He was sitting on a horse which had unseated his rider in a most unkind manner so I wanted Adrain to be in his own natural balance. I think he was pleasantly surprised.
A STICK AND A POOPER SCOOPER
Funny, because this was a dressage lesson and I a new face, I suspect Adrain rode more conservative than he would possibly do when training on his own. The grey was pretty much behind the leg, lazy actually. For me that is a sign for trouble with a young horse, especially at an event where all kinds of things happen -speaker systems, another horse racing by, quad bikes, you name it- an apparently lazy young horse can often unleash some bottled- up energy to let rip at those moments with the rider not expecting it.
Soon I was bouncing around banging with a stick on the pooper scooper, anything I could find to make some noise. Great to have rider on top with good 'stickability', if needed. And, yes, the young grey woke up nicely, although I felt a total fool and not exactly a dignified dressage trainer.
But this is not a blog about how the lesson went. No, this is about how great it was to work with a horseman from, let's just call it 'the other side' for ease, who was wide open and 100% approachable. I had hoped for that very much but, to be honest, had not dared to expect as much.
I mentioned earlier how frustrating it was to be pigeonholed and pushed into a small box with the word 'narrow-minded dressage trainer' on it. As a matter of fact, I am very proud that I am the opposite of narrow-minded and have always wanted to learn more, still do, if it helps my training and the well-being of the horses I work with.
This was going to be the moment I hoped to be allowed out of the box and show we can do this differently.
FEET TO THE FIRE
I can not tell you how delighted I was when Adrain wanted to book another lesson. I had totally assumed it was a one-off. And that while I had certainly put his feet to the fire. After the lesson, in Audrey's kitchen, having listened patiently to my frustrations, his answer was clear, 'I do not belong to anyone. I do also work for Monty Roberts, from whom I've learned a lot, and otherwise I am open-minded to anything that can add to me becoming a better horseman.' Point taken...
Before temporarily flying off to the next job, Adrain has had four or five sessions with me and the guy is like a sponge, able to take in new information very quickly and deal with it. It is clear dressage is not his first love (it doesn't have to be, as far as I'm concerned), but he wants to learn for the sake of learning, not only to win and I like that very much.
I have fully understood that he is open-minded to anything that can enrich him as a horseman. Also, that he sticks to a horse like glue, but when he does go, he rolls and gets back on. Handy for me and very relaxing during our lessons.
I have made an effort to watch him work with some of his clients and seen the result. He is great with people and clever at helping everyone to feel more confident with their horses, often using a good bit of Irish humour, cheeky grin included.
‘THERE IS NO QUICK FIX’
So, yes, I am impressed; Adrain is honest, respectful and above all, humble. And in my experience that is not always the case with the new young 'alternative pro's' which the Natural Horsemanship world has produced.
In our chat in Audrey's kitchen we soon agreed that most problems with horses occur because of too much food and not enough work. And when further along in our conversation Adrain said, 'there is no quick fix', it was like music to my ears. Especially when during some of the demonstrations these days the audience is given the misconception that anything can be achieved in no time at all.
So...I am happy and very satisfied. From what I've seen so far, I can back Adrain's methods. I can trust, that when a horse which is started or corrected by Adrain and continues its education with me, this horse has been treated with honest respect and will therefore be respectful and trusting of the human race, which makes my job much more straightforward.
If I run across a complication which needs a young and capable body on top, I know who to call. Very important to me, Adrain proved to be open to my advice and suggestions which occasionally were very far from his bed. But he tried and felt the result.
That is because Adrain James Brannely is a true horseman in heart and soul, to be taken seriously. First little bridge built; mission accomplished!
Top: Adrain with the lovely Ollie
Middle: on the big and powerful horse of Sally Jane
Bottom: wondering what the joke is? During a demonstration with Monty Roberts
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.
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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.