Learning the hard way...
Some twenty five years ago, an old friend of mine, then an upcoming, now an extremely established authority and journalist in the Dutch equine world, asked me with a rather mischievous smile: 'So, what took the Dutch and Germans generations, you are going to do all over again?' My, in hindsight, rather naive answer was an enthusiastic positive head nod.
We were standing next to my one- and two year-old, both out of an 'Irish Draught type' broodmare with unknown background. I bought her as a three year-old as I liked her short-coupled conformation and gentle character. Both youngsters were by the thoroughbred Sousa. I was very proud and didn't exactly like being made fun of. And it did not get any better when his then wife said about the two year-old: 'I do hope she will grow into her head'. Bodrigan's head was indeed rather large, but of course proud mothers have the capability to not see those kind of things.
Well, to cut a long story short, Bodrigan became a well-respected grade-A show-jumper and her sister Marimaid stayed with me and together we competed Prix St. George and trained Grand Prix. We were close to do our first Intermediare when disaster struck and she had to be put down. Also, of the next generation a three quarter bred by the successful eventing stallion May Hill of Mark Todd, competed successfully at intermediate level eventing and with her junior rider was selected to compete in The Netherlands (which is were I'm from, incidentally) as a prospect for the team.
Would I do it again? No! You've only heard half the story. Out of nine, three were put down because of hereditary problems and one died as a just weened foal of a split stomach for no traceable reason. The emotional and also financial strain reached a high (or rather a low) when a three quarter bred beautiful mare by again May Hill turned out to have a behavioural problem of a magnitude that she was likely to kill someone one day. I had her put down as a four year-old after she tried to trample an experienced horseman, who was helping loading her, in a total frenzy. Her mother Marimaid had the same streak but not as dangerous but I now had to recognize I had a problem. It was then that I decided to stop breeding and what a wise decision it was.
Lesson learned: never breed with mares with an unknown background. Use proven stallions. Two of the offspring by a local stallion (who had a minor racing career due to an injury??) had stifle problems which kept them from having a successful sports career.
The Dutch, Germans and other countries on the continent did their homework. As the years went on and specially now that I am freelancing for website Horses International, I understand so much more about what breeds a good horse. Not just proven stallions but proven mare lines which go back generations.
And guess what: the friend who once made fun of me and my aspirations as a breeder is now my boss, Dirk Willem Rosie, editor of many high profile equine magazines in Holland.
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I am the first one to admit I am not brave.
When I am in a precarious situation with a horse I tend to forget I am not brave and deal with it accordingly, but if you asked me to go and sit on a horse that rears I would actually refuse.
When working with a problem horse I like to gather information by doing plenty of groundwork in order to make a training plan that works for the horse and me. I am very capable to admit if it is not my cup of tea and suggest someone trustworthy who is more of a cowboy and has a bit more youthful flexibility.
Having lived in England now for nearly thirty years I have come to the conclusion that, as the equine sport in this country all started with the hunting and racing (preferably over fences), it is a little bit embarrassing to admit that you are not exactly a daredevil. This is a country where people have jumped five-bar gates since they could barely walk in of course terrible weather conditions (as hunting takes place in autumn and winter, just like rugby: very muddy!).
I did go hunting a few times. I was helping a neighbor, now friend, with some of her horses. She, together with her husband, occasionally imported some horses from Ireland, and I did some schooling for them. She very kindly invited me a few times and I must say, being very lucky with the weather, I had a lovely time..... But I saw some people do things that to Dutch dressage-me looked breathtakingly scary. Also going through bogs on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall closely packed behind one another as the rider in front knew where the hard ground was made me feel highly uncomfortable. At some point my friend and I talked about what to do when things start to go a bit wrong. "Oh well" she said. "You can always bail out." "Bail out??" "Yes, bail out. Just jump of when you think it gets too dangerous." It had honestly never occurred to me to jump of a horse. I personally always tried to stay on top for as long as I possibly could.
So, there's the difference. It is about how you grew up and in Holland we tend to spend more time in an arena. Also, the countryside by nature does not lend itself to be as wild and adventurous as the rolling countryside of good old England allows one to be. When teaching the North Cornwall Pony Club some years ago, I walked a stiff x-country course with a mother and her 10 year-old daughter. Mothers advice was:`if in doubt, kick'.
Of course things are gradually changing. The Warmblood horse made its entry quite a few years ago and England is now, especially since the Olympics and the World Championships, very much on the dressage map, to say the least! Dressage is now a well-respected, even trendy, sport, rather than something only the `wimps' used to do.
Riding dressage is actually not for the fainthearted. I could have told you that in the beginning. The higher the level of the dressage horse, the fitter, the more gymnastic it becomes and being cheeky can turn into some unusual movements, hence the bucking-strap seen occasionally.
As a trainer I occasionally deal with pupils who plain and simply got scared of their own horse. A sudden change in the weather, a bit too much intensive schooling or simply a surprise from an aggressive dog when out hacking can cause some serious and unexpected trouble.
It is a fine line to put this fear out in the open without making the situation worse. It is not shameful to be scared. It is a terrible feeling when you realize that you have stopped breathing and your heart is literally in your throat. It is also important for the rider to understand that the horse has probably lost its confidence as well, so it's both ways. Sometimes you can not solve this by yourself and you need to have a trainer you can trust, who is able to push just enough so that the comfort zone is stretched again little by little without over-standing the mark.
Trainer and rider have to assess together what caused it and from there make a plan. Firstly, is it a health issue. After that, is more groundwork needed, when ring sourness could be the case is hacking the answer or do both horse and rider need a proper brake all together in order to make a fresh start. Be ready for it to be a fairly slow process with ups and downs But the key is to never feel you have to do anything you do not want to do. The horse will feel this and respond accordingly. When you have achieved only the smallest little bit of something be very pleased, not just with yourself but tell your horse how much you appreciate this little step in the right direction. It will soon turn in a happy snort.
Not too long ago a rider told me: `since I have had these problems I have learned that I need to know much more of the psychology of the horse'. Well done!
Only occasionally it is a personality clash and the rider simply has got the wrong horse. Be brave and admit it in time so this horse still has a future rather than being too damaged to be passed on.
For both horse and rider this is a very lonely place and as fellow riders we should never underestimate the harm we can do with the wrong remark or a 'bit of a look'. We probably have all been there at some time or another and if you haven't, well, you have just been very lucky.
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Dressage on a shoestring in Portugal
There were many sad faces when Tiddy and Martin Hamilton left North Cornwall for Kenia some ten years ago.
On the other hand, it became many of their friends perfect holiday destination.
The pair worked hard and made their dream come true: running safari’s either on horseback or in a jeep... Martin‘s style (a bit scary at times but in safe hands).
The fact horses became part of their life again was no surprise. Although Tiddy insisted she did not really want to run a yard again, all of us knew that a life without these four-legged friends would be an impossibility for this experienced horsewoman.
Last year they decided it was time for another adventure. They successfully sold their now well-established business and left for Portugal, walking out of Lisbon airport with four suitcases and a dog.
Finding a project
Martin Hamilton, a project manager as much as a builder, found a contact in the area of Fundao, a town about one hours drive to the west of the Estrella mountains. The couple only looked at three properties and settled for a ruin of a barn set amongst an endless amount of delightful peach- and cherry orchards, olive groves and fields with cork trees. They have some ten acres of land which was left to go wild and is filled with wild thyme, mint and lavender, which they are hoping to turn into grassland as, of course, you can guess, they have already acquired three horses.
Their first attempt to reseed one field this spring failed, as colonies of ants dutifully carried the grass seed away. Their neighbour farmer who did the job forgot to tell them that because of this problem the locals tend to seed their fields in the autumn.
From Bolventor Vicarage to swimming pool with lion
Although I had been Tiddy’s dressage instructor for some years, our friendship solidified when Tiddy and Martin moved to the Vicarage at Bolventor. We had a great exchange going, Tiddy backing the youngsters I bred, I supporting her with her event horses. We laughed a lot, also occasionally cried together.
So seeing Tiddy at Lisbon airport was a joy and the drive back through the mellow Mediterranean evening air in a bright yellow Saab convertible great fun.
As we bounced along the last bit of the unpaved tracks towards the property a strange figure started to take shape. It was a huge white lion, bought in a garden centre, overlooking the new swimming pool in style.
The welcome was warm, the wine flowed and then it was time for bed.
I couldn’t wait to meet what was going to be my project for the next five days.
The next morning Tiddy and Jolie were waiting in the cool of the shelter. Luckily it wasn’t that hot as between the heat and the flies daytime riding is not always fun in this area. Jolie is a six year-old Lusitano mare who loves to eat. So, although once a rescue case she was now `looking well’. Tiddy found Jolie and the other two horses through Nick Burd, an event rider who also moved to Portugal. The great big black warmblood type gelding Zorro, still skinny, but apparently three times fatter than when he arrived is for Martin and there is the nice little dun youngster Obby, only just backed.
Jolie had a tricky mouth and a more or less non existent canter, however, she turned out to be a fast learner with a very sweet disposition. We were working on a nice flat area at the far end of the property near a little stream lined with alder trees .It was very romantic and so unlike how dressage training is done, these days; between walls on sometimes on twenty thousand pound surfaces.
The surface was naturally there. It was just harrowed and picked over for stones. As the soil is more or less pulverized granite it wasn’t too dusty, either. It rode surprisingly well.
We had five lovely days. Jolie was worked in the morning and after that some exploring around the area was done. Martin and Tiddy did not sit around in their first year in Portugal. The barn which was derelict until only a year ago is now a lovely up-to-date comfortable house with a veranda overlooking the swimming pool and with a view over their fields with the three horses.
On our last evening Tiddy and I were doing the numbers. And this is what I found fascinating about this experience. Jolie cost six hundred euros. Tiddy found a saddle on E-bay for ninety pounds. I am not a saddler but it rode nice and the mare was very comfortable with it. The riding area cost no more than a bit of fuel for the tractor and some sweat and a bit of back-ache picking stones.
The best bit though is the shoeing. Tiddy had the local farrier and was so disgusted with his lack of competence that she went to the local market and bought a set of shoes for ten euros and put them on herself. I can only say that I wouldn’t have picked up on it looking at the mares feet and she was as sound as a bell. The grand total of this operation is still well below the thousand pounds.
All who have known them over the years, though, know very well that your names have got to be Tiddy and Martin Hamilton to pull this of. And good luck to them!
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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.
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