Blog posts about my personal story
MAARTEN VAN STEK IS COMING BACK!
A CLINIC IN MAY
Yes, Maarten van Stek is back on form! And visiting Cornwall again for a clinic in May. Last year he couldn't make it due to a lengthy recovery period because of multiple leg fractures after having been stuck under his horse who had a very unfortunate slip on the concrete.
Yet again, the fact that Maarten is back riding and instructing after such a horrendous accident tells you of his phenomenal resilience. We, who have met him and were already part of his clinics, know his story. Maarten has been at the dressage subtop for many years, despite the fact that he lost one arm because of an accident when he was only six years old. Other than having trained numerous horses ready to compete Grand Prix, he has coached five Dutch riders into Grand Prix level and 17 into the PSG.
MAARTEN: UNDERSTANDING, FORGIVING AND A GOOD SENSE OF HUMOUR
What I personally find Maarten's greatest gift is, that he, despite the fact that he himself has had to be as tough as nails to have such a brilliant career as a sublime horseman, he is very understanding and forgiving to anyone struggling at any level.
Having trained so many horses and riders to the highest levels, there is nothing kocky or snobby about him and his sense of humour, together with his knowledge, has given all of us the chance to feel secure and free to ride with confidence, at the same time able to absorb his comments and thrive. For me it has meant I have developed my teaching skills through watching him and for my pupils it meant we were able to continue our journey with more focus and understanding about where we are heading.
Below some statements from some who have taken part in Maarten's previous clinics in Cornwall:
Lucy Lloyd: Maarten's clinics have been invaluable to tweak and improve many aspects of our training programme. This helped me to move up to medium level dressage, something I never really thought I would achieve on my old eventer, Tomtom.
Becky Wilkins: I had a lesson with Maarten on his last visit and I can honestly say that it was incredible. He identified and addressed the small issues that I was having with my little mare and made a huge difference to the way she went. I was then able to work on his advice afterwards with Liz. With Maarten and Liz's help we've been consistently in the top 10 after dressage which we definitely weren't before. I would strongly recommend booking for a lesson with Maarten, he is brilliant!
Emily Skerrett: I had a lesson with Maarten when he visited the UK last, and really enjoyed it. I am a grade 5 para rider and found it very helpful being taught by someone who not only understood my disability, but my fierce independence and also understood my hot warmblood who then was recently imported from Holland. He worked with us with a lot of sensitivity and insight which left me feeling more empowered and confident with some good tools to help my horse. Looking forward to seeing him again!
Davina Pritchard: Maarten is a really inspirational trainer. He is very firm, direct and clear in what he expects from you as a rider and he doesn’t settle for anything less than 100% commitment. Yet he is insightful and generous with his time and knowledge and helped gain real improvements to my riding and my horses way of going.
Liz Bailey: I have been lucky enough to participate on Maarten's clinics in Cornwall over the past few years. He has a superb manner of calmness and confidence about him, putting yourself and your horse at ease very quickly. His lessons are incredibly informative & fun & I find myself referring back to moments within our sessions multiple times long after the event. I always try and make time to watch some lessons throughout Maarten's clinics too, there's so much to learn!
Claire Daniels: My horses and I have been so fortunate to have had several lessons with Maarten on his visits to Cornwall. Every experience with him has led to several light bulb moments, turning some training methods completely upside down! Maarten has a true gift in enabling riders to help their horses in an amazing way all through working within their natural instincts. In a single lesson he is both inspiring and so intuitive that you always come away on a real high, eager to continue in the same fantastic groove he’s shown you and addicted to achieve that ‘feeling’ from then on!
Maarten van Stek clinic dates at Tall Trees: May 18, 19 and 21. £70 per session. Claire Daniels is taking bookings on messenger WhatsApp or text. Mobile number: 07790 394234.
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FROM COURT CASE TO SCHOOLMASTER
IN FOAL TO MAYHILL
A couple of weeks ago, I got a message from Charlene Derbyshire, saying that TingTang, Tinky, as she called her, at 28 years old had taken on a new job as a schoolmaster.
Heavens, didn't that bring back memories.
After weaning TingTang went to my friend Tiddy Hamilton at Bolventor, who helped me with most of my young horses in exchange for dressage lessons. Selling horses has never been my forte and the moor is a good place for a young horse. Tiddy brought TingTang back into work with the aim to be sold.
This is when Charlene, who visited Tiddy regularly, fell in love with her. She rode her occasionally and enjoyed hunting her, but couldn't quite make up her mind to buy her, and so, when a seemingly nice mother and daughter turned up who liked her, TingTang moved to Devon.
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PIXEL, I'VE GOT A HORSE AND PIXEL'S GOT A LIFE
I WAS LOOKING FOR A GELDING...
It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog for my own website. A new project and also writing for Dutch equine magazine the Hoefslag, has been taking up most of my spare time.
But I feel after having worked Pixel for a couple of weeks again after six weeks off I want to share our journey.
I bought Pixel last autumn after dear Pinokkio turned out to have some physical issues that can’t be fixed. I was looking for a 6-ish year old gelding. It didn’t have to be very special as long as I could stay in the groove with dressage training. That has always been my priority as training has always been more important than competing for me.
PIXEL IS A MARE AND SHE KNOWS IT
Things worked out different. Pixel is five years old with a quarter thoroughbred and a quarter Dutch in her. Oh, and she is a mare and she knows it. When I tried her, I could feel she had an ‘I prefer to go slow’-attitude and I know from experience that especially with mares that can sometimes be a bit tricky when also the hormones kick in. She was either above the bit with a grumpy face or way behind it with what I call a lock-down attitude. The dressage arena was obviously not her favourite place so after five minutes of having tried her in there I decided I knew enough and didn’t want to do any more damage.
I guess I like a challenge, so, after passing the vet with 'perfect conformation' written on the form, I bought her. With the warning that she could be a bit awkward to get on. I knew I had my work cut out for me and I was looking forward to it.
LUNGING WITHOUT ANY EXTRA KIT
My way into a horse has always been lunging. Lunging without any kit. So, no side-reins, no bit. Especially with a horse that has been through the mill a bit and where things obviously have gone somewhat pear-shaped.
First learn to use their legs, after that we’ll see what’s next. Pixel started off with ears back, eyes on grumpy and bucking back at the lunging whip. After a week or so she understood that I meant it, and the whip meant ‘go’. But canter was a problem. She was so incredibly uncomfortable that I decided to settle for a forward trot and every day one transition into canter on each rein. Patience, patience.
After a few weeks I felt I needed to see whether anything had changed on top. Not really, after patiently putting her back time and again at the platform to get on she at least finally stood to allow me on board but immediately buried her head and went in lock-down. Because I solidly believed it was totally related to insecurity, distrust and lack of respect, I knew we needed more groundwork. I obviously wasn’t able to read her correctly yet, and for me groundwork is the key to achieve that.
Back to the lunge and on the good days a hack. Winter was on the doorstep, so safety first.
GETTING THROUGH THE WINTER IN ONE PIECE
She improved bit by bit, day by day. But as in the school we seemed to go forward, in the stable things went the other way. She changed from being quite sociable in the stable to not at all. The sight of a halter turned her into a vicious little monkey. Added magnesium to her food didn’t help either.
It seemed to me a territorial issue and I realized I had to tread carefully. I decided to keep her halter on in the stable with a long lead-rope over her back and that sorted the going into the stable to get your horse. Also, when I opened the door to put her bowl of hard-food in I kept it behind my back until she pricked her ears.
And I had to accept there was one hell of a lot more homework to do. This was a very intelligent horse with many tricks up her sleeve who was not sure yet I was boss.
If we got through the winter lunging and hacking in one piece, spring would be the time to start the next phase.
INTO THE FIELD ON THE LONG-REINS
Other than the stable issue there was the canter which was still so on the forehand that I completely understood why she didn’t like it much. So, we went in the fields on the long-reins. We needed space and believe me, I ran as much as she cantered. But it worked. Gradually I saw a change in her attitude, and yes, also in the stable she gradually turned into a happy horse again. By February the canter started to look like something, and happy snorts started to appear in the trot.
So, soon after, when the weather was on our side, I decided it was time to get back on top in the school and yes, this time I was right. We had done enough groundwork to continue on top. Very short sessions in just walk and trot to get used to each other with a pleasant hack afterwards and then, one day, just with the voice command, there was the canter, without any hesitation and surprisingly comfortable. I can tell you, after that session I went to the kitchen, made myself a cup of coffee and laughed out loud. I was that excited.
FORWARD, LIGHT, HAPPY, SNORTING
In June I had to stop working her because of a tendon issue in my hand. The flies were bad, so pretty good timing, hey?
Last week I took Pixel back in the school for the first time again. On the lunge, just to see where we had ended up. I was not ready yet to take everything for granted. One wrong move and months of effort can be wasted. She was great. Forward, light, happy, snorting.
The next day she stood patiently to let me on board. And this is now normal. The last two weeks have been bliss with every single session filled with small improvements.
I now have a horse that stands like a normal horse should do to let me on board. The riding area has become her happy place where she is keen to improve every day with her little ears pricked and the odd happy snort. With a canter which has become so comfortable that we both like it nearly better than the trot.
So, I think we’re in for a good autumn.
And I am so chuffed. I’ve got a horse and Pixel’s got a life!
Picture: Pixel below Pinokkio having a leisurely time in the garden
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AUDREY COLE, LARGER THAN LIFE...
The first time I saw Audrey Cole was some thirty years ago, when she was more or less galloping back to her horsebox after her dressage test at Lanhydrock where I was stuarding. She was brightly lipsticked and in full flight, but still managing to pass on some information to some of her groupies.
Roughly ten years later, I drove into her meticulously clean and well-organised yard for our first lesson together. Afterwards, when I of course had to come in for a cup of tea, Audrey told me about her beloved Spike, the Intermediate event horse she lost not long before and the one she probably was riding that time at Lanhydrock. She talked about him with such adoration and respect, that I knew that this was a woman who loved her horses deeply.
Another ten or so years later, I had a phone call from Audrey, ‘Hi Liz, I’m organizing a charity ballroom dance evening in aid of Parkinson’s UK and I thought it would be fun to have some dance lessons with a group of people. You can join with Paul Martin.’ Audrey didn’t need an answer. She simply expected me to join in and my farrier Paul Martin, too. Some 20 odd of us danced all winter, learning the Cha Cha Cha, the Jive and the Waltz. I still look back at that winter as one of the most fun times I ever had. The evening itself was spectacular, hilarious and made a vast amount of money.
This was one of many charity events she organized, and I do suspect that Audrey’s favourite thing was dressing up. She always looked absolutely gorgeous, with her husband Alan in his Tux next to her a proud man.
Audrey had strong opinions, and even if my opinion was different, I admired her drive and commitment to stand for what she believed in. To complain about things without doing anything about it was not her style. Didn’t she knock on doors during election times, even stopping cars, just to keep the hunting going?
There was something else that I noticed during the years I knew Audrey. She would always help the underdog, as long as there was attitude. She helped numerous youngsters to get their feet on the ground in a very quiet way. No one needed to notice.
So, it is clear, whatever Audrey did, she gave it 200 percent. She was larger than life in every way. Whether it was her job with the police, her horses, her friends, or creating a lifestyle for Alan and her that never allowed Alan’s illness to keep them from having fun. She did never make it easy for Alan and her, never took the easy route. It must have been so hard at times for both of them, but she made sure we never got to see that bit.
The last time I saw Audrey, she was wearing some sort of tropical sarong and was picking blackberries in the hedge. It was a beautiful day, Alan was racing around the yard on the lawn mower and Adrain James Brannelly was waiting for me in the school on her big grey. Audrey and this young Irishman, who has a special touch with horses, had developed a great friendship. Only today Adrain messaged me, ‘Aud meant the world to me. If it wasn’t for Audrey, I am under no illusion, I wouldn’t have a business, here.’
I so hoped that it would have been a long-term relationship with Audrey as the owner, Adrain as the rider and me as the dressage trainer, but it wasn’t to be. The horse she and Adrain adored turned out to have a complex spinal issue and sadly didn’t make it.
So, that was the very last time I saw Audrey. With a dinner plan in the making I drove home, no idea I would never see her again. I want to remember her like that. Brown as a berry, big smile, in her sarong with a bowl of blackberries, waving.
‘Bye Liz, see you soon!’…
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LORNA WILSON OF ELITE STALLIONS; A SPECIAL HORSE WOMAN WITH A VISION
Three years ago, at the stallion show in Den Bosch, I heard two ladies talking to each other in English. One of those ladies was Lorna Wilson from Devon. I went over to have a chat and Lorna told me enough to know that this was someone with a strong vision and an enormous desire to learn from the Dutch and German studbooks how to tackle her own breeding program.
This young woman intrigued me, so I asked her if I could come and visit sometime. "Sure, just let me know."
A few weeks ago, on a glorious autumn day, I finally made it. After having been hopelessly lost, I drove into the yard of Newton Stud, also the home to the semen agency Elite Stallions. A company she bought several years ago and gives her access to the semen of hundreds of stallions, the creme de la creme, throughout Europe.
I couldn’t believe my eyes! This looked like a stud farm, the kind I have only seen in the Netherlands. The only thing that gave away we were in Devon was the hilly landscape.
FROM SURVEYOR TO HORSE BREEDING
My gut feeling was correct. Lorna Wilson has an extremely good set of brains, and, likes to use them. She started her professional life as a surveyor. When I asked her whether she rode, she was not overly enthousiastic about her own riding skills. Does not ride anymore. All she wanted to do was breed, so in 2001 she bought the broodmare Nicole (Indoctro X Pion) out of whom she bred a number of foals. Three became Grand Prix.
17 Years later I am at a stud of about 500 acres, 'how much exactly, I really don’t know', says Lorna with a chuckle. The yard filled with a stable complex and endless airy and safe loose-boxes, feeling peaceful and happy.
Lorna bought the business name Elite Stallions from the previous owners in 2014, for whom she had already been working. This was a huge step, but a very good one. It catapulted the company in a growing spurt, continuing to this day.
THREE TIMES AMISS
I parked my car next to a trailer, which also just arrived. A tidy lady with a perky blonde ponytail was as relieved as I was that we had found Lorna, having been lost as well. This lady came to collect a mare from her daughter, who is now working abroad. That phase for mothers, when the children have left, but mummy must still pick up the pieces that are left behind.
After three misses at the local veterinarian, the family had brought the mare to Newton Stud, where it appeared that the mare had an infection in her uterus. Equine veterinarian, Irma Rosati from Italy, was successful in clearing the infection and the idea was that the mare would now go home and come back in the spring for insemination.
I am fully responsible for what happened next. When the nice lady started to talk about foaling at home, it just popped out, 'do it here, safest option’. Lorna had to laugh; I relieved.
LESS ROMANTIC, BUT WITHOUT ANY WORRIES
There were more options. At Newton Stud the mares come in, as soon as the weather changes, into the large loose boxes, with the lights on until 12 o'clock at night. This helps the mares to come into season as early as possible. If this lady would take her mare home and not do exactly that, the semen of the very popular jumping stallion Chacfly who she had selected together with Lorna, would probably not be available due to high demand.
To cut a long story short, this lady drove away without a mare. Less romantic, but without any further worries.
HOME DEVELOPED FOOD PROGRAM
When Lorna took me on a round, she told how the mares, when the weather turns, come in and are divided into ‘fat and thin’ groups. Not only does dividing the mares according to their condition make the feeding program simple and safe, but also the fact that they themselves produce a very precise feed product, which the mares can eat together and in peace, just like the haylage; without any jealousy. Lorna says, grinning, "it saves my staff, broken legs, and a lot of stitches."
This feed product was developed by Lorna's partner Eddie Hosegood ('no, not married, no time for that, haha!'). Eddie is a farmer and Newton Stud is still a mixed farm where, in addition to sheep and beef cattle, grain and maize are also grown. Eddie has always been interested in developing quality mixed feed products and now makes this very effective combination of ingredients, which the mares love and thrive on.
ON A MISSION! ELITE FOALS UK REGISTRATION TOUR
Two years ago, a lovely girl I know well, Cara Jasper, told me that she and her foal had gone to an open day at Newton Stud. I also saw the beautiful photos of a grading day at the stud on Facebook. Finally! Something that I had missed at the shows, here in England. Good runners, which gave the mares and foals a chance to show themselves at their best. Also, neatly dressed in white. Just like the grading inspections in the Netherlands.
This year this happened at 11 venues throughout the UK. Lorna was on a mission. What she had started had to be bigger, more nationally available. So that more breeders would be motivated to breed good quality and have the possibility to choose a professional studbook. To be judged by the official judges of that studbook from that country, be it Holland, Germany, Denmark or any other country. To be able to obtain the studbook paper, chip and even a brand.
A sales program was also set up. And so, the 'Elite Foals UK Registration Tour' was born.
What Lorna has started, could be the beginning of the first successful registration for sport horses in the UK that actually matters, stands for genuine quality. So much has already been tried, from the Database to the Futurity. Nothing ever really got off the ground. In England dozens of registrations are possible, but nothing gives a breeder or a potential buyer of a horse any idea of what the quality really is.
COOPERATION WITH DRESSAGE RIDER ANNA ROSS
Flushing embryos, transporting embryos, it is day to day life at Newton Stud, with some 70 recipient mares owned, loaned and leased, and you are nuts (no pun intended!) if you do not benefit from it yourself.
Lorna owns ten broodmares, and then another ten together with Grand Prix rider Anna Ross, who moved from Wiltshire to barely a mile from Newton Stud. Anna trains and competes the donor mares, which is possible without interruption because the embryo transfer to the recipient mares can take place so close to home.
IN 17 YEARS FROM ONE SINGLE BROODMARE TO AN ICSI LABORATORY
At Newton Stud, everything is possible, and, yes, the next plan is an ICSI laboratory in the sheep barn. Lorna looks at the development of Brexit with suspicion (think of the cost of sperm) and tries everything to avoid as many negative consequences as possible for her bustling business.
She has secured the RCVS approval for an equine veterinarian from Argentina, intensively involved in research on ICSI, the impregnation of an egg cell outside the uterus with one single sperm cell. Together with Irma Rosati, she is going to continue this research for the ICSI at Newton Stud.
THE BIG LEAP
It's not that long ago that if you were looking for a stallion for your mare, here in England, all you could do, was look at him in the stable and possibly see him trotted up in a cobbled yard. This has certainly improved, but what Lorna has done is take the big leap.
This, by doing an incredible amount of homework, visiting grading shows throughout Europe, approaching the big boys in the stallion industry, making gutsy investments. But also, being fair and respectful with her employees. Nobody really wants to leave once they have arrived.
Another very strong point is that she dares to think incredibly inventive. Together with partner Eddie of course. Storm, responsible for the PR and much more, said with a smile, "we never allow Lorna and Eddie to have the same day off. If those two start brainstorming together, that’s dangerous! "
BOYFRIEND IN A BOX
The next day after my visit, I sent Lorna a few more questions. One of them was whether she might want to invest in her own stallion in the future. "No, we like ‘boyfriends in a box’, much more peaceful than all that testosterone!"
I could write forever about Newton Stud and its people, but I'll keep that for my next visit, when the sheep barn is ready for the ICSI program. "Yes, come back any time!" What a woman, dynamic, business like, but also, so very cheerful and hospitable.
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A VERY SPECIAL TRIP TO GERMANY RESULTING IN AN UNEXPECTED MEETING WITH OLYMPIC RIDER LEONIE BRAMALL
A few weeks ago, my husband Buz and I left Cornwall at the crack of dawn to be in time for the Eurostar to take us to Bruxelles. We were on our way to Hanover for a very special occasion, the marriage of Toby and Christian, both committed horsemen. Two days never to forget. To witness a young man, whom I had known for many years, getting married to the love of his life, was an emotional happening, to say the least.
For the newly-wed to take their first married day and drive us around for an equine-related sight-seeing trip was the icing on the cake. Not only did Toby, now a qualified equine veterinarian, show us around the Veterinary College of Hanover, but we also visited Volker Dusche and Olympic rider Leonie Bramall. The proud owners of dressage yard and stud Bramall-Dusche GbR gave us a warm welcome and were extremely generous with their valuable time.
A FUN AND LOYAL LITTLE HELPER FROM GERMANY
Some fifteen years ago, a very shy boy, named Tobias Puschmann, walked into my yard. He was on a working holiday at the organic farm next door, but so missed horses. At the time I was still breeding and, other than a few mares and foals, I had a couple of horses in work and a busy teaching schedule, so some extra help wouldn't hurt.
For three delightful weeks, Toby came every day. He not only knew how to handle a broom or shovel, but was a kind of hard-working sponge, sucking up every bit of information that could possibly help him to become a better horseman. The day he came to say goodbye with his mum, still too young to travel on his own, I will never forget. As soon as they were out of sight I basically sobbed, because I knew: such a kind and loyal young helper I would never find again.
TWO INCHES TALLER
Until he went to university, Toby came nearly every year for a couple of weeks. The third time I went to pick him up from the airport he was suddenly two inches taller than me. Little boys can grow very fast.
We always had so much fun. Other than the work in the yard, Toby came with me to all lessons, he rode some of my horses and in our spare time we walked the coast and talked about everything under the sun. As Toby got older, our conversations often were about his future.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
Last year, when Toby came to see me with his partner Christian, he told me that, during one of his stays, I had made him so very angry. When yet again he had told me, he wanted to become a horse trainer, I had answered him in a very matter of fact way that he just wasn't good enough. 'I was so angry with you, but it was the very best advice you could have possibly given me.'
In another conversation, in which Toby was wondering what to study, one of the options being a veterinarian, I told him that I could not choose for him. But if he chose to study to become a vet, he would become a very good one.
A WALKING EQUINE ENCYCLOPEDIA
So now, some fifteen years later, after the official part of the wedding, we were sitting down for dinner, very convenient in the restaurant next door. The chair next to me was occasionally empty, because my neighbour, a tall and larger-than-life man with ginger hair, was regularly running off with his camera. Volker Dusche not only shot loads of beautiful pictures, but also turned out to be a walking equine encyclopaedia. Whenever he sat down he showered me with pedigrees of German and Dutch warmbloods. I really needed the breaks to recover when he was on another round of picture-taking.
OLYMPIC DRESSAGE RIDER LEONIE BRAMALL
Next to Volker sat his partner Leonie Bramall, Olympic dressage rider from Canada. Only eighteen years old, Leonie moved to Germany to train with Johann Hinneman. She rode at the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and again in Atlanta in 1996. Christian occasionally takes his horse to Leonie for a lesson, which has turned into a good friendship. How very attentive of Toby and Christian to put me right there.
Whether Leonie is possibly not the biggest talker, I will never know, because of the unbridled enthousiasm of Volker.
‘BRAMALL-DUSCHE GBR’: TOGETHER IS STRONGER
It wasn't that surprising that we drove to stud and dressage yard ‘Bramall-Dusche GbR’, the following morning. I forgot my hangover as soon as Volker, who calls himself the 'tractor driver', introduced me to the first horse. And he continued this from stable to stable. Again, I was told pedigree after pedigree and admired all, including the horse Leonie is competing at Grand Prix, the 9-year old Oldenburg gelding Queensland by Quaterback.
What struck me most was both Volker and Leonie's drive and their enormous pride about what they have achieved together. That 'together' is what makes ‘Bramall-Dusche GbR’ tick, makes them stronger. These two people admire and respect each other; one the trainer and rider, the other the breeder and organizer.
In the field, with three mares and foals, Volker pointed out the mare still from the line his father bred. In that respect Germany is not that different from Holland. The passion of horse breeding is passed on from father to son.
YARD WORK, BRUSHING AND TACKING UP: PART OF THE JOB
With over twenty horses in work, of which Leonie trains up to eight, and that next to a busy teaching schedule, there isn't a spare minute in the day. Still, when I asked her whether she still worked in the yard, I already knew the answer. Her strong arms and hands spoke for themselves. 'Yes, why not? Mucking out, brushing, tacking up, it gives me a chance to get to know them. We get quite a few quirky horses. Intelligent horses often have that side. It is in my own advantage to be around them and sort some issues out without being on top.'
CAN YOU SEE I'M GOOD-LOOKING?
Volker Dusche insisted to show us a two-year-old in the indoor arena. The chestnut had to be gelded, his too small testicles the reason not to be accepted into the grading system as a potential sire. Volker was sad about that, but in the end, here trotted and cantered a proud sports horse with great quality and the world at his feet. Out of their broodmare Rihanna (Sire: Royal Classic) by Galaxie, he stopped suddenly, turning sharply, putting his neck right up there and looked at us, as if to say, 'Hey, can you see I'm good-looking?'
WITHOUT ANY DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
No, no time for cappuccino, thank you very much, 'Herzlichen dank, wir mussen weiter!' Back in the car I still feel the electric enthousiasm of two great horsemen of the highest level, who are used to work hard, day in day out, proud of their achievements but without any delusions of grandeur. Quite seldom, these days.
THE VETERINARY COLLEGE OF HANOVER
Next on our way to the veterinary college of Hanover, where Toby is now a qualified equine veterinarian. When entering the modern building, I inevitably had to think of our trip of many years ago. my home-bred PSG mare Marie had developed a chronic sinus problem. I was referred to the veterinary college in Bristol and Toby happened to be there, so joined me for the trip.
Now, I was following Toby into a similar building, realizing that he probably had reached the same, if not higher, level as the veterinarians who had drilled a hole in the head of my beloved mare to have a little look inside.
Did I feel a touch of pride? I admit, Yes, I did…
COLICS, CHRONIC EYE INFECTION AND HEAD-SHAKERS
I saw horses with colic on drips, a stallion with a chronic eye infection and a very charming little cob mare with a cute little moustache who was a head-shaker.
Toby eyed up each individual case in his quiet and steady manner. It was his day off, but that didn't keep him from making sure he left the building knowing that all was as well as could be under the circumstances.
RESEARCH FOR HEAD-SHAKERS
Toby told me that one of his research projects is head-shakers. In the outdoor arena he will sit for hours on end, watching four individual cases being lunged with all kinds of different set-ups. This to see whether side-reins, high, low, longer, tighter or none, affect the behaviour. The slightest differences will be registered with the aim to produce new knowledge.
THE CRANE, SAFETY FIRST
The crane, which moves on rails from the ceiling through part of the building, including the X-ray unit and the operating theatre, is impressive and has changed the complex and dangerous process some of the horses must go through. It means that now horses under full anaesthetics can be moved in slings, completely safe from injury.
THE HORSE VIRUS CAN BE PAINFUL...
We had one more visit to make. Christian had to prepare the food for his Oldenburg mare Anna, at the yard where she is in livery. When Christian was doing the stable,Toby looked longingly at Anna. 'Hopefully I will be able to have my own horse next year...'.
I feel for my good friend who has been so patient. I was once his age. The horse virus can be ever so painful…
Top picture: Leonie Bramall with her Grand Prix horse, the 9-year old gelding Queensland. (Picture made by Volker Dusche)
Below that: Toby with one of the foals at 'Bramall-Dusche GbR'. (Picture made by Volker Dusche)
Below that: the two-year old gelding by Galaxie. (Picture made by Volker Dusche)
Below:Toby at the veterinary college in Hanover. (Picture is made in and belongs to the veterinary college in Hanover)
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BUYING A WARMBLOOD IN CORNWALL? YES, WHY NOT?
ADAM ELLERY: KEEPING THINGS UNCOMPLICATED
Approved stallions are kept in separate paddocks. Artificial insemination for the mares is the safe way to go. By the time the foal is due the mare is kept in, at least at night, so the birth can happen safely and controlled. Isn't that the way you're supposed to do it?
No, actually, at least not in Adam Ellery's books. Adam finds a young stallion with breeding he fancies and starts jumping him. If he likes what he feels and sees, -and the results at shows are good- he throws him in the field with his mares, some twenty of them. No scanning, waste of money and most times it's fine.
The foals are born in the field, with the stallion there, as well. A lot less risk at nasty infections than in the stable and also not the mess when a mare accidentally injures her foal.
Well, what can I say? Not much, if it works, it works. And for Adam it seems that way. Why make life more complicated than it is?
EYE TO EYE WITH HEARTBREAKER AND CLINTON
Adam likes the warmblood horse. This was sparked even more so when, some years ago, he googled of the cuff some yards in Holland and just happened to come across Ilse Bosch from the well known and connected 'Gebr.Bosch' yard.
Typical, luck on his side! Ilse took Adam around the east of Holland and also 'popped' into the famous stud of Team Nijhof. Yes, that was quite something, to see Heartbreaker and Clinton at their home, the living legends of the international jumping world.
Adam ended up buying a young Eldorado from the Gebr. Bosch, now very successfully competing. I had to help him a bit with the name. 'Eldorado from the, uhm...'. 'Zeshoek', I said. Yes, that one! Why do Dutch breeders make the names of their horses so complicated for their potential foreign customers!
Adam's visit also brought him the contact with Dutch dealer Henny Schennink, where son Harvey is now training (see previous blog).
TRACTORS, TRAILERS AND OTHER FARMING IMPLEMENTS
Let's go back some thirty-odd years when I moved here. My very first pupil was Lorraine Ball, who had several young horses she bred herself. She used to bring them to Adam to be backed and they always came back happy and ready to go on. Apparently it was a bit wild up there. Not too many fences, and various horses were wandering among tractors, trailers and various other farming implements.
Hmm, I thought, if I did that it would turn into mayhem and the vet would be a regular visitor. I wonder what kind of a guy this is...
'SORT THE BUGGER OUT'
From then on I kept on hearing his name, generally connected to a horse with a problem. Next thing, my neighbours both got hurt when trying to clip their youngster for the first time. I went to cook for them that evening because neither of them were even able to put the kettle on, let alone cook a meal. They said Adam Ellery would come the next day and 'sort the bugger out'.
What time? Ten-ish? I'll be there.
NOT AN OUNCE OF TENSION
The clippers were humming happily, when I turned up the next morning, and the young grey was as relaxed as the guy holding the clippers. When I introduced myself, I immediately saw where Adam's strength was. Not a speck of adrenaline. Completely none! Just a relaxed grin without an ounce of tension.
Not long after that another rider, a pro, mentioned him. 'Adam rides everything on a long rein. No wonder they behave. He doesn't really ask anything.'
I had never seen him ride, so couldn't form an opinion.
BIG AND AWKWARD
Until I had a problem with my own horse. He was too big for me and increasingly awkward. I could not cope with him on the flat, but he jumped well, so I gave Adam a call.
I did understand that Adam possibly needed a little 'privacy' to tell my big boy that napping wasn't an option. So, I went inside for five minutes or so. When I came back, the horse was happily working away with a positive eye and Adam nodded his friendly grin.
The next weekend I drove to Poltimore, where my patience was tested to the extreme, with Adam turning up more than last minute (normal!), but just in time to jump a clear round (also normal). Whatever length his reins were, it worked.
A DECENT WEBSITE AND NEWQUAY AIRPORT
Back to the here and now. Adam is as busy as ever. Nearly not a weekend goes by or he is at a competition with several horses, also with his new stallion High Hopes Condor (Caretino X Capitol I).
Adam has a clever partner, Sarah, who has made a very decent website. 'Westcountry Sports Horses' sounds good and eyes professional. The fact that the yard is only a few miles from Newquay airport is a bonus. A few nearby B&B's add to an easy and pleasant stay.
This is how Adam ended up with a contact in the States with whom he owns a couple of horses. His contact pays some livery and competition fees, Adam trains and competes. When this foreign rider likes the horse he buys Adam's share and has it brought to the States for himself. When they both decide the horse is ready to be sold, they share the profit. What a super formula.
Adam likes buying from Mark Bosanko, of whom I regularly see good horses on my travels.
A LITTLE ANGEL ON HIS SHOULDER
It is obvious. Without the computer and Newquay airport it would have been impossible for Adam to be this successful in the furthest point of the UK. Also, I am convinced Adam has, other than being an excellent horseman, a little angel on his shoulder. When I told him that on my visit to the yard, he gave me that typical 'Ellery-grin' again.
A BRILLIANT HOLIDAY AND, POSSIBLY, A HORSE
It may seem a touch unusual, when you live upcountry or even abroad, to go and look for a horse in the furthest point of the UK. Still, it is so worth it. If anything, you will have a brilliant holiday. Cornwall is stunningly beautiful. And you may find that horse you were looking for!
Top picture: the stallion High Hopes Condor (Caretino X Capitol I)
Second: mares and foals
Third: 6-year-old gelding by Bamako De Muze
Bottom: Cornwall is beautiful!
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THE DRAMA OF THE DUTCH NATURE RESERVE OOSTVAARDERSPLASSEN
ANNEMIEKE AND CYNTHIA, TWO WOMEN WITH GUTS AND DETERMINATION!
Do I yet again have to write a blog about the Dutch 'wilderness' project Oostvaardersplassen, after my two previous Dutch blogs about the same subject? Yes, I think so, more than 3000 animals starved to death, or shot during the process of starvation, during this winter, is horrendous and completely unacceptable. This after years of overpopulation through cruel management of a few ecologists who, under supervision of ecologist Frans Vera, dreamed up a plan to recreate ‘wilderness’ on 56 squared kilometers of wet polderland, which failed its purpose for agriculture.
Do I always agree with how everyone wants to solve it? No, but I am allowed my own opinion.
Do I find Annemieke and Cynthia two cool women with a lot of guts and determination? Yes, absolutely.
Do I think that wild ponies should be petted? No, they are wild and should remain so.
Do I think that the charity and Facebook page ‘Annemieke and Cynthia’ have achieved a lot? Yes, respect.
COMMITMENT AND GRIT
I think that through their Facebook page 'Cynthia and Annemieke', and through their efforts and endless commitment, the Netherlands, including the people who have other hobbies than horse riding, has finally woken up. Nobody is anymore able to ignore the drama of the Oostvaardersplassen. Annemieke and Cynthia really have gone ‘the whole hog’ to get national, even international attention.
I see it on my timeline from all kinds of countries. Germany, England, America and Italy, just to name a few.
SILENT MARCH AND CROSSES
Yet another demonstration with slow-moving and honking cars and a 'silent march' at the local council with even a man on his knees begging for change. A minute of silence with flowers and crosses at the Oostvaardersplassen. Extreme? Yes. Tasteless? To be honest, those crosses and a minute's silence belong to something completely different for me, but that probably has to do with my age. Effective? Yes.
It is also an extreme and more than tasteless situation, there in the Oostvaarderplassen. So, you can expect that kind of an emotional reaction, even if it is not your type of reaction.
123,000 SIGNATURES TO THE DUTCH GOVERNMENT
This is also the opinion of Dutch biologist Patrick van Veen, who today offers his petition for a policy change in this so-called 'wilderness' with no fewer than 123,000 signatures to the Dutch government in The Hague. He would not participate in those demonstrations himself, he says in a local newspaper, but he does understand the reaction of the protesters. The fact that he actually mentions them, perhaps not their names but certainly their actions, says enough about how broad the range of the charity ‘Annemieke and Cynthia’ has become.
Because of this biologist with his ‘quiet diplomacy’, 123,000 signatures have now arrived in The Hague. Not someone from the horse world - very important, because the non-horse-loving people sometimes see us as a weird breed- but someone who understands people like Annemieke, Cynthia and their 50,000 followers, and that is what it's all about. It is really on the move, this protest. It is finally starting to become an unstoppable and a growing wave, which is what is so badly needed to halt this gruesome project.
Maybe our Dutch Minister Carola Schouten, who has done absolutely nothing, will finally stop looking the other way.
THE GRASS IS GETTING GREENER, THE URGENCY EVEN GREATER
And Annemieke and Cynthia are right. Especially now, now that the green on the Oostvaardersplassen is breaking through again and the urgency seems to be less, we have got to continue. Because with this management it will happen again, and again, and again...
Meanwhile, and with perfect timing, the media campaign has begun, and all followers and generous donors can now actually see the results of their pennies.
An advertisement in one of the bigger national newspapers and soon a commercial on TV.
THE LAST SHOT
The last shot is probably not yet fired, but there is movement. And much of that due to the huge amount of work from Annemieke and Cynthia. So, hats off and keep up the good work!
Oh, and by the way, the more followers, the better, even though we may not always agree together, together we are a lot stronger and that is what it's all about right now.
So, join the Facebook page ‘Annemieke en Cynthia’. Sign the petition of Patrick van Veen which is on my timeline and help the Netherlands to soon be able to face the rest of the world without feeling deeply ashamed of themselves. Thanks to all who care.
Top picture: the start of the media campaign in one of the dutch national newspapers.
Bottom: Annemieke and Cynthia at the fence where the animals wait in desperation for some food.
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I FOUND A YOUNG HORSEMAN FROM CORNWALL IN GELDERLAND
ADAM ELLERY WILL BE THERE, DIRECTLY
When I moved to Cornwall, some thirty years ago, it took some doing to find a decent warmblood. If I saw one, its back was too long, the legs were crooked, or an ugly Roman nose was spoiling the good bits.
This has changed quite impressively in the last ten or so years and Adam Ellery is one of the horsemen in Cornwall who made that happen. I have known Adam for quite some time. Other than his talent as a trainer he was also known for stretching the word 'directly' into unknown territory.
Example, I once stood with my horsebox at a horse show somewhere in Devon, becoming quite worked up, wondering whether Adam would actually turn up to jump my horse in a class which had already started. Adam drove into the lorry park in a most relaxed way, just in time to do a quick pop over a practice jump, proceeding to do, of course, an impeccable clear round. What on earth was I worried about...
NOT AFRAID TO TAKE A RISK OR TWO
These days Adam is running his business Westcountry Sports Horses and very successfully indeed. His guts to look across borders and make contacts in my home country, the Netherlands, has helped him to not only buy, but also breed some very good stock. Also, nearly not a weekend passes without a great bunch of pictures and a write-up on Facebook about yet again a successful show, often with three or more horses.
And that is for someone who once seemed to mostly prefer to spend his time in the hunting field with a horse on a long rein no mean achievement. The fact that Adam doesn't mind taking a risk here and there seems to work in his advantage.
THE SCHENNINK YARD IN GELDERLAND
And then, just before my visit to my old stomping grounds in Gelderland, my friend Elze called to say that during her weekly training session in the yard of Henny Schennink she had met a young guy from Cornwall. His name was Harvey and he was the son of a pig farmer, show jumper. Well, I did not need long to work out whose son this was.
When I contacted Adam he told me that he knew Henny from having gone there to buy horses.
So, when I was there, I thought it would be fun to pay a visit to the Schennink yard and meet this young Cornishman. Hopefully useful for my blog for Dutch equine magazine the 'Hoefslag'.
Unfortunately, Henny himself was in Bulgaria for business and his partner, dressage rider Karin Petterson, was in India for clinics. But Henny was kind enough to not mind me visiting young Harvey who was holding the fort.
There are great plans for the Schennink yard. A facelift is on the agenda. When my friend and I drove up I did have to think of my old lorry, of which my husband always said, 'it only matters what's in it.'
Harvey just finished riding his first horse of the day and as he was getting the horse ready to bring back to its stable we chatted about what had brought him here.
‘THEY TREAT ME LIKE A SON’
All on his own this young lad, eighteen years old, was running the show there for a few days. The responsibility for some twenty horses. We chatted along as Harvey was saddling his next ride. He told me that he learned a lot and felt very much at home. 'They treat me like a son'.
Although he had to work hard, he was chuffed to bits that Henny trusted him sufficiently to keep the place going in his absence. Harvey felt he was in the Mecca of the horse world, with most horse shows within only an hour of driving distance. That in comparison to Cornwall where endless hours were spent behind the wheel in order to compete.
IN DAD'S SHADOW
Harvey is very happy with the amount of good horses he gets to ride. Possibly the chance to take part in Young Riders competitions. This was one of the reasons why it was good to leave Cornwall. 'I wouldn't consider myself shy of confidence, but I knew: if I stay at home I will never get the best horses. They go to my dad and I understand why, but that and wanting different experiences was a good reason to move here.'
Also, He learns a lot from Henny and with that a different approach which makes him more flexible in his training. 'Dad always says, you place the horse until two strides before the jump. after that it needs to learn to work it out for itself. Henny wants me to place them right up to the jump.' I recognized that immediately; Dutch style, this is how I was brought up.
Also his flatwork is going to another level. It was lovely to watch Harvey school his next horse, whereas he was still quietly continuing our conversation. How natural he worked on the inside track in nice straight lines, adding some circles and the odd leg yield here and there in a very natural and systematic way.
TIME WILL TELL...
What will Harvey do next? Time will tell. For now, he is in the right place at the right time. For Henny Schennink this could be a perfect solution to run his yard at a different level. If Harvey takes after his father (possibly with a slightly better watch!) Henny has found the young man who is able to give is horses the training and education they need to be sold with confidence, which gives Henny more time and flexibility to focus on that side of the business.
For as long as Harvey feels he is appreciated for his efforts and gets the support and education he needs, he is in the right place at the right time.
THE 'ELLERY GRIN'
When I was ready to leave, I asked Harvey to wait for me to translate the Dutch blog for the Dutch website into English for my own site, rather than use Google Translate, because it does some funny things with language. ‘No, I understand, I tried that for my French exam in school’, he said with the typical 'Ellery grin' on his face.
Oh, and by the way, the trade is going both ways. Henny has also come to Cornwall to buy a horse of Adam; a Dutch horse…
Top picture: Adam Ellery on the mare Fairway. Breeding: Baldwin B (Burggraaf) x Faram (Aram)
Two middle pictures: Harvey holding the fort at the Schennink yard
Bottom: Harvey Ellery jumping an approved stallion (Quidam de Revel X Carentino)
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TWO LEGS, ON AND OFF THE WALL AND A BROOM: MAARTEN VAN STEK IS COMING BACK!
WET, WET, WET AND SOME SNOW
Today is the first day of spring and a proper one! After the sodden land finally drying up from a wet autumn all the way through a long and even wetter winter, we were surprised by Arctic blizzards with tons of snow on the first day of March. Can it get any crazier? Yes, March was not done with us yet, we were in for another blast. I admire how most of my pupils and the rest of the horse world have managed to keep going. I wholeheartedly agree: it has not been easy!
It was therefore a welcome break to sit indoors and watch Maarten van Stek at work on my visit to Holland in January. Very uplifting and motivating and as always I came home with some fresh and inovative ideas. Particularly Maarten's novel way of explaining complex things which makes it all of a sudden very 'uncomplex'.
I watched Maarten ride two horses. His wonderful William, who was then just coming back in the groove after a break and has recently done his first Inter II again; inching closer by the day to their Grand Prix debut.
After that Maarten rode a lovely horse belonging to an equally lovely rider who injured her back, which was another joy to watch. Talking to Feline confirmed something that I already knew. How lucky we are to have the chance to get Maarten across the pond for a few days!
Not only is Maarten in great demand as an instructor, he also has recently started to work together with the young and very talented rider Steve van der Woude. It looks like their aspirations to form a solid team which is capable of training horses of all ages and levels in a most thoughtful and caring way.Their philosophy is all about 'slow is good', rather than overlooking what the horse is actually able to give at that moment in its life.
This is also a great opportunity for owners whose horses are recovering from an injury through a thoroughly designed and personalized rehabilitation program.
TWO LEGS, ON THE WALL AND OFF THE WALL...AND A BROOM!
The lesson with Bianca Zinger and her enthusiastic Friesian horse Kay was right up my alley. Not long before that I had had an exchange with Maarten about the often forgotten importance of the outside leg for a blog I wanted to write for Dutch equine magazine the 'Hoefslag'.
'Two legs' and 'on the wall, off the wall' were the expressions that were repeated regularly. With so much information available on social media, often banging on about riding from the inside leg into the outside rein, it is extremely important to be reminded that we also need the outside leg. For too many riders riding on the inside track is challenging because the emphasis is on the inside leg with the fence doing the rest and that is not helpful in the slightest to achieve a balanced horse which moves on 'line zero', another one of Maarten's great expressions.
The broom in order to explain the balance of the horse was so typically inventive for his way of explaining; a real 'Maarten special' and one I hope he will use on his next visit.
MAARTEN IS COMING IN MAY
The day ended with a lovely meal (thank you, Marc!) and so it was time to make a plan. The clinics in the two previous years have been a huge success and so I am only too pleased to organize the third one. The dates are Wednesday May 9th, Thursday May 10th and Saturday May 12th. £80 per session. Again in the lovely indoor school at Derowennek near Bodmin, owned by Vic Hunt. You can contact me, Liz Barclay, through this website or through Messenger.
Maarten already put up a post last month and so we are filling up fast!
Top picture: Maarten with William doing a demo on the big Event Festival in Holland a beautiful sunny day.
Bottom: Bianca Zinger with Indalo-Keimpe, in short Kay.
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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
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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
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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
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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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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...
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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...
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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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THREE MAGICAL DAYS WITH MAARTEN VAN STEK
MAARTEN DOING THE SALSA
Thursday's clinic with Maarten van Stek, the first day of three, started with a little dance. Claire Daniels looked in amazement how Maarten was swinging it out. It was obvious he had done the salsa before.
After a fairly short night -Maarten's plane arrived late at Exeter airport so we only arrived at the farm well after midnight- he didn't waste much time to get 'in the swing of things', so to speak.
It was a brilliant exercise; after having done it in walk in order for the rider to have fully understood, rider and horse were to proceed in trot, riding four steps with the bum slightly in, four steps straight, followed by four steps bum out. In canter this was to be done every three strides.
Nearly every single rider wanted to either show too much bend, or allowed for their horse to overdo it because of lack of control. But the whole point of the exercise was bending little! Maarten explained this by putting himself into a painful stretch nearing the splits, which made very clear to all there what we were doing to our horse if we didn't keep it small.
Other than making them unnecessarily sore, through over-asking, or allowing too much from a clever horse, the most important part -coming out of the bend with plenty of energy and impulse with a well-balanced and straight horse on two tracks- was completely overlooked.
The comparison to the salsa made it very easy to understand for the riders what Maarten wanted to achieve, which often resulted into the horses doing a sigh of relieve, literally! Us watching could see the horses relax in pelvis and through the back whereas the riders really felt it.
For the slightly older PSG horse of Vic Hunt, owner of the beautiful and tidy premises we were kindly allowed to use for the clinic, this exercise was also of enormous value. Every horse needs to be made loose, young or old. The older horse needs even more care. An aging muscular system is easily damaged.
STICK TO THE PROGRAM!
'Stick to the program!' This, for me as trainer, was the most important slogan of the entire clinic. It made everything us riders are trying to achieve so much less complicated for our brain. It is so easy to end up drowning in trying to solve all the little problems. But, 'what happens now is already in the past, so you can not solve that anymore, too late',makes so much sense, however, our arms and legs have to accept this as well and learn some self-control, creating the opportunity to feel so much more. Such a great little, at the same time powerful, slogan ticks the box without having to explain endlessly.
So, when your horse is overreacting, loosing attention or resisting, keep doing what you are doing. Don't stop your aids, because it will remember that for next time; don't get sharper, because it will remember that for next time. Repeat what you where trying to tell it just the same until your horse understands what you want and has become more supple to actually do it like you meant.
COLLECTION IS A PART OF MORE
This is very much Maarten's strength; being able to come up with these incredible comparisons which speak to the rider's imagination. For example, a collection of stamps. When one stamp is missing the collection is incomplete.
This way we all of a sudden woke up to what collection as part of dressage really is: it can not exist without all the other forms of movement and is the final result of being complete.
The word rhythm was mentioned more than regularly, because rhythm gives relaxation and relaxation in its turn helps the submission and honest rein contact.Rhythm is more often than not part of the make-up of the Dutch horse, sadly not always of the English bred horse, so it has got to come from the rider. Not easy, but Maarten, although persistent with a healthy stubbornness, never showed any impatience when occasionally it took a bit longer to achieve.
HOW DOES A HORSE USE ITS WALK
Maarten is quick, very quick; grabbing every chance horse and rider give him to explain yet another issue which comes along. In this case the young, but very tidy, Niamh Hobbs with her most generous horse had to learn to walk with more impulse. Maarten explained why it is so difficult to make a horse walk with sufficient impulse. In nature the horse only uses the walk to amble from grass to more grass. If it really wants to get somewhere it will choose trot or canter. Therefore far more attention from the rider needs to go into motivating the horse to walk with vigour.
So, first of all Maarten went 'window shopping', after which he proceeded 'to the park for a brisk walk'. The window shopping made him dead-tired whereas the brisk walk made him feel invigorated with a body full of oxygen. It's no different for a orse.
I was particularly grateful for this comparison. The evolution of the Cornish dressage rider started relatively recent, some thirty-odd years ago. Riders and horses can feel a bit aimless without a lane or a track in the woods to follow, which eats away at the necessary impulse.
DRESSAGE IS DISCIPLINE...OR...JUST 'FUNNY'?
'Keep it funny!' was one of the funniest things Maarten came up with. Everyone thought this to be rather 'funny'. Maarten is surprisingly clever at teaching in a -to him- foreign language and uses his English in an adventurous manner. Every now and then when something sounded hilarious to all there, it only grabbed everyone's attention even more so, and, most important, brought the necessary relaxation for horse and rider. Liz Bailey was the best example, it nearly made her go into stitches and you could virtually see the tension disappear out of her horse because of it.
Dressage is still such a young sport in this country and there has been, occasionally still is, a tendency to approach dressage in a far too disciplined and rather stilted manner. All parts of the test are trained as in the test without sufficient impulse, rather than being inventive and pull the exercises apart. This makes it look obedient, but no more than that. It makes the horse bored and uninterested in the job (my horse doesn't like dressage, I hear it regularly), whereas none of the movements create the flow through the body of the horse. The flow it needs to develop a strong muscular system, which ought to be the whole point of doing it in the first place!
So, it didn't matter if it looked a little messy at times, as long as something happened. 'Don't worry about doing it wrong. If you don't try you have failed altogether!' By saying this Maarten managed to help riders, who worried far too much about doing it wrong, to loosen up and be a bit more gutsy. That way they achieved far more than they had dared to wish for and left feeling very satisfied and delighted with what they'd learned.
On Friday afternoon, para rider Emily Skerret filled the gap of an unfortunate cancellation and introduced herself to Maarten. And boy, did these two hit it off! This showed specifically at the end of the session when Emily bared a little of her soul telling Maarten how awful it felt when some of the 'healthy' people wanted to make all these decisions about her very own dressage career.
This had never really occurred to me. I always thought that it was such a wonderful thing that in this world we had finally reached the point where everyone counted, with or without their arms or legs, putting it bluntly.
WHO IS HELPING WHO?
But sadly this was the second time this year I heard a para rider talk about being made to feel completely inadequate and therefore deeply hurt. Earlier on this year I heard the terrible story of a young girl that was told it was better for her and her horse that the trainer would ride it up to a week before a competition and only then she would be allowed on top of her very own horse to glue it all back together. She wasn't even allowed to brush her horse, which was so important to her. It stopped her wanting to ride at all and how sad is that?
This gave me rather the impression that the ego of some of the trainers involved in this game is far too important, with the sponsors having to take some of the blame as well. May I just ask, who is helping who...?
Saturday, quarter past four and Liz Read, the last rider of the three days, enters the arena. It is her second lesson. She and Callum also rode on Thursday.
Last year this big and bold Dutch bred horse and Liz had struggled a bit. They had both been off-colour for more than a month. Callum was a hand-full and Liz, whose weak point is focus, found it all overwhelming. Maarten kept it as simple as possible but even that was tough for Liz. The following months I quietly kept working exactly as Maarten had done and it gradually started to make sense to Liz. Her focus improved and I hoped so much for her that she would be able to keep this up during her sessions with Maarten.
I must say, I was so very proud of them. After having worked our socks off all year, it was such a relief that Maarten was able to push them so much more. Also Liz and Callum were allowed to do the salsa and when the session ended with the grand finale, a proper flying change, I could see the emotion in this enthusiastic rider, although she hid it well behind a cheer with one hand way up in the air.
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!
It went way too fast. We had all been looking forward to this so very much. For me personally it was again more than a luxury, not only to be able to give my pupils the chance to open new doors so that we can grow on with fresh vigour, but when Maarten and I at the end of the day were finally settling down with a plate of food in front of us, he was always happy to keep explaining, answer my questions with never ending patience.
It has simply been rejuvinating and better than a weekend in a spa! I am more keen than ever for my pupils to explore their capabilities and support them in their process to grow on; to teach them how to enter for them previously unknown territory. I need to be a bit more gutsy, be a tiny bit less patient and and always remember to remain inventive.
We all want him back and when I got home having dropped Maarten off at the airport, his message on Facebook was hopeful. 'Thank you, my Cornish friends, and see you next year!'
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CARL HESTER AND THE DRESSAGE PIONEERS OF THE UNITED KINGDOM
We have been able to see it with our very own eyes...Isabell Werth losing her otherwise cool composure and splashing champagne all over Carl Hester; the rather fat kisses which followed were even better!
And that brings me to the following subject. The English dressage fairy tale with Carl Hester as pin-up. Not only did Carl Hester build his dressage career from scratch, he has helped give both the English and also the international dressage scene a more horse-friendly image. Not only his beautifully relaxed style of riding, with the easily scared Nip Tuck as proof in the pudding, but also what he gives to the sport in so many other ways; how he comes across as a human being.
TWO LITTLE JUVENILE DUTCH DRESSAGE SNOBS
It all started with Jennie Loriston-Clarke and Dutch Gold in the seventies. The first English combination which counted internationally. And, oh man, how did my then friend and I, two Dutch juvenile dressage snobs in the middle of puberty, howl; because, in our opinion, the changes were not quite straight. We were barely able to pull off a half-pass!
TRAINING WITH JANE BREDIN
By the time I moved to Cornwall there were a few more English dressage stars on the firmament. And luck would have it that Jane Bredin's mum lived in the nearest village.
Soon I found myself in the car with Bunny on our way to Goodwood. It just so happened to be last dressage show ever held there. It was an atmosphere never to forget. Emile Faurie, with I believe Virtu, was basically peaking there. You could hear a pin drop but after the last salute the audience, including me, totally lost it.
A few years later, I was on my way, with my second breeding product Marie, in my little yellow lorry to Jane's yard near Chippenham. That is where I decided to never be a Dutch dressage snob, ever again. It was a humbling experience, Jane knew so much and I so little!
TO THE OLYMPICS
After having worked for David Hunt for many years, Jane ran her own training yard, with the help of her good friend Suzie Cumine.
Jane knew from a very young age she was going to the Olympics and did not mind telling her two sisters and friends this fact. I believe this happens more often, that top athletes know at a very young age that that is what they will do. Jane rode at two Olympics, Atlanta and Hong Kong.
TRAINING WITH ANKY VAN GRUNSVEN
I vividly remember her Dutch bred gelding Cupido with his lively eyes and big blaze. During that period, Jane put her lorry time and again on the ferry to Holland in order to train with Dutch dressage queen Anky van Grunsven and top trainer Sjef Janssen. Also, she was keen to measure herself with the best and never tired from crossing the Channel yet again to compete on the continent against the international riders with the dressage genes in their blood. At that time, it was a little too easy to win a Grand Prix in England; not exactly a recipe to become Olympic material.
Jane, together with riders such as Peter Storr, Emile Faurie, Carl Hester and Richard Davison, helped bring England on the international dressage agenda. Her pioneering instinct knew no boundaries.
INTERNATIONALLY RESPECTED BY THE VERY BEST
Sadly, she was not able to be part of the huge successes of recent years. Six years ago, Jane had a heart attack which she did not survive. After the memorial service, when walking back to the car with some of her friends, I heard a Dutch voice behind me. It was the voice of Dutch dressage queen Anky van Grunsven, who had made the effort to be there. The ultimate proof of how very much Jane was respected and appreciated by the very best.
THE RED CLOTH
Jane was a strong personality, a 'one-off'. She did not make it easy for the English Olympic organisation by letting them know that, if they wanted Cupido on the team in Atlanta in 1996, she needed to be on the plane with him. This was breaking every rule, but she managed to do it!
On arrival there was a lovely lot of shavings in the stable. Had to be removed; if Cupido rested his beautiful head on a pillow of straw at home, how could he possibly survive when having to perform at his best?
Sadly, Atlanta was disappointing because Cupido got terribly ill and spent his time recuperating.
But Jane had seen the red cloth from very nearby and, ten years later, she made a cracking come-back with her horse Lucky Star, which secured them a place for the Beijing Olympics.
HENK VAN BERGEN COACH FOR THE ENGLISH TEAM
In the late seventies, I was working at a huge riding school in the east of Holland. My boss, Jan Oortveld, had lessons with Henk van Bergen at the time. We, working pupils were green with envy; Henk van Bergen was 'God' to us.
Years later -surprise, surprise! - his name cropped up in this country. Pammy Hutton came down to Cornwall every six weeks and so, ready for more accurate flying changes and learning canter pirrouettes, it seemed the way to go to get some regular training and very successful, too.
On my first visit to Talland, Pammy herself went off in the lorry for a lesson with...Henk van Bergen. A small world, isn't it? I believe during that time he was the coach for the English dressage team, another great move to become a competing nation to reckon with.
CARL HESTER A GLORIOUS THIRD AT THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
And how well has England fared since then! After having enjoyed all the fun with Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, there was Carl again with a brilliant third place in Omaha, sprayed with the champagne from Isabell's bottle. Superb...
Picture: Jane's mum's favourite picture. Bunny kindly let me use it for both the Dutch and English blog.
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COOLMORE AND A HEALTHY COUNTRYSIDE
THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A PROPER IRISH HORSEMAN
Anyone ever heard of Coolmore? You’ve got to love racing to know about this extraordinary place. The racing world is very far from my bed, but when a good friend took me on a little trip to Ireland I was able to admire the stunning valley where Coolmore Stud is situated with my very own eyes and what a treat it was!
It came as a surprise. I have blogged about this trip before; we were staying with proper Irish horseman Ned Norris in County Kilkenny. A warm personality seems to be the norm in Ireland and this man certainly was that. Together with his stalwart wife they made our trip into a complete experience, including being treated as part of the family for the duration of our stay.
‘THE ARSE WILL TEK YE’
We had been looking at and trying quite a few horses during our visit, not only in Kilkenny itself but also in Wexford county which is known for its mean ditches. I have had to politely refuse several great invitations because of those monsters. They would tell me I didn’t have to worry, ‘the arse will tek ye’, which only made me more nervous. The thought to sit on an unstoppable horse in unknown terrain with hedges the size of small houses, a piece of rusty barbed wire here and there, and on top of it the odd ditch of a few metres deep did not at all appeal to me!
JAMESON IN THE MORNING, IN THE AFTERNOON AND IN THE EVENING
The Irish are incredibly hospitable and if I wasn’t going to ride, I had to drink, Jameson, very delicious, everywhere we went this ‘wee dram’ came out of the cupboard; in the morning,in the afternoon, in the evening. And out would come the old picture albums…beautiful black and white photo’s going back many years. Rugged faces with a bit of gentle mischief in it, completely at home in their beloved countryside on their brave steeds with their hounds and after the fox.
In Holland we only know the drag hunt. When fox hunting turned into drag hunting in England in 2004 it caused a lot of upset and controversy. Among my pupils and friends some were appalled, others took up hunting because of it. Drag hunting is possibly faster, not much waiting around the shrubbery and dens where the cunning fox might be hiding. A good friend, who was taken hunting by her parents as a small child did not like it for that reason. She once told me, ‘I hated it, you were either soaking wet, bored stiff or scared shitless.’
Other than the fact that the Irish love their hunting, they are equally proud of the world famous Irish thoroughbred and this brings us back to Coolmore.
On our last day, which happened to be a Sunday, the grandchild of our host was being baptized and of course we were invited. It was a grand occasion which, by the way, was in the town of Fethard in Tipperary. (Ever heard of McCarthy’s? This pub, being the regular of the racing fraternity, happened to be opposite the church. I had my first Irish Guinness there!)
So, on this beautifully sunny day, on our way to the service, the car passed through the last line of trees on the brow of a hill and there it was…basking in the autumnal sunshine. The entire valley laid out meticulously with immaculate fields, lanes lined with trees and perfectly trimmed hedges. Some fields had cows in them, others sheep and of course some with horses. Broodmares or youngsters presumably. I can only say, it was mind blowing and overwhelming.
HORSE SICK FIELDS AND MUD HOLES
What I found most impressive was that, with the Irish thoroughbred being the main interest, it is still run as a mixed farm for the sake of the quality of the fields. As much as I love horses, I do love a happy well-balanced agricultural landscape and have a hard time looking at horse sick fields, or worse, mud holes that don’t even recover anymore during the summer. When I was in Holland last month I saw a few of those there as well and it wasn’t pretty. Not only does it look terrible, colics and worm infections are difficult to avoid when horses have to live like that.
THE ULTIMATE BREEDING STATION IN THE WHOLE WORLD
The brave fighter pilot Tim Vigors was the original brain behind Coolmore and responsible for extending the farm into a breeding station for race horses. He began after the Second World War with the 175 hectare farm. In 1975 famous horse trainer Vincent O’Brien, together with son-in-law John Magnier and Robert Mangster took over the helm in order to develop the business even further with the vision of creating the ultimate breeding station in the world. The decision to keep the cattle and sheep as a by-product is what makes this valley so extra special and healthy, at the same time still maintaining some of its originality.
PROUD HOBBY FARMER
For many years I did this myself on a very small scale. On my 20 acres, other than some horses, I had a small flock of sheep and a few beef cows, plus I made haylage to sell. The first and last thing of the day was a walk with my dogs across the fields to check whether everyone was still where they were supposed to be. It was a joy and I took great pride in the fact that my land looked clean and well-managed.
I love riding and looking at horses, but I do also love a well-maintained farmland…
Top picture: Coolmore Stud
Middle: some of the cattle at Coolmore Stud
Bottom: My rescue sheepdog Travel rounding my small flock of Suffolk Mule crosses
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MAARTEN VAN STEK, WE'RE READY FOR YOU!
‘BOERENKOOL MET WORST’
‘Marc will collect you, just text your address’, this was the Facebook message from dressage trainer Maarten van Stek after I realized my mistake: there was no train to the horse yard where he was expecting me. Never had been.
Not only did Maarten’s husband Marc collect me, he also cooked my favourite meal that evening: ‘boerenkool met worst’, which is cabbage greens mashed with potatoes and smoked sausage.
But before that I had the joy of sitting at the side of an outdoor school in a sun that made the air feel like spring and all I had to do was watch Maarten ride his William, the gentle Hanovarian with whom he will hopefully be competing Grand Prix before this year is over.
They are a beautiful team. The difference with last year was quite something, so much more compact, more muscled, more precise. The one- and two-timers kept on coming. Maarten was able to push him, because he knew he could, in the piaffe work, trusting he would pick the fruits the next day. And remember, all of this with one hand. When I watch the two of them I forget…
MY FIRST DUTCH EMPLOYMENT
Maarten and Marc were my last little ‘outing’ before I would jump back on the plane to Cornwall. My trip had been a grand time, starting with the KWPN stallion show in Den Bosch (staying in the best Bed & Breakfast ever!) followed by visiting loads of old friends and…my first employment as freelance journalist for Dutch equine magazine the Hoefslag, equivalent of English magazine the Horse and Hound. A full day with two powerpoint presentations about the use of hormones in the breeding world and the use of DNA samples and genetic selection as a new method to decrease joint issues amongst others. A challenge and I loved it!
SPARKS WERE FLYING!
But now I was at the end of my three-week trip and being on Maarten’s side for nearly two days, would give me yet another chance to increase my knowledge as a trainer.
After last year’s initial meeting, followed by a very successful clinic in Cornwall with some of my pupils, I had very much hoped that Maarten and my friendship and working relationship would continue, if not grow.
And growing it did. Also, the sparks were flying! When Marc was patiently cooking and the smoked sausage made my mouth water, Maarten and I had a feisty little discussion about whip use. His point was that there has got to be greater commitment of the riders to keep their lower leg sufficiently forward in order to be able to kick at the correct part of the horse’s belly, where the nerves will make the muscles contract the same way we jump when someone sticks his fingers in the sensitive area above our waist. Only then will the horse fully understand and learn to respect and only then will the basic training create a smooth track to the higher levels.
His explanation: ‘Do you use a whip when you try to lift the legs of your horse when picking their feet out? No! you again and again squeeze at the right place until in the end, out of respect the horse lifts its feet when you point. Sitting on top makes no difference’.
Just being able to have that discussion proved our mutual respect, me the pupil, he my teacher…
A THANK YOU AFTER 35 YEARS
This was my second visit, Last year was the first time we met after my ‘out of the blue’ email to him. In short: ‘Dear Maarten you don’t know me but when I read about a Dutch one-armed dressage rider on his way to the Grand Prix, I knew it had to be you. About 35 years ago, I watched one of your clinics. I was still on crutches after a car accident, in which I nearly lost my leg…’
I remember all too well how I blubbered that evening, when I came home. Maarten was then already an extremely accomplished instructor and when he threw himself with his one arm effortlessly on a client’s horse, he managed to quietly achieve a metamorphosis within no time, which made me feel awful, why he and not me? I had had to stop my courses at the equestrian school; you can’t ride properly with a crooked body and the doctor had said I should be grateful that I was able to walk again, kind of…and then I got angry…at myself. And 35 years later I could thank Maarten. Competed Prix St George, helped two pupils to get there and actively teaching more than ever.
That evening so long ago gave me the grit and the energy to keep fighting, put my teeth back into it. Just like he did, and still does, because, believe me, for Maarten every day is a challenge, although he is too humble to ever brag about that.
A ROSE CALLED ‘WILLIAM’
So, last year in May, we met again and in the most unusual way. I had to go and find them. Their GPS in their rental car from Exeter airport had brought them somewhere near Golant, but wasn’t clever enough to find my farm. So, in the pitch black two cars slowly glided past one another, the drivers carefully glaring whether they recognized each other, ready to be seriously embarrassed if this was not the case. Marc was driving and I had not met him yet, so I nearly put my foot on the accelerator.
At home, after I received a lovely rose, called ‘William’, we had a cup of tea, a glass of wine and went to bed. Next day we were going to make a lot of miles, giving Marc the chance to do some sight-seeing, whilst Maarten would be teaching.
TRUST AND FRIENDSHIP
Last year’s clinic was a great success. It gave all of us, pupils and instructor, such a boost, so much more focus to build on. But most of all, the human side of it. The fact that, in this increasingly tough world, it is still possible to take a risk by opening up, baring one’s soul and receive the gift of a friendship in the most spontaneous way…that I found the best bit of all.
AND AFTER WILLIAM, HARRY ARRIVED...
Since about a month William has got company; Harry arrived. Just like the royal family, including the hair colour!
On last week’s visit I was also given the chance to watch Harry in work. Harry is by nature an athlete with a conformation that makes everything relatively easy for him. It really brought home to me how hard William works for Maarten, purely on his character, something Maarten so very much appreciates in him. But, ‘it takes two to tango’, and it is the fine bond between Maarten and William which motivates William to push for the ultimate.
And if Maarten and Harry can find a similar passion, the future will be bright; that is my humble opinion.
Maarten has lessons with renowned trainer Alex van Silfhout, father of Olympic rider Diederik van Silfhout. On the way to the airport, when Maarten was telling me he sometimes wished Alex was at times a bit more critical on his position, I had to laugh out loud! I can only drool when I watch him ride, starting with his impeccable leg position…
LOWER LEG FORWARD!!
Maarten is a busy man; other than his two horses to train, he has a lot of pupils. But…in May he will visit Cornwall again. This time at Victoria Hunton’s lovely indoor school near Bodmin. As soon as we put the post on Facebook, three days were booked in no time, so we may have to add a fourth day, depending.
In the meantime, I’m back into the groove. The first week of teaching in fairly horrendous weather conditions is behind me, my pupils having shown tremendous dedication to want to ride despite the vicious squalls at times. Message was to all: ‘Okay guys, if we from now on make an extra effort to keep that lower leg forward, join your own dotted line together with the dotted line of your horse and, other than that, try not too hard, too much, too soon when riding for Maarten, we will benefit three times, maybe even four times, more than last year’s visit!’
It seemed to work, so on we go, full throttle. Maarten van Stek, we’re ready for you!
Top picture: Maarten van Stek with William at a demonstration at the Dutch happening 'Horse Event'
Middle: the best Bed & Breakfast of Den Bosch with host Thecla Renders making sure we are over-indulged!
Bottom: Maarten and William in training with dear friend Miriam Voorwinde on her horse ValegrA in the background. Miriam helps Maarten often at his competitions.
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Stallion show Den Bosch: a slight change of program
For most visitors, and also the other two Liz's from Cornwall who accompanied me on my visit, the highlight of the national KWPN Stallion Show without a doubt will have been the choosing of the the champion jumping stallion Juventus VG (s. Kannan) and the dressage champion stallion Jameson RS2 (s. Blue Hors Zack), unless of course they were super fan of Valegro.
For me it was a very different show from previous years; barely saw a horse!
KWPN ONE EXTENDED FAMILY
It was a complete coincidence that exactly this week a lovely review of my book 'The Farmer, The Coal Merchant, The Baker...' was published in the Dutch equivalent of magazine the 'Horse and Hound', called the 'Hoefslag'. Visitors of the show were able to pick up a magazine for free in the stand which was shared with a Dutch fencing company and the Elite Foal Auction Borculo. After a phone call with the enthousiastic and spontaneous Marjolein Ras, secretary of this now over 30 year old organisation, I received a warm welcome at their stand which immediately brought back that old comforting feeling that everyone, whatever the connection with the Dutch Warmblood, is naturally a part of the family.
My day was made when I was given the opportunity to add a flyer to each magazine with the information where to buy my book!
FLEXIBLE STYLE OF RIDING
Earlier on I was exaggerating just slightly. During the evening program I did manage to occasionally run from the stand to the main arena to the warm up ring in order to catch a glimpse and have a taste of all that was happening. There are a lot of young and very talented riders who are there to show off the 4- and 5-year old stallions they trained so hard with in order to present them to their best ability.
It was there that I came to admire 28-year old Olympic rider Diederik van Silfhout. The picture looked possibly a little bit more contained and less exciting than that of the more assertive female riders. But how clever, the way he is still able to adjust his style of riding in order to make feel safe these young and at times boisterous stallions. It must be such a shock for those juveniles to enter the electric arena and I think they were probably quite grateful for his quiet approach.
A LOT OF MONEY AND HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Back to the stand of the Elite Foal Auction; never knew how big and international this organisation had become through the years. For me any auction connected to the sale of animals makes me slightly uncomfortable. Especially these innocent and still so very vulnerable foals...where are they going...who has bought them...do they know what they are doing? A lot of money is changing hands and with that inevitably expectations are high. However, Marjolein filled me in.
The care this organisation takes to make sure these foals get the best possible chance is enormous. From the keep and upbringing at professional farms, perfectly equipped for this, to the backing and education of the young horse in order to safeguard the very important first few years in which so much can go wrong. The advice and explanation of all this to the possibly less experienced buyer to avoid any disappointments is very complete and creates a safe situation for sellers, buyers and the animals themselves.
For any one interested to invest into a top quality KWPN foal the Elite Foal Auction Borculo is probably worth a visit.
In the mornings it is often quiet in the stands and so when a very modest looking, to the point of shy, lady from Germany was left to wait for something or someone at the stand, I felt compelled to test my German, knowing full and well that not much of it was left after thirty years in Cornwall.
There was an immediate click. Sandra Maria Stern is one of the nicest and most special horsewomen I've ever met. Her stud 'Pferdestall Johannes' was built only four years ago. Sandra Maria patiently explained her goals and philosophy in order to make come true her dream. With seven mares of which some in the sport and others in foal she is trying to find the back door into the KWPN studbook. The reason being that the front door is a bit stiff to say the least. Many breeders frown when discussing the subject of adding German blood in order to slow down the development at the rate it is going just a bit, in order for the KWPN horse not to turn into something no one ever wanted.
IN HONOUR OF...
Sandra Maria made a connection with the famous stud Team Nijhof and this spring one of her mares is expecting a foal of...Johnson. If everything is going according to plan Sandra Maria will be able to build her own inventive bridge with her own offspring to the KWPN studbook.
Emotion showed in her voice and face when she told me how her stud was made possible after the death of her father. It was then she was able to turn her dream into reality and therefore named her stud Johannes in honour of the man who put her into the world and whom she loved so much. The simple and honest way Sandra Maria told me this was touching.
After having given her a signed copy of my book I received a sincere invitation to visit 'Pferdestall Johannes' and after a warm hug we went our separate ways.
MEET THE FOKKERS
Another year of the KWPN Stallion Show with yet again so many stunning and promising young stallions of which most will end up gelded in the sport and a few will hopefully add to keeping the KWPN studbook as prominent for the future as it is at the moment.
The other two Liz's who joined me on this trip made the impression to be pretty much overwhelmed by they saw. But there were also some hilarious moments. Although some of the commentary is in English, most of it is in Dutch. The two kept on bursting out laughing every time the speaker mentioned the Dutch breeders and this happens often. I admit, the Dutch word for breeders does have a strange sound for English ears. So...from now on we have every reason to call the KWPN Stallion Show: 'Meet the Fokkers'!
Top picture: behind the scenes in the warm up ring
Middle: Sandra Maria Stern
Bottom: Pferdestall Johannes
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Liz and Callum: the determination to find line zero!
It must be seven years or so when I went to see Callum together with Liz Read on the Bodmin Moor at the private yard of another pupil. Liz had recently lost her beloved Boogy and needed cheering up so going on the road to see some horses for sale seemed the obvious thing to do. I'd never seen this coloured Dutch-bred horse from close by before, but the moment I looked him in the eye I knew Liz would want him. He had exactly the same eye as Boogy and I could just see a new love affair develop right there and then.
IN A HURRY
I left it up to her; I don't like giving advice on what to buy. The times I said I liked a horse but it would take a year or more to gel together always worked against me; everyone seems to always be in a hurry. And here again I had introduced a decent rider, however not necessarily terribly experienced in dressage, to a young horse.
He had been under saddle for over half a year and had had a couple of outings; he seemed to have a good disposition. Hmmm...the next winter the trouble started. Liz has a full-time job. If Callum was left out a little longer than he thought was right he would be dangerous to lead in. I saw it when one day I turned up for a lesson and Liz was a bit behind schedule as she was just leading him to the gate. His one-eighty and the lash-out was like a thunderbolt and missed her by a hair!
The fact that Liz had tried some free natural horsemanship stuff in the school had not helped in this case. This horse needed to be on the lead and not off it. That winter I put a lot of time into Callum. Lunging and more lunging, forward and more forward. I felt desperately sorry for Liz. Her previous horse had been a difficult situation for quite a while because of an old injury. Liz needed to have some fun.
In the mean time another problem occurred. Liz had always had a lorry, but when that year the plating got massively expensive she switched to a trailer. Callum turned from a happy traveler into a demon. He could not handle it; whether it was the confinement or what, it did not work. He would load, but continued to panic during the trip.
A little bit of history: Callum had had a serious injury as a youngster. He had been stuck upside-down underneath a fence, which had resulted in a hock injury. It was flushed out twice and this not even two year-old horse spent months on end in the stable. After that he had to be walked out in hand for weeks and weeks, and that often in the dark after work, often in gale force winds, on a moorland lane!
His previous owner had been very honest about the hock injury and it reflected in the asking price. He was vetted sound with a few lumps and bumps. In hind sight though, I do believe that during that time he possibly developed a streak which occasionally still blew his brains.
We improved and things got safer. We knew that on headstrong days Liz would have to keep cantering on the track until he was begging her to go to trot. After that he would work a treat. About three years ago we were able to say that Callum was forward, balanced and ready to move into some lateral work. He turned out to be a natural.
This had been Liz's dream; shoulder-in, half-passes and in the canter hopefully a flying change. As a trainer I can only blame myself for the gradual deterioration which sneaked in. I underestimated Li'z's desire and did not realize how many shoulder-inns, travers, renvers and half-passes were done in between our two-weekly lessons. Add to that the fact Callum is a grass addict and gains weight just by inhaling fresh air, which turns him in the summer a bit into a Thelwell pony. This does not help his movement; it simply becomes difficult for him to move from the hip as his belly is so in the way, which showed specifically in his odd , newly developed, rabbit-hop canter.
Also, Liz is a small person. It is very difficult for her to feel the middle, especially in the summer when his back is so flat and wide. The result is that when Callum is not around her inside leg, she ends up with too much weight in the outside stirrup. This results in Liz trying to restrict him with the inside rein too tight against the neck.He soon figured out that that could be used to make up his own behind-the-leg travers movement as a terrible evasion.
MAARTEN VAN STEK
And then came May 2016. Trainer Maarten van Stek arrived from Holland for the clinic we had all so very much looked forward to. It was Sod's law, wasn't it; he saw Callum and Liz at their worst. Liz was so excited, she lost all her focus whereas Callum had just had a month off because of Liz having been off-colour and he consequently behaved like an unruly 3 year-old stallion. I was not impressed and I wasn't the only one, either.
In the end Maarten was the best thing that could have happened. As a trainer I was put on the spot to never ever allow any of my pupils collect their horse on days they are not 100% forward. It took a little while for Liz to regain her confidence. Insecurity is the little devil lurking over our shoulder, ready to get under our skin when at our weakest. But Liz is tough and took Maarten's sound advice to heart. Callum...well, Callum blossomed.
With Maarten's voice echoing in our head with snippets such as: you haven't killed the spirit of the horse; tell it what to do, not what not to do because that is too late; follow your dotted line, line zero; now I can see what you're doing, now I can't, we went on a journey. At least three months we spent re-establishing the tempo. Not a leg-yield, not a shoulder-in, no counter canter, not anything was done other than riding forward...and focus...and learning to respond proactively in order to avoid corrections.
A STEP OR TWO TOO FAR
It was hard and took a lot of patience, from both sides. And you know what, today, on a blustery wintery day we had the best lesson ever. Topping it off with two beautiful leg-yields, away for the inside leg but inside and for the outside leg so that Liz was able to ride perfectly from letter to letter. The same with the shoulder-ins, they were so soft with no head-tilt and consistently on three tracks, coming out of it with so much self-carriage.
Two half-passes which never went through the shoulder and stopped nicely on the centre line, something Liz has now accepted she should do. She loved going the whole way across, not realizing she completely lost the correct bend around her inside leg. Occasionally pupils don't realize how much damage they can do by taking the training a step or two too far and that is their right and not something that makes them a terrible person, but it doesn't help the long winding road to success.
Today taught me a lot. It taught me about teaching flexibility to my pupils. A flexibility trainers tend to have naturally, but need to remember to pass on. In order to improve one has to dare to move forward and venture onto new territory. On the other hand, every time one gets stuck one has to accept to go back to where it starts, the forwardness and the straightness. Re-establish the focus to be proactive, but also with the flexibility to be ready to step it up when the horse offers you the submission to do so.
After the lesson I gave Liz and Callum the biggest hug. And I told Liz I wanted to write a blog about them. But I really wrote this for Liz. Years of no competition riding, a body that is aging and hurts more than she would like to admit (she is my oldest pupil at 61). She never complains, she's always ready to go, never minds being pushed. I have such respect for this woman who keeps on smiling, even when I occasionally reprimand her to keep a serious face!
And, this spring we're hoping to show Maarten a happy forward horse with a proper three beat canter and a rider on top who has pushed herself hard to keep hold of that dotted line, line zero.
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Flora scared of a few jumping poles? Never...
The first time I met Jen on Flora, I could not help but think: this is the weirdest canter I've ever seen. I can't even describe it as a four-time beat or a rabbit-hop; it was unlike any other 'wrong canter'; she held herself completely rigid. Flora looked grumpy and lazy, something that Jen was very aware of. To add to the problems, Flora would more often than not strike off on the wrong lead on both reins.
The other issue was that Flora would shy every single time she went along the long side where the jumping poles were stacked.
I see it time and again: when a horse is on the rein of its stiffer side, it resents the correct lead in canter and it picks on things outside the arena that are not scary on the other rein. Both problems will miraculously disappear when the horse accepts the bend around that particular leg. Flora, however was rigid in both directions.
I strongly believe there is not ever the one and only way of training to solve problems such as these. Yes, there is the golden rule which works for strong professional riders with the perfect seat and perfectly quiet legs combined with maximum impact, but that level of riding is not even possible for the best rider who has only got the one horse to ride and a full-time job.
Most of my riders have not got the leg power to break through that initial moment which makes the horse accept and respect the leg to the extend that is light ever after. I have learned from experience that spurs do not solve this until the rider has learned to maintain his or her leg still and sufficiently forward. Sadly, many riders seem to suffer from sitting too far forward with their shoulders and calves too far back (possibly related to training often in bad weather and heavy wheel barrows?), with the bald spot too far back on the rib case as a silent witness.
Back to Jen and Flora. Although Flora was backward she did not strike me as a 'rearer' so I gave Jen a short jumping crop with which she was going to tap Flora's inside shoulder (the shoulder of the inside front leg that needs to lift higher for the correct canter) one stride before she wanted to make the transition into the right canter. This would give Jen the chance to sit stiller and straighter whereas the whip merely pointed out to Flora to lift that leg higher, This would hopefully create an instinctive response. It did, Flora obviously understood this aid immediately and after two correct transitions, the crop was not needed any more. This was only a small and temporary bridging measure (particularly chosen for this horse with a very weak shoulder) to get to the next part: now that we had two correct leads we could start to ride more forward.
Oh, wait, no, I forgot the shying business! Instead of over-focusing on this I asked Jen to ride Flora on the inside track instead of fighting her on the track and always losing out. Experience has taught me that the ghost, in this case some innocent jumping poles, does not exist. It is the fear of the horse to be told off or yanked in the mouth wrongly (not because the rider wants to but is simply not aware of it). Now we were in business! I asked Jen to canter as fast as she could around the arena, not worrying about balance or corners and still ignoring that one long side by staying on the inside track. At times Jen had to sit forward in order to follow the slightly out of control movement and she did not look happy, but... she did it and it worked! When she came back to the trot Flora was off her leg and propelling herself forward with great vigour and a very different attitude. That was the beginning and in the next lessons we gradually built on this new groove, always finishing on a high and never being too greedy.
Jen could not believe how well Flora started to work. Because I did not know Flora and she had quite a wary eye, I opted to not ever chase her with a lunging whip; something I have done with lazy horses, just so that the rider can enjoy a quiet seat for a while and learn not to nag. Also, although Jen had to work on her leg position she is a very determined rider, so she was able with this new concept to build on Flora's respect for, and trust in, her.
And look now! We have introduced the leg yield from the inside track to the track where the poles are and also shoulder fore is now possible along that track. This gives Jen the chance to keep her from breaking through her inside leg; yet again a way to help Jen to keep a still leg in the correct position and a means to the next phase of overcoming the entire issue. Unfortunately Flora still tilts her head slightly (bit of stiffness in the pol which is already getting less) on that one rein for the shoulder fore, but, hey, she has just overcome a years' worth of shying along that side. We do enough inside track work on being straight and forward (where she does not tilt) in order for this to not become a habitual issue.
For Jen the increased tempo initially felt like she was flying and out of balance, but that was only the beginning of a new chapter, where both of them had to regain a new balance. We are gradually able to ride with more lift on a horse that didn't even have an outline but now wants to go deeper by choice. We need that lift for the shoulder to have some more freedom to move higher in order to allow that strong hind leg to work with the activity it now so wants to show off.
Both canters are now also solid and balanced in the counter canter and the medium trots are starting to become exciting.
Last week judge Mary Mcginley marked Flora and Jen with a 73 and a near 75 %, with 7.5's for her medium trots and, more important to me as the trainer, some great comments about the basics.
The point I am trying to make here is that shying generally has nothing to do with the fear for what the rider thinks it is. It is a result of the rider misinterpreting the situation and consequently the horse fearing that area because of how the rider deals with it. And there are different recipes for different riders, weaker or stronger, and of course also our horses.
Flora never shies at competitions so why over-focus at home on something which will overshadow every other aspect of a potentially great training session?
Thanks Jen, for letting me use you and Flora as an example!
Top picture: Tom Unwin made this picture during our last lesson. I call it my triangle: the trust between horse, rider and trainer.
Bottom: Mary Mcginley's comments made my day.
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My time in the States: from boats to horses
In the late eighties I had a great chance to spend some time in the States and work on some very smart sailing yachts, delivering to the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and further north as well; Nova Scotia being the best trip of all. It was an adventurous time, however, life without horses turned out to be impossible, so...
...One day, a good friend, who understood my problem, drove me to the freshly started Mounted Police Unit in Portsmouth.
Well, I ended up at the right place at the right time. There was only one policeman who was a rider, two who were bravely hanging in there and one who had only just joined the patrol and was green as grass. There were four horses, of which one had turned out to take to the job well, two which were getting there and one poor gelding who lived as far back in the stable as possible being terrified of people.
This was something these guys could not help; the horse had only just been donated to them. But, on the other hand, it was not something they knew how to handle. What a coincidence! I fell in love with Jesse right there and then. He was a young and stunning looking Saddlebred and only God knows what happened to him before he was brought to this unit. I had my work cut out for me and took some time off the boats to fully immerse myself into this great project.
Sitting lessons for the novice riders, schooling the other horses and playing patiently with Jesse on a piece of wasteland on the edge of the biggest naval yard of the States, with the mighty aircraft carriers in the background; the odd pack of wild dogs roaming around. How crazy can life get!
Jesse soon proved that he had a heart of gold and within a couple of months we were on the road, teaching him to be comfortable in city traffic and learning to stand perfectly still next to a car, close enough to put a parking ticket under the windshield wipers, but of course without scraping the car with the stirrup. He had to learn to relax next to a police car with lights and sirens full-on and walk over unusual surfaces, with me firing some sort of a fake-gun. Not easy, sometimes a bit scary, but what fun!
Sadly, Jesse turned out to be too much for the novice riders the policemen really were at that stage and he was moved on. I would like to hope I gave him a chance for new and good life. By then it was time for me to move on,as well. The unit was on its feet, by now a well-liked sight on the streets of Portsmouth and my 'McCloud time' over. I'd had a call from a lady in Smithfield who, together with her husband, ran a very smart private dressage yard. I had been there once before with a friend to watch at a clinic and drooled at the sight of some lovely horses and of course more my type than those at the mounted police.
Yolanda asked if I would come and see her young horse Sonny, who had had a hock injury early on in his life, had been consistently sound in the field for quite a while but, since being backed, not quite on the lunge or ridden. The vets could not do anymore for him. Yolanda was virtually in tears when we met because I literally was her last hope. No pressure!
I put him on the lunge and watched. I guess muscle-memory is possibly the term now used. When put under a little bit of pressure Sonny seemed worried to use his previously injured hind leg, so I used my gut-feeling and only activated this particular hind leg with the lunging whip every step, again...and again... and again. And he went sound within minutes. My gut feeling had been right: he just did not know anymore how to use this leg correctly and only had to be reminded. As soon as he realized it did not hurt he was absolutely fine!
Of course I was worried about whether I did the right thing, it may have been Sonny's adrenaline kicking in, but then again I knew I was his last chance, literally. Of course we had to wait how he would be the next day. Years before I was asked to work a horse with what was thought a nap. After 'not a great time' she gave in and worked actually lovely. The next day she was lame. It turned out to be the navicular bone and that was her reason for napping. At least the owner knew she could not be ridden anymore and she did not have to go through another horrid session, but I was not proud of myself.
The next day Sonny only in the very beginning drug his hind just slightly, but already so much less than in the first session. After that he was sound and stayed sound during his entire career into PSG. It was the turning point for my career, because from then on I spent most days at Terra Ceia Farm with Donald and Yolanda Williamson. Yolanda not only gave me the chance to work with her older PSG horse Boomer, but together we had such a blast producing Sonny. It is where I did my first flying changes and canter pirouettes. There were some lovely livery horses with very nice owners who were also keen to have lessons and often it was followed by a great lunch or dinner. We watched endless training video's, from Reiner Klimke to some eccentric South American guy who taught piaffe in the most unusual way. Still to this day use his method for the horse with no natural ability. It is uncomplicated, kind and always works!
And then the time had come to settle somewhere permanently. I missed Cornwall and my little farm terribly. Contact with Terra Ceia Farm faded but every so often I looked at the picture of Yolanda and Sonny in the hallway and wondered how they were getting on. Well, thank you Facebook, after years of having lost touch we're posting, messaging and liking as if there's no tomorrow.
Donald and Yolanda achieved great things. They believed in what they did and always worked their tails off. They bred some fantastic horses and of course their home-bred Dutch stallion Staccato by Idocus out of their beautiful mare Domfee was the highlight and an achievement they so very much deserved!
Now, guess what? The grandfather of Idocus is Voltaire. This is when life goes in circles and Yolanda will be able to read in my book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' how Voltaire ended up in the Netherlands with Henk Nijhof. It is a lovely story, amongst many others. I know there are many of her friends with an interest Dutch Warmbloods and I hope they also will enjoy reading about how the Gelderland horse evolved into the able competition horse of today, changing the life of many Dutchmen who were brave enough to embark upon the challenging adventure of horse breeding as a job.
Next week a small group of us will drive to the big equestrian happening Olympia, with plenty of tissues in our pockets. It is time to say goodbye to Valegro... his last big performance. Again Voltaire as a great-grandfather, with Amor and Pericles in his bloodlines, as well. KWPN stallions from the past, but never to be forgotten...
'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' for sale at Amazon. Price: $10. Now also available as eBook! Price: $4.32
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The eye of the horse
Even if you don't feel like reading my whole blog, would you please read the last paragraph?
When I was very young I so hated that I did not (yet) understand the eye of my pony Ansje. When I would look at our family dog I would always know how it felt, but the eyes of little Ansje always seemed to look the same. I was probably no more than eight or nine at the time and, other than a swift brush, preferred to spend my time on top.
It was only when I started to learn how to lunge that I had the chance to see whether I could spot the change in the eye and even then it was difficult to study it for longer spells of time. There is so much going on and to watch. Also, the whole idea is NOT to look into the horse's eye when it is sufficiently forward; only when it needs to go more forward or is crawling closer, inside the desired lunging distance, eye contact should be made. It is their language and it works.
Of course trainers and instructors get lots of chances to study the eye during their lessons and it was only then that I properly learned the language of the eye of the horse, because it really is a language; giving so much information about how to approach the different phases of the lesson.
The 'sleepy' eye I don't like at all. It tends to go together with the backward horse and when I don't know the horse that well yet, I prefer to lunge it first because it often will nap when told to get on with the job. I don't use side-reins at that point because I will want to be able to chase the horse around if necessary and in that situation the last thing I want is to put pressure on the mouth. Some naps are fairly innocent but to be on the safe side it is so much better to get the respect from the ground and transfer it to on-top.
The younger horse very often looks in a kind of wishful-thinking way out of the arena when passing the entrance. It knows where it came from and still needs to learn to accept that a little bit of work has never hurt anybody. As soon as it realizes that it is safe in the school and is starting to enjoy the work, it will stop doing that and turn into the eye I like so very much, a relaxed and 'soft' eye. The same softness us riders should have when we're 'in the zone'.
The soft eye is an eye which is able to concentrate without over-focusing. In her book 'Centered Riding' Sally Swift explains this so very well for the riders. But it is really no different for the horse.
Have you ever watched the eye of a show-jumper change during a jumping round? There is complete focus and a bit of fire in the eye when approaching the fence, but over the jump the eye goes soft again. The same for a horse going x-country. Kate Rowe's horse Harry shows this really well in this picture.
Only very few times I have seen the eye turn deep black. They were always very tricky characters combined with a very tight poll. It is a strange and scary sight, as if the eye has died and certainly time to take the pressure off immediately, if not to be avoided all together. I call it the 'ice-cream headache, my way of visualizing it.
Some years ago I went with a pupil-friend to see a horse. She had not long before lost her old horse and had not really got over it. I only had to take one look at the horse and my immediate thought was: 'I do hope this horse suits her because she will want it.' It had exactly the same eye as her old horse and it was love at first sight.
And then there is the tired eye. Very important for the trainer to recognize: it is probably time to call it a day and certainly not the time to start something new. When sessions finish at the right moment, the horse pleasantly tired but still having plenty left for an energetic last trot on a long rein; that is such a great feeling for both horse and rider.
The eye of the horse: don't underestimate it. It tells you about its character, it tells you about its mood and all of this is important information we do not want to miss out on.
Sadly, the idea for this blog is because of this picture I saw on Facebook of a horse in a lorry. An eye that tells us it doesn't know what's next, tired but still trying to stay alert. The picture came from the website of the charity 'World Horse Welfare' about the terrible practice of long-distance horse transports across Europe, only to be slaughtered and probably not in the best-run slaughterhouses, either.
It is one of the charities I support, rather than giving Christmas presents. Because I love horses, not just my own horse. Hopefully you do, too...
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Jane Gregory's (nee Bredin) words: music to my ears
Olympic dressage rider Jane Gregory (nee Bredin), who sadly passed away far too young in 2011, came to do a demonstration at Duchy College in Cornwall in the early nineties. She had brought not only her top horse Cupido who was chosen for the Olympics in Atlanta, but also a chirpy 15.2 palomino, a Connemara cross who had a phenomenal passage.
I remember her words well, 'Some horses are born as a dressage horse, others are made into one.'
Pinokkio is his name, a 7 year-old piebald 15 hand tinker /thoroughbred cross. His head a bit big, not much of a neck yet and a bottom at least one inch higher than his whithers. I met him some three years ago as he came to live with me for a while with his young owner who wanted to work with horses. She ended up not liking him because she saw him trip over and fall down several times in the field as a youngster and didn't particularly like the thought of eventing a horse with a tendency to end up on his face; and I don't blame her.
He was so kind that I just could not help myself but secretly fall in love with him, however, I wasn't looking for a horse, certainly not that kind. So, because he was so quiet he ended up being sold to an inexperienced rider. To cut a long story short, it didn't work out because of lack of interest and he ended up with me...again... now permanently.
I didn't even dare to tell my pupils. Most of them are competitive and striving for higher levels. But still, Pinokkio and I started our routine of one lunging session, two hacks, one session over poles and one flatwork session a week, gradually ticking the boxes of improving rhythm, impulse and the beginning of self-carriage. It was very tricky at times with a few falls involved which I don't wish to remember, but... the stumble gradually disappeared with the trot growing bigger and the canter less 'discombobulated'.
Years ago, at a dinner party with a nice selection of Cornish horsewomen, show-jumper Claire Rushworth said to me that she could not understand how I was always motivated to train others without competing myself. It was before I moved here permanently and although I was already training in Cornwall, I was not able to compete for that very reason. This never bothered me. Training others and riding many different horses has always been, and still is, sufficient to keep me focused and interested in my job.
Of course I can't deny that, once I'd settled down permanently, I didn't have a blast competing my home-bred mare Marie -also quite basic- into PSG, but when she had to be retired after an injury I knew enough was enough.
So why take on an undersized ugly duckling with a stumble? Two reasons: first of all, I had promised his first young owner I would make sure he would end up in the right hands. Second of all, I was yet again drawn like a magnet to the challenge of proving one more time that a common little horse with not great conformation but a heart of gold and super work ethic is worth far more than an extravagant mover with top breeding and therefore possibly a complex personality; certainly for the hobby rider.
It is gradually becoming a real issue. The horses bred for dressage are becoming more extreme,and hotter and with that not always easy for the general rider. The other problem is that these horses are just so unbelievably expensive with their dad's sperm having cost the same as one used to buy the whole horse for some twenty years ago!
Often I question myself on why I teach. How much ego is involved? Of course I want my pupils to do well and of course I feel pride. But somewhere in me is a little voice which tells me to stick to the rule that every horse deserves decent care which includes decent training. And that is where I so often see the small miracles happen. And I know from experience that, what seems to be a common horse, but wants to work, can surpass anybody's expectations big time.
Thank you, Jane…your words were music to my ears!
Top Picture: Chill time, Jane with her horse Cupido.
Below: Pinokkio having a play in the river.
You can order my book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' at YouCaxton or Amazon
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THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER... , from Amor to Valegro
In Cornwall, I do not have to travel very far these days in order to find Dutch Warmbloods with decent breeding. Show-jumpers Andrew James and Adam Ellery, for example, breed, buy and sell horses of which many are quality warmbloods. One of my favourite pupils Martyn Humphrey is in the process of backing his lovely young horse by the famous stallion Johnson (standing at Team Nijhof and competed at Rio with Hans Peter Minderhoud) out of one of Claire Rushworth's mares, how exciting is that? Oh, and I met Lorna Wilson from Newton Stud in Devon this year in February at the KWPN stallion show and have seen some beautiful foals with excellent breeding pass by on her Facebook page.
Further up the road are Edward and Clissy Bleekman with their competent daughters involved in the eventing sport. Edward in his younger years was often behind the wheel of the lorry with stallions such as Amor and Pericles, belonging to Johan Venderbosch at stud 'De Radstake'.Over the years Edward has had several good performing Dutch stallions at his stud in Devon with the stallion No Limit being the latest addition.
The States have been importing Dutch horses for many years and so are now Russia, China and Qatar, and with good results, too.
So...when the post delivered a flat book-size package the other day my heart beat just a little faster. I knew that in there was the first touchable result of quite a bit of research and long talks with great people.
In February 2015 I spent three whole weeks in my home country the Netherlands, first visiting the Dutch national KWPN stallion show and after that several international renowned studs, with stallions such as Heartbreaker, Johnson, Clinton, El Salvador, just to name a few, and also some top trainers I knew from my youth. I wanted to hear their great stories. Stories of how they lived in those early days, how stallions such as Voltaire, Pericles and Amor came to their studs and of how early competition life was an adventure without the luxuries of today.
When I knew these people in my adolescent years none of them had the slightest inkling they were part, even instrumental, to the development of the Dutch Warmblood into the international phenomenon it has become today. The province of Gelderland, the 'stomping ground' of my youth, happened to be the hub of this exciting time and it was normal for me to watch one of these great stallions jump off the lorry in the farm yard of some of my friends in order to cover their mare. The mare probably still competing up to a few weeks from having the foal and back at it a few weeks later with the foal waiting impatiently in the trailer for a drink between classes, as that was how it was done in those days!
It was the time of lots of excitement in the world of the Dutch Warmblood with Gelderland in the very middle of it. From the moment the thoroughbred had been introduced the results were breathtaking. When Henk Nijhof Senior showed me the picture of the stallion Heraut from grandfather Nijhof, taken in 1946, it really did bring home to me how in just a relatively short spell of time the heavier horse transformed into the sport horse which we now all have learned to love. We have just seen Valegro win the freestyle in Rio, their second Olympic victory; we have never forgotten Totilas. They, however, are only the tip of an enormous iceberg of great competition horses.
Nick Skelton's Big Star, who won in Rio with such a brave and daring round,is another great one worth mentioning. KWPN-registered and with that the prime example of what the breeders who tell their stories in my book have achieved, Big Star is the ultimate result of an open studbook with only one thing in mind: breeding the best sport horse ever, no matter where the stock to produce this can be found. He is a mix of Selle Francais and Holstein with only the father of the dam, the great stallion Nimmerdor, being KWPN registered. But then again, also Nimmerdor is already a mix with only his mum being Dutch and his sire Holstein.
So why were the Dutch so very successful with stallions they found in Germany, France and England? It was the regime of daring to cull. An open but very strict studbook with extremely high standards which made anything which had not performed, both in the sport and producing consistent offspring, useless and a waste of time and effort. I once read an interview with a highly regarded German breeder who said: 'If it doesn't do the job we eat it', and that is more or less the hard and slightly uncomfortable truth, but it worked!
I so loved writing this little book. It is such a great story and the many lovely pictures I was allowed to use are quite private; a little bit of gold dust, adding such atmosphere and making the book 'alive'. And I very much hope that many of you who have learned to love the Dutch Warmblood will enjoy reading 'my Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World'.
Top picture: Book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...
Bottom picture: Henk Nijhof Senior with the stallion Naturel winning the championship at the National KWPN stallion Show in 1979.
You can order my book by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org Cost: £7.50 + delivery
Below an extract of:
THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER....
Picture:How times have changed...the stallion Heraut approved by the studbook in 1946 and sold by the grandfather of Henk Nijhof Senior for the amount of 45,000 guilders to the regional studbook association. That was a lot of money in those days!
3 STUD, BREEDER AND TRAINER; EACH CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT THE OTHERS
The first riding clubs in The Netherlands started to appear just before and during the Second World War. It amazed me time again, when listening to so many different stories, how, despite all the terrible things that happened, the hunger and the fear, people still carried on trying to achieve things and some even tried to have fun.
I guess, from listening to the arguments of my own parents, my mother a little girl in a city, my dad a youngster growing up in the east and more agricultural part of the Netherlands, that life in the country was somewhat less stressful than life in town - but on the other hand, any farmer or person relying on their horse for their livelihood ran the risk for their horse to be taken by the Germans.
After the war, when life gradually took on a more normal pace and with the relief of freedom freshly ingrained into every single person, businesses and agriculture started to grow and with that, for many, wealth grew steadily. The tractor gradually replaced the workhorse and, for many farmers, the opportunity arose to use their mares, now without a job, entirely for breeding riding horses in the hope that this would be profitable.
Initially, most who bred also rode their own horses. More often than not, the breeding started on old-fashioned mixed farms where the main income came from milk and keeping pigs. If the farmers could not ride themselves for whatever reason, there were always sons or daughters who were happy to do so. Also, youngsters from villages and small towns found their way to these farms, begging for a ride. Often those who managed to find their way like that, turned out to be talented and they were certainly driven.
This is exactly how, for example, trainer Roeli Bril found his way into his uncle's coal-merchant yard and, using the horses that pulled the coal carts during the week, started his own riding education on a strip of grass in the middle of the small town of Zutphen. When his professional riding career was established, he became crucial to the development of many a great horse and rider, directly and indirectly adding to the success of studs and breeders such as Henk Nijhof and Johan Venderbosch.
Jan Oortveld, son of a baker, was supported by his parents in his desire to become a professional horseman. He had the opportunity to take his formal education at the, then, new and famous equine centre in Deurne in the south of Holland. His youth was very different to most people’s because of it and most of his contemporaries would have walked away from such a tough and lonely existence as he lived in his younger years. Jan, as trainer and instructor, has put his stamp on the Dutch horse world with tremendous dedication.
This was the beginning of yet another era. Now that many farmers were in the process of fully converting to horse breeding and studs had moved a similar direction, there was room, no, a great need, for good riders with a decent riding education. The professional rider was now a fact and fully part of the horse breeding and producing business that the Netherlands was creating.
The time has come to move on and learn more of the personal lives and dedication of some of the entrepreneuring horsemen of Gelderland.
4 JOHAN VENDERBOSCH
Close to the German border, in 'de Achterhoek', a rural area in Gelderland, farmer Venderbosch was a proud man when he walked around his fields to check the livestock on his fifty-acre farm, 'de Radstake'. The fields were managed well and the stock fencing was in good shape. He liked a tidy yard as well and so, on Saturday, the broom came out and every corner was swept out meticulously so that everything would look pristine for the Sunday. Sunday was a rest day and family or a friendly neighbour might visit for a cup of coffee, often followed by an 'advocaatje' for the women and a ‘jonkie met suiker' for the men.
It was a decent-size farm for the area situated on a centuries-old trade route from Germany, hence the fact there was also an ancient tavern on the premises. Although Venderbosch kept some pigs and chickens, the main income came from the tavern and from the milk produced by his thirty-odd dairy cows. There was also a fine team of Groningen work horses and the little pony Liesje, which pulled the cart with the milk churns to the corner of the lane, from where they were collected to go to the milk factory.
Often his young son Johan would play with this pony, teach it tricks, sit on it or tie it to his little sleigh during the winter when the snow had arrived. He was certainly the son of his father and loved the smell of a horse equally, which gave Venderbosch tremendous satisfaction.
From early on in his life, from well before the war and before he became a husband and a father, whenever the work was finished for the day farmer Venderbosch would always spend time with the draught horses, even when they'd already been all put away for the night. He would give them an extra brush, talk gently to them or have put their beds to right once more; he would dream of being able to ride properly and he hoped one day to breed a riding horse using his best draught mare.
As soon as there was talk of setting up regional associations in order to organize the breeding of horses in a more professional way, Venderbosch put his name forward so that he could have some input. He had put a lot of thinking time into what he thought was the way forward and wanted his ideas to be used. Like other associations in the country, his association 'De Toekomst' sold shares to the vicars, doctors and notaries in their area, in the hope that they would grab the opportunity to one day have a smarter and faster horse to pull their carriage because that was their means of transport. It was hoped the more well-off farmers would buy shares as well because the work horse could also do with some organizing. The studbook VLN was for the Gelderland horse, the finer-framed work horse. The NWP studbook was for the Groningen horse, the stockier of the two, used for the work on the heavy clay ground.
The first stallion to arrive for the Association was the Gelderland horse Amburg, an exciting start to a whole new era. From then on, all associations agreed on a universal selection process, with regional grading shows to be held regularly. All information was gathered nationally in order to create much greater control on what farmers were up to with their mares and stallions. Soon, the penny dropped that breeding from a mare without papers had no future and did not make any money, and stallions were cut as soon as their progeny did not perform to the required standards.
On Saturdays not just the yard was swept but also all tack got cleaned because often, on Sundays, there would be a carriage-driving show somewhere in the area and Venderbosch would be on his way, often before dawn, with carriage and horse gleaming from tip to toe and Venderbosch in his best suit.
But he still wanted to ride and there were other young farmers with the same aspirations as him; some meetings were organized and soon the riding club 'Varsseveld' was the second official riding club in the country with farmer Venderbosch being one of the founders. All would meet up on their horses for weekly group lessons in a fenced-off piece of land. More riding clubs were formed and soon driving and riding competitions were combined and organized regularly all over the country with a national championship at the end of every year.
The war had been over for several years now and young son Johan was growing up fast, helping his dad on the farm after school. The little old pony was retired out in the field with the calves because it wasn't needed any more for shifting the milk churns. The tractor, by now a common sight in the fields, did all of that rather than the loyal work horse.
Just after he passed his exams, when he was fifteen years old, his father sent Johan to international show-jump rider, Troop Captain Gruppelaar for several months. Venderbosch was extremely keen for Johan to have every possible chance to develop his horse skills and Gruppelaar had a name for being an excellent teacher. This was an exciting time for Johan because he was allowed to travel with the horses on the train to many different international shows all over Europe and the train journeys were nearly as exciting as the shows themselves. When going to Paris or to Marseille their coach had to be reconnected to another train. Normally this would happen with a big bang, enough to throw the horses over. Hence why a specially assigned young lad was instructed to stick his head out of the carriage and call out: 'Attention! cheveaux!'. This was to ensure that the person in charge of the change-over of the carriages would take care and slow the procedure down as much as possible.
Johan had to work hard because 'the old Grup', as the lads used to call him when he was out of earshot, liked things perfect. He was a typical cavalry man, extremely punctual, well-organized and liked things spotless, with his white glove often sending the lads back to the brush. Still, young Johan had a wonderful time and came home full of stories that his father loved listening to.
Johan was eighteen years old when he lost his dad but there wasn't much time to dwell on this sudden tragedy because from that very day he had to run the entire business by himself. His responsibilities were huge: there was not only the dairy herd and the tavern, but there were also the broodmares and their offspring, which had become a significant part of the farm, and, on top of all that, Johan took on the position of his dad within breeding association 'De Toekomst', which was heading for turbulent times...........
Picture: The stallion In Between with his proud owners, after winning the championship at the 2016 National KWPN Stallion Show. From the left: Johan Venderbosch, In Between, brother and sister Andre and Henriette.
Top picture, chapter 4: Young Johan with pony Liesje in harness.
So much for a little taster!!!
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A healthy contact rein is better than a bent neck and an upset horse
Some years ago I gave the odd clinic for the Cornish Dressage Group. It was thoroughly enjoyable, especially because Derowennek is such a lovely indoor school with its large windows overlooking a beautiful valley. Occasionally an elderly but very fit lady turned up, called Elizabeth and I can't actually remember her surname, who had a small bay horse which she loved very much; that was clear from the moment I met her.
When I asked her what she would like to get out of her lesson, she said that she didn't feel very competent in a dressage arena as she had hacked most of her life. I asked her, like I always do with a newcomer, to show me a walk, a trot and a canter on both reins and to take her time. Most first-timers are always in a hurry, probably because they are trying too hard to make a good impression.
Well, it was just lovely, basic, but so rhythmical and balanced. The little horse's eye was attentive, relaxed and confident at the same time. It really made my heart beat faster for enthusiasm.
I asked the few people watching what they thought of this and, I could have guessed actually, the first response was that the horse wasn't sufficiently round. True, but it did not bother me in the slightest. Especially not as Elizabeth was the last pupil of the day and four of the other seven I'd seen were round with either a broken neck or so grumpy and backward that I wondered where to start in order to make their hour productive without making their world fall apart.
When will it sink in that a round neck does not count when it is not the result of the horse being forward and balanced?
What Elizabeth showed that day was that a relatively inexperienced but forward and rhythmical horse on a contact rein at the beginning of a lesson, with a little bit of help will be a round horse in a correct fashion, still forward and balanced towards the latter part of the session. If she would have had the desire to take up dressage in a more serious way it would have been so incredibly easy for a trainer to turn that into a success. The basics were all there!
When she asked me how to continue, my return question was what she actually loved doing most with her horse. 'Oh, I shall be hacking most of the time and try to school once a week.' As she was not going to have regular lessons I advised her to continue what she was doing and not change anything, other than to add the serpentine and 15 meter circles, which we had been practicing that hour.
When she left with a big smile, her horse happily following her back to the trailer, I thought, 'Lucky horse...'
Picture: Sadly I do not have a picture of Elizabeth, but my home-bred little Tegen, then a green four year-old, together with Emily Noszkay, is showing here over poles exactly that forward balance on a contact rein. They turned out to be a great team together, both a touch mischievous and gutsy, which worked well for them during their eventing career together
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I have a problem...
I've got a problem. It's been festering ever since Monty Roberts became famous. I have nothing against Monty Roberts, neither against Pat Parelli or our newest star Tristan Tucker. As a matter of fact, when Tristan made his extremely funny statement on horseback at the dressage convention, I thought: 'ah, a breath of fresh air and finally we stop thinking in boxes'. Someone who is trying to bridge these strange and unnecessary gaps between a bunch of narrow-minded groups of equine enthusiasts.
When this whole new era of natural horsemanship started, together with the sudden appearance of classic dressage as a completely new discovery (how did that happen?), I was immediately attacked for being a narrow-minded dressage freak by some of the new addicts wearing cowboy hats. I was speechless. I've worked hard from a very young age to understand the horse, day-in, day-out, in riding schools, jumping yards, eventing yards and, yes, also dressage yards and somehow was better at dressage and developed myself in this to a higher level; still able now, to go back to the beginning and helping people with their young horses, working through their growing-up problems.
When I watched Monty Roberts for the first time, I thought: 'Hey, I recognize this. I do that on the lunge when I'm working a young horse', of course didn't dear to say this out loud in order not to upset any of his followers. We, 'conventional trainers' whispered it to one another, but no more than that.
I guess, some of us were partly to blame for this. In the horse world there are some very good trainers, unfortunately also equipped with a short fuse. This hasn't helped the situation.
But what drives me completely around the bend, is that inexperienced horse lovers are given the misconception that they can learn how to back and train a horse with a couple of courses, worse, a course you can buy on the internet!
A prime example is a horse which lived in my yard as a youngster, belonging to a pupil of mine. She decided to back him through join-up. All that went fine, but I never doubted that in the first place, as she had tremendous feel for a horse and was already a fairly experienced rider. Then the trouble started: every time this horse had a tiny little issue, something that would go away if virtually ignored, a teething problem so to speak, she would do yet another join-up with him. It became a sport, as the owner started to become addicted to her horse dropping its head and wanting to follow her anywhere. I saw this horse shrivel up and die inside. In the end he did not like people any more.
These methods are fine in the right hands and they are not as novel as many think they are. What I want to get across desperately, is, that good and honest horsemanship can only be achieved through hours and hours, days and days, years and years of spending time with horses and not through a quick course here and there.
I am worried, as I see more depressed and lame horses, caused by the irresponsible way of passing on knowledge, which is misunderstood and therefore abused by innocent horse lovers, who desperately want to learn but sadly are sucked into cult-thinking.
I'm also worried that those same horse lovers are charged a fortune, often by people who call themselves qualified, after having done some 'qualifying courses' by 'qualified' trainers in a certain method.
A few examples: a newish pupil calls to cancel her lesson because she had a visit from a horse whisperer who had been whispered to that the horse wanted a break because of a skin irritation on its back. I had already told this pupil during her first lesson to wash her numnah as everything was filthy! She paid this lady 80 pounds.
A licensed 'qualified natural horseman' was found to leave a problem horse without bedding, food or water in order to get some results in the round pen.
WHO IS CHECKING ON THESE PEOPLE???
The art of horsemanship is centuries old and it takes years, other than some talent, a decent equine education and endless patience, to become a competent trainer and instructor. There, I rest my case.
Picture: training a young horse for the Mounted Police when horse training was horse training, sirens on and lights flashing.
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Part of the ride
It all began some twenty years ago. My great friend Sjakkie would turn up regularly with first only little Joscelyn, and a few years later her little baby-brother Petroc, as well. I loved them both equally as much, but of course could not help but notice Jos's face lighting up when she saw my horses.
Fergie, my broodmare, was extremely safe and it didn't take any convincing for Jos to be thrown up on top. 'Hoho, it's windy up here.' I shall never forget that moment. First of all, my nickname, how do they make it up! Second, how funny but also how true. She was now some five feet higher up than she'd ever been and the world felt and looked so very different.
Jos was only four years-old when, all by herself, she would help me getting my mare Marie bandaged up. At the time my back was not good, hence the fact I would first put a bandage at each leg before crawling around on hands and knees in order to put them on. Jos would make sure they were in exactly the right place, also occasionally undoing one in order to roll it back up. I always made sure to have one handy in my pocket so as not to make her feel bad. Inevitably she started at the wrong end.
Next thing was, we had to find her a little old trustworthy pony and, yes, there happened to be one next door. Thirty years old, going strong and man, could this thing bite when I was off-guard wandering along the Cornish lanes with Jos happily pulling the wild flowers out of the hedgerow, chatting away for dear life. The pony was called Sunny, but Jos didn't think much of this and changed it all by herself into 'Sunshine Georgia'.
Time moved on and the family moved to Holland, in order to be closer to family. Wringford became their second home for much of the summer holidays and Jos, having regular lessons at her local riding school, was able to ride my mare Marie and the very kind livery horse Frost.
And now, well, here we are; with the great help of Neel Schakel-van Klei of riding school 'Schakel' in Ameide, Joscelyn is now not only officially assistant-instructor but also very close to being able to compete Medium on Zorro, a smart bay gelding belonging to the riding school.
Congratulations, Jos, and I've loved being part of the ride!
Pictures: Joscelyn Weychan, on my broodmare Fergie, with 'Sunshine Georgia' and recently with Zorro
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Maarten van Stek, worth waiting for!
'You've done a good job, because you haven't killed the spirit of your horse... don't correct, it's too late, tell your horse what to do... now I can see what you are doing, now I can't, now I can... stay on your dotted line; line zero'. Anybody who has lessons With Maarten van Stek will recognize his inventive use of language when teaching. For three whole days I was allowed to sit next to him when he took over the helm and instructed some of my pupils and, honestly, not only was it music to my ears, it gave me so much more.
When, through a fluke, Maarten and I connected last year, I could hardly believe my ears when he offered to come and teach my pupils. This meant more to me than he could even begin to understand. Not only was this a chance for some riders to work with a teacher of a caliber of which there are only very few, but also, I would be able to learn so much for myself. It had the potential to more than double the result. My pupils would grow, their horses would grow and because I would grow, we would be able to continue that process in a clearer and cleaner way.
It was hard work for all of us. Riders, who had looked forward to this so very much had to relax before they could work to their capability. I know from my own experience that this is not always easy and takes some self-discipline. Maarten had a lot on his plate, other than having to get into the groove of speaking English, he felt very much the responsibility to, one, make sure every rider would finish up with something which would enable them to work on and not get into trouble next week through a misunderstanding; two, help me to understand and put it in the right context so I would be able to add to my own teaching skills; three, make and keep it fun for all. His skill in doing so was showing not only his incredible professionalism as a trainer, but also his wonderful human approach and his ability to get 'under the skin'. My hard work was to keep my mouth shut for one whole hour at a time and all who know me, also know that this is not a natural thing for me to do, but I think I managed that quite well. Other than that I had to digest everything, watch and listen and store at the same time.
At the start of most lessons Maarten talked about the spirit and the instinct of the horse. The spirit which should stay alive always and how the rider should use the fact that the horse is an animal of flight in a positive way. Based on the principle that the horse is only able to rely on his instinct and can only respond in a positive way when told what to do, instead of being told all the time what not to do, gave riders the opportunity to ride more quiet and subsequently opened the door to ride with a little more feel. I am a sucker for getting the basics right before getting into the more tricky bits and this was emphasized in every lesson yet again, which will help me to stick to this most important rule in the future even better.
The biggest and reoccurring problem for every rider is to keep the horse truly for the leg and accept that you can not 'fix' the mouth of a horse. Maarten explained this so brilliantly by saying if you compared the different parts of the rider to the toolbox of a carpenter, then the legs might be a hammer and the seat a pair of pliers, body-parts which can be used to create or repair something. But the hands can only be used as a level. A level is not a tool you can fix something with as it can only check something. So the hands can only check what the rest of the body-parts create, no more than that!
The very clear explanation why the canter-trot transition is so difficult to get soft, round and uphill, was new to me and such a revelation. The knowledge that canter has one diagonal set of legs moving, trot two and walk none, was there. However, it never occurred to me to connect that with the fact that, for this very reason, in order for the horse to go to trot he has to add a second diagonal, which is an effort. Far more of an effort to go from canter to walk. As a rider I am able to deal with this instinctively, but as a trainer I can now explain it and do a much better job helping my pupils to improve this transition.
All my pupils are committed, hard workers who, other than care for their horses really well, take their training serious and want to do it in an honest way. It was inevitable that these lessons, where riders were pushed to another level, it would bring the odd frustration to the surface. As riders we have to be tough on ourselves. In order to train on days the weather is rotten or your old injuries hurt you have to push yourself often. But you can also be too tough and our biggest enemy is perfectionism. Maarten was direct in a kind and patient way, which made every single rider know how much he cares.
So now, after three full days, Maarten has left and we go back to the drawing-board. But with vigorous and revived spirits and in the hope that, if he wants to visit again for a repeat, we can show him we listened, we worked and we learned.
I saw Maarten ride and teach some thirty-five years ago. Some of the things he said then stayed with me forever and I felt sad I was not in the position to have lessons at that time with someone that kind and competent. But we've made up for that now and it was certainly worth waiting for. Maarten, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you gave these past days. It was tons more than I could have hoped for!
Sadly it was not possible, because of time restrictions, to fit everyone in, but if we are lucky there will be another time!
Top picture: Maarten van Stek competing William
Bottom: A tired but delighted Rachel Wood with Jazz looking for well-deserved polo's in Maarten's pocket
Middle: Claire Daniels on Euro in full swing, with Maarten
There are two more blogs on Maarten van Stek. 'Perseverance and more perseverance' from the 6th of November, 2014.'An afternoon or two with Maarten van Stek' from the 1st of March, 2016.
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Back in my little corner with Claire Daniels
Last week, when I sat down in the corner of the riding area in Bossiney, with Claire Daniels already on her home-bred Euro, a slightly unsettling thought entered my head. As much as I had been looking forward to being here again, Claire was now older than I was, when I first taught her all those many years ago and that made me feel old. I decided to shake that thought as quickly as it had arrived in order to concentrate on Claire and Euro, who was certainly full of it.
His mum, Bailey, gave Claire great fun during the years she evented her. I remember seeing them together for the first time after Claire had just bought her for not much money from David Stevens and thought: he missed the point here, this is a bloody good horse. But then Claire always did have a good eye for a horse, something she has in common with her husband Conker. They have bought many a project together over the years and done well.
As I was enjoying the playful Euro, at the same time trying to help Claire with keeping him straight and focused, I could not help but thinking about Drigan, as we called Bodrigan in daily life.
I bred her out of an Irish Draught type mare and with the national hunt sire Sousa as her dad. As she seemed to have a talent for jumping and certainly not for dressage, whereas her full sister Marie was the opposite, I had asked Claire to continue her training as I had reached my limit. Drigan was jumping sweetly with a natural feel, but it was time for the fences to go up.
I shall never forget the face of her dad Terry Dangar when he stood watching expectantly for Drigan to hop off the lorry. He liked an elegant horse and this Drigan was not. Terry actually looked disgusted. I decided not to say anything and left her there with the confidence Terry would soon be happy. One week later the phone rang. They could not believe the power of Drigan's jump. The rest is history.
Euro and Claire worked on their trot-canter transition in order to settle down the canter more as he gets a little overexcited which makes him change behind. He'd had quite a bit of time off and needed for the basics to be settled without getting bored. Not an easy task but I have always trusted Claire's endless patience.
Next was Paso, a small grey Dutch horse, a little shy but with a magnificent canter and an equally good jump. An interesting project as he never liked the right leg at all and Claire had to use every bit of imagination in order to get him to not turn himself into a banana when she would touch him. This had already improved a lot, so we were able to even start the counter canter with him. Funny, as he knew the flying change naturally. Hence the counter canter needed for Claire to be very clean and clear with her aids. He did great and it was time for coffee.
Whether it was the chestnut Charlie, Feathers from Tregembo with whom she competed into Advanced eventing, or all those many others we worked with together, I never got bored watching Claire ride. Devoted, stern but playful and always in a good mood. When many years ago I heard some young chap call her with the nickname 'Smiler' I thought that to be so true.
So, here we are again, gone full circle, the two kids Rio and Tia in school and us back doing what we love so much: me watching and Claire riding.
Top picture: Bodrigan after a few months with Claire Daniels
Bottom: Euro and Claire
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An afternoon or two with Maarten van Stek
It was an exciting moment for me to meet Maarten van Stek again after all those years. He did not really know who I was as, those thirty years ago, I was just a spectator on crutches at a clinic he gave in the East of Holland. This one-armed man with his calm way of approach, which stuck to every horse and rider he worked with, made me so very greedy to overcome my own issues after an accident. Not only was Maarten an instructor on a mission, when he was riding you simply forgot there was an arm missing. It just looked so very beautiful.
A while ago I translated an article for website Horses International about a one-armed PSG rider on his way to Grand Prix and realized this was the very same guy. So I decided to overcome my shyness and contacted him. Mainly to thank him for the fact that all those years ago he was an important factor in my recovery which made it possible to become the rider and trainer I am now.
Maarten is a very kind man with no ego issues. Despite the fact he of course could not remember me, his answer was warm and inviting. So here I was, on his side, soon with his little dog Tootsie in my lap, as he was teaching in the indoor school of the Van Verre family in Empe. And boy, how nice to listen to his relaxed but alert way of teaching. The punctuality and technical precision, hand in hand with a healthy sense of humor and endless patience, always keeping in mind the emotional and physical well-being of both horse and rider. Treating part of the session as ridden physio with the result a happy horse, keen to up its game when gradually pushed into more challenging exercises.
When I thanked him he invited me to visit him at home and meet William, the horse he achieved so much with and of course I couldn't possibly refuse such an invite. So, the next week I took the train to Hoofddorp where Maarten collected me.
William lives in quite a big yard, but as soon as Maarten called his name, William's head appeared over his door with a happy snicker. As I stood watching Maarten brushing William, ready to help when asked, it was impossible to ignore the patient self-discipline Maarten has made his own in order to live a life for which most people think at times two hands aren't enough. Every door latch, every knot, every buckle, every brush stroke, mounting his horse, taking up the reins, the correct tension on the curb. My respect grew by the minute as I watched this man work.
Although William had been out in the paddock and also lunged, he had not been ridden for four days, because of having lost a shoe, which had only just been put back on. So obviously Maarten had to adjust their training session in order to deal with the vast amount of surplus energy. This is when I decided I was now definitely a groopie. I have seen so many competent riders not have the patience to restrain themselves on training days such as this. Maarten worked quietly away on.....straight lines. Using his own invention of riding diagonals from A or C to the corners of either side of the arena. Eventually using those lines for flying changes, finishing up with a very correct lot of one-timers.
A warm thank you to William with a relaxed long rein was followed by using the two-takt walk as a means to get into the piaffe.
On my way home, chewing over all I had seen, two things stuck out. Firstly, the ease with which the modern warmblood accepts the leg and rein tension to become soft and forward. It is built to do so and therefore the muscles and the brain don't make a big deal of it as it is easy for them. Most of the horses I work with in England need more of an 'in between time' in their early training development in order to be able to handle the pressure in a positive way. When ignoring this the chance is they become nappy.
Second, the use of the legs very forward, touching the muscles which make the horse pull up its belly. And once the horse is fully on the aids and using its core strength properly, the not involving the legs as much as guiding just with the reins when doing the exercises it knows. Of course! Eureka moment, I knew it, but had not said it in such a simple and uncomplicated way.
Uncomplicated, not exactly how you would see life with one arm. But that is how Maarten has made it somehow, which is so very striking and humbling. He proudly told me that, many years ago, he passed his first exam which involved bandaging. He was exempt from this phase, however, insisted on taking part. It involved teeth and knees but he passed... with a 9!
I'm hoping that I will get another chance to watch Maarten work. In those two meetings I learned so much. This I can pass on again to my own pupils and if they are lucky they get to meet the man himself not too long from now.
Top picture: Maarten with his pupil Vera van Verre and her horse Change Faith (Valdez x 00Seven)
Bottom: Maarten van Stek with William
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Stallion show Den Bosch 2016: the times they are a changing
Last year was my first time back at the KWPN stallion show in Den Bosch after some thirty years and I decided to visit again last week as my interest was very much refreshed. I was overwhelmed by what I saw, at the same time realizing that, having concentrated for so many years on my own training as a trainer and competitor, I had completely and utterly lost touch with the Dutch breeding world.
The separation in 2006 of the stallions as jumpers and dressage stallions for a start had not really sunk in until I saw with my own eyes how far apart these two types of stallions had grown. Weirdly enough I found it easier to judge the show jumpers as they seemed to still be more like the horses I remembered.
In Cornwall I certainly come across some very decent Warmbloods as the years go on, however, the young dressage stallions shown on the last two days of the show seemed to be a different breed. One can't be but seriously impressed with the extremely high standard and with that the endlessly adjusted philosophy of some very knowledgeable people. People who have tremendous heart for the Dutch breeding industry, an industry which basically has conquered the world in show-jumping and dressage.
Still, I could not keep my mouth shut at times and was lucky enough to exchange my thoughts with some professional breeders in the stands which gave me a chance to express my worries about the lionesque shape of some of the young dressage stallions: huge fronts and/or hind legs which moved so high that it made me feel uncomfortable.
One of my neighbors was a charming veterinarian,who took the time to explain to me that it was possible to create this movement artificially. I picked up the words chains and elastic bands.... If these stallions would make it to the performance test, this would gradually undo itself and so they would in the end still be judged on their own natural movement.
So in the end the KWPN stallion show was very much a show, whereas during the performance test the stallions would be trained in a uniform way, which would give a clear picture with the added bonus of an insight into their character and behavior. After that very few and only the very best are left.
But what if it actually is their natural movement and this is considered acceptable? What will be the physical future of the offspring of these stallions. Also, is it possible for them to maintain their quality of walk?
This was discussed in the stands as the now 4-year old stallions, who passed their performance test, were shown under saddle and the Novice stallion competition took place. The marks for the walk often exceeded 7 whereas also I could see the 4-takt rhythm was simply not there. Jokes were made about a potential Specsavers advertisement involving the KWPN judges.
Despite all the questions and issues my mind was boggling with, when I left the big arena in Den Bosch, I still felt excited about my visit.The KWPN is an organic organisation always in movement, always trying to improve, always open to new ideas whereas the past has proven that the KWPN is capable to change direction when things don't work out the way they hoped. Long may it last....
Top picture: Heraut, accepted by the studbook in 1946
Bottom: Igor, by Apache out of a Vivaldi mare qualified this year for the performance test and won the championship
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From problem horse to gentleman
Today I visited Paddy for a lunging session. Paddy is a 17 year-old, Irish Draught cross and as his owner has a full-time job, I see him twice a week, once for a lunging session and once for a lesson, unless it is too windy. In that case the lesson tends to be a lunging session, as well.
I've known Paddy for nearly ten years. He was bought to hack and for light schooling. When I saw him work the first time I could see he more or less knew all the tricks, but also that he was not supple, very lazy and with a tendency to shy when pushed a little more. This work pattern was established at his previous home as he had not been here long and his new owner had only hacked him as she did not have a huge amount of experience doing flatwork.
As we started the regular lessons it became obvious to me that this horse was virtually beyond ring sour. He was brainwashed and so depressed that he couldn't even be bothered to nap. He would go on the vertical but with a neck so straight and horizontal that he was blocking his own shoulder completely. Whether it was the chicken or the egg, I do not know, but he tended to move on three tracks, as well. This looked more and more like a problem horse.
The first couple of years we kept it simple, pole work; lunging without side reins and just about going forward and hacking. Once every two weeks we met up for a flatwork session. gradually he was cheering up a bit, but he did have an issue about softening the poll and was still blocking his shoulder far too much. Also, although he would appear lazy on the lunge, if you dared to touch him with the lunging whip he would have a fit to the point of nearly falling over.
I love a challenge and that was a good thing in this case. A major accident on the road turned Paddy into one frightened, but not very little, bunny. It was impossible for his owner, pregnant at the time, to cope with this and so we had to make a plan.
I decided on lunging twice a week and schooling once a week. As Paddy lived out most of the time that could possibly work. The only thing that bothered me was the fact that he had been brainwashed before and I worried about him becoming ring sour again. This was not the case, as a matter of fact the opposite. He became more enthusiastic, gradually got used to the lunging whip and when schooled, started to love his lateral work and we managed to move from a perfect simple change onto a flying change!
By now his owner was ready to ride again and things went well for a time, until disaster hit again. This time a tendon injury, having played too rough when out in the field. After sufficient rest he was put to work again, however, there was more lameness, on different legs without really being able to pinpoint exactly what was going on. By then a vicious circle was established as Paddy was virtually spending most of his time indoors for worry of more injuries, which made him go even more crazy when he did go out. In the end between owner, farrier and trainer the decision was made that Paddy was going to go to his field and time would tell.
After several months Paddy seemed sound again. I suggested that I would be able to set up a remedial lunging plan and was fairly confident that this would be successful.
A few years on and we are still going strong. It blew a gale today, but Paddy did not mind. We've moved from lunging without side reins to fixed draw reins running through the bit rings behind the poll, to only one side rein on his stiffer side and on to the current situation: side reins attached higher to the saddle so if he wants to, he is able to go above the bit. However, he is so happy and forward, that he is up in the shoulder but round and softer in the poll than ever, looking for a light contact on the side reins and also my hand. The lunging whip is not needed other than the odd small flick under his belly, in order to remind him to use his core strength. I barely need my voice, it's all body language.
Paddy's owner rode him the other day and, although occasionally he will try to fix his eyes on some fictive ghost at least a mile away, the two of them did a solid bit of well-balanced work with some shoulder-inns, great simple changes, finishing up with his party piece, his trot extensions.
Woaw, I was so proud. This horse is having fun and it looks like 17 year-old Paddy might just be on the way to finally becoming a gentleman heading for a sound retirement!
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A SOUND NEW YEAR!!
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Many years ago, having just moved to Cornwall, I was a fence judge at the then still affiliated event at Lanhydrock. Every now and then the same person came by on yet a different horse. She seemed very relaxed as she even took the time to say 'hello again' when clearing the jump in great style. She probably had four horses there, from Prenovice into Intermediate.
The years went on and we met occasionally at pony club events, each trying to keep our pupils on the straight. During one of those occasions I saw Caroline trying to get young Lucy Wiegersma in the correct outfit for her dressage test, Lucy having a severe bout of being an uncooperative fifteen year old. It took forever as Lucy wouldn't even lift an arm. Caroline never lost her patience and seemingly unperturbed kept working at it until the job was done.
Some fifteen years ago, together with my pupil, local event rider Claire Daniels, I visited Tregembo near Penzance, at that time the Wiegersma base, in order to see a young horse for sale. Caroline was personable and straight forward to deal with and it certainly was the right horse for Claire as Feathers brought her a long way with the highlight of going Advanced at Gatcombe.
Two years ago I dropped off a young keen rider at the Wiegersma yard near Okehampton. Caroline was with head scarf after treatment, but as always steady, in the most positive frame of mind and braving the cold in a very windy outdoor school, patiently coaching working pupils.
About a month ago I still saw her flying around Bicton on her bike. Still doing what she has done for all those years so very well. I am sure Lucy will agree with me that a huge part of her success is due to Caroline.
Steady, trustworthy, competent, committed, as trainers we can all take an example from Caroline and I actually missed out the most important one: humble.
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Good luck to Nicky Turriff and Lux O'Neill at HOYS
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Ireland: the best place to buy a brave horse
Only two weeks ago a good friend called and invited me to join her on the search for a smallish and quiet hunter in Ireland. I couldn't resist the invitation as the previous visit some years ago left me with some very fond memories.
Yet again, on arrival, we were welcomed by the most wonderfully varied group of dogs one could possibly imagine. All of them being an important part of the Norris household. Ned and Mary Norris have been dear friends of my friend for a very long time which therefore put me in an extremely fortunate position. Ned has been very involved with the Kilkenny Hunt for over fifty years, knows everybody, is liked by everybody, has bred and produced many a decent hunter and if he does not have anything suitable for you he will find it somewhere else.
Ned learned his skills from his uncle Jimmy. Jimmy was a one of a kind, a great Irish horseman with a wonderful cheeky side. Some thirty years ago, just after I had moved to Cornwall, my friends brought Jimmy for dinner. It was an unforgettable evening as Jimmy told many a great story, only problem was: I couldn't understand a word as his broad Irish accent was more than I could handle. It didn't keep me from liking him as he was just such a 'great character' as the English put it. The one word I did pick up was: dram. We had many 'drams' that evening.
We had many drams on this trip. The evening when we arrived at least three, the next day a 'wee one' with our lunch. In the afternoon when visiting Larry Burns on his sweet and wonderfully old-fashioned smallholding in order to see some of his hunters we were invited in and his two sisters had already put the bottle and glasses on the table ready for us..... Say no more.
Larry hunted the the Mullinavat Hounds for some ten years and had a reputation to find his way through complex countryside in a most inventive way which gave his followers a most exciting day out. He had some lovely hunters there, which were shown to us by his nephew Jim. Although we had to continue our search as none of them were suitable, Larry was just as warm to us and with his twinkly eyes assured us that on our next visit we would go hunting, he would organize it. I dared not tell him that I would die a thousand deaths just thinking about it but thanked him as he was the kindest and most hospitable man.
The next day Ned took us to the Wexford country, in order to see some hunters at at John Stafford's yard. This keen and experienced horseman, who was master of his local hunt for 19 years, showed us around the large barn where a great mix of horses were happily standing in their boxes which contained very few walls and doors. Poles and chains seemed to do the job just fine.
John's daughter was asked to lead a smaller grey out and trot him up. It didn't anything for any of us, he looked backward and stiff if not lame. His feet were not great so that could be a reason as the path was a bit gravelly. Still, a disappointing performance. The next one we all thought was weak behind. All the rest were too big. Oh well, might as well see the ugly grey ridden as we are here. John and his daughter looked at each other and owed up that he hadn't been ridden since previous hunting season. The small but chirpy daughter decided it would be fine so saddle and bridle were thrown on and off the two went into a great big field. After one round of trot they pushed into a surprisingly lovely and well-balanced canter; as if the horse had been ridden the day before. He was a completely different horse under saddle. Could we see him jump? Not a problem, John told his daughter to jump a big plastic drainpipe. The horse pointed and jumped. Can he jump a ditch? Of course, there is one over there. In Ireland a ditch is over a meter deep, generally with a bank on one side, in this case overgrown with nasty brambles right at the height of the horse's head. He wasn't bothered in the slightest and jumped it one way, and then the other. John was getting excited now and told his daughter to jump a nasty iron gate which was hanging crookedly on its hinges. 'Noe, daddy, noe!' But off she went and the grey jumped, no, flew it both ways. Please, no more, we've seen enough, he's 'a grand little harse' as the Irish say. John pointed his daughter towards a thin electric wire. Again a 'noe, noe!' and again they jumped it in both directions. To cut a long story short, after the grey gave my friend and me a wonderful ride, the deal was made, and yes, we had to 'make it a lucky horse'. You can guess, more drams.
The next morning we bid farewell with a promise to come back. Not difficult, as the Irish horse people (I haven't yet had the opportunity to meet any others) are the warmest most welcoming people in the world. Their horses are brave, uncomplicated and strong. As John Stafford said: 'if they don't jump they die.' It sounds a bit rough but it's a serious hunting country and that is how it works.
So the little grey will soon go on the ferry and hopefully not too long from now an other friend will want to buy a horse in Ireland. I'm up for it!
Top picture: Ned with his great collection of dogs.
Middle: Larry Burns with nephew Jim and their hound pups.
Bottom: some of Ned's young stock with the grey broodmare behind.
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Successful come-back after kissing spine for Hazel Clewley with Trundle
It was a tough year for Hazel Clewley and her horse Trundle. During the previous spring it gradually became obvious that the stalwart bay gelding had a problem. Although he wasn't exactly lame he was increasingly irregular in a weird sort of way and when Hazel asked me to get on top in order to feel him, his two canters, right and left, felt completely different. Much more than I could see from the side.
Hazel, being a veterinarian herself, decided to visit Western Counties Equine Clinic near Exeter for a thorough and specialist investigation. Trundle was seen by Chris Johansson, who diagnosed kissing spine. Considering Trundle's age (14 at the time) together with the level of severity he decided to inject Pitcher Plant extract (as a pain management) and steroid between the affected spinous processes. Trundle was put on rest for a couple of weeks and after that lunged with the Pessoa for another month. Gradually normal work was introduced, however, between Chris and Hazel the decision was made to work him less often, two or three times a week. This would give him sufficient time to relax and avoid another spasm. As Trundle spends most of his time out in his field and is naturally fit this wasn't a problem. Chris was fairly confident that Trundle would be able to pick up his eventing career again as there was little growth on the vertebrae and the discomfort largely caused by muscle spasm.
Initially I took the muscle spasm quite personal as I'm the one who introduced lateral work in order to help Trundle to become more even. When I met him for the first time he was very stiff to the right and Hazel explained to me that this was an issue from when she bought him. His x-country record was excellent, which was, together with his honest character, what attracted her in him.
I very much kept in mind that he was not a young horse and felt we built it up as gradually as possible. Maintaining the counter canter on the left rein was also an issue for him. Just before it all went pear-shaped all of the hard work seemed to have paid off as shoulder-in, travers, renvers, both counter canters and the beginning of a decent half-pass were established. Also, he really loved his powerful medium trot on the diagonal. .
During Trundle's recovery I helped Hazel with the remedial lunging as it was important that he would work softer when going into his stiffer direction which, because of the spasm, now had reappeared. Surprisingly quickly though, he started to get happier again and was snorting just as much going to the right, as well as going to the left, maintaining a good rhythm and correct bend. After more or less three months he was back into normal work, what's more, he looked better than ever.
I must say, when I teach Hazel and Trundle I have to restrain myself, as lateral work is now not something we want to do too much of anymore. Pity, as he looks so good when doing it.
But this weekend at Bicton, seeing the two of them take off so very happy, for what turned out to be an excellent x-country round, put tears in my eyes. Driving back the rosette for 9th place gloriously hanging behind us meant a lot more than being placed.
Top picture: Hazel and Chris Johansson watching Trundle being lunged during his investigation at West Counties Equine Clinic.
Bottom: Hazel and Trundle going strong.
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BEF Futurity: can it be the future?
It's not my strong point to be up to date with all that happens in the competition, showing and breeding world. First of all I'm quite happy to stay in my bubble as a dressage trainer. Secondly, I'm still trying to grasp the gradual, however major, changes and approach the KWPN has made in the last twenty or so years in my home country, The Netherlands. This year's visit to the Dutch stallion show made me realize how very much I had lost touch since I moved to Cornwall. Here in the UK, as initially a breeder, I had my hands full trying to work through all the different possibilities of registering my youngsters and was very confused indeed; the HIS, the British Warmblood Society, the Database and more. All with great intentions but so much choice, not to mention the showing of horses, with no other use than that, at agricultural shows.
On Friday I decided to pay a visit to the Tall Trees Arena in Cornwall for a maiden Futurity Evaluation experience. I was surprised by the fact that for a long time I was the only spectator, listening to a very well-spoken judge, with microphone, representing a panel of three. I would have expected more interest. My visit was partly out of a professional interest and partly to start the search for a youngster for a pupil. This seemed to me a good way to see and meet serious breeders presenting their young horses, at the same time figuring out what the Futurity is all about.
The remarks of the judge about each individual horse reminded me very much of how it is done at the Warmblood grading shows in Holland. A clear explanation of the conformation, walk, trot and canter, a mark and a second, first or elite premium. The confusion set in when all of a sudden, smack in the middle of some very decent looking Warmblood foals, a pony appeared with her foal at foot. As the foal was looked upon as a dressage pony for the future it was considered suitable to be judged by the same standards. Then an Arabian mare came in with her foal, this time a prospect for endurance riding. After that more Warmblood foals.
I really did start to wonder how on earth the judges could keep their eye in as by now there was no consistency. The same panel was making decisions about five different types of horses. That must be rather difficult. Would it possibly make sense to have seen those at the beginning or end?
Some of the handling was very professional, some of it was not. Any horse needs a good runner who can keep up in a decent rhythm, so the horse gets every chance to show itself off. A good horse with a lot of action needs it even more so.
Am I too critical? No, actually, if I was now a breeder I would probably choose this system. Its all-inclusiveness of all sports horses is a good idea. However, it could be more refined by having several different specialist judges panels. I would have a lane set up in order to make it easier for the one and two year-olds to show themselves off along the long side when shown loose. Also, I would show the one and two year-olds at least a pole on the ground, in order to see their attitude.
But at least it gives a thoroughly confused country, about what society or organisation to choose, a chance to unite under the same rules and guide lines. At the end of the day the Dutch Warmblood partly became what it is now because of the use of the English thoroughbreds. The UK always has had, and still does have, some very decent stock. More good horses are imported. Frozen sperm is available from all over the world. It just needs organisation. Maybe the Futurity Program can make this come true.
It was such a nice surprise to see some pupils, of the past and present, do an excellent job. Andrew James presenting two very decent and good-looking show-jump foals Lillipep and Lipeppero (both by Peppermill) from broodmares (both by LIBERO H) he jumped himself, with scores of 8.75 and 8.21. His calm and professional presentation brought back memories of how he used to be forever patient with some very difficult ponies as a youngster.
Cara Jasper (picture left) doing a very tidy performance with dressage prospect Donna D'Amour (s: Don Olymbrio) next to her mum by Treliver Decanter, with a great score of 8.70.
Niamh Hobbs being a great helper to Victoria Hunton who ended up with a score of 8.50 for her dressage foal Huntons Furstenfearless by Furstenball out of a Regazzoni mare.
Sophie Turriff being the joint handler of the very fine and tidy moving bay yearling mare Cintrix Du Ruisseau bred for show-jumping (s: Cinsey, ds: Prince D'Incoville), owned by Mrs. M. Douglas and going home with a score of 8.40.
Sandra Grose has been a regular visitor at the Futurity Evaluation. She brought her three year-old show-jump prospect Diamond Jubilee by the sire Je T'Aime Flamenco for the fourth time. After a great score of 8.72 in 2013 she was probably hoping to improve on last year's score of 8.27. It was not to be. Of course at this young age some youngsters still change so much by the season and/or mature slower. The dam line going back to Landgraf, son of Ladykiller, is certainly a huge asset to this three year-old's breeding. Being a complete novice I bombarded Sandra with questions which she patiently answered. We agreed on the fact that some of the lower scores were possibly still too high. This might motivate breeders to come back next year, on the other hand it could give them a false believe in the quality of their youngster.
My personal favorite was the very enquisitive and playful dressage filly Woodwick Dancernegro by the Oldenburg stallion Danciano (ds: Negro). As soon as she entered the arena next to her dam she was mesmerized by the white plastic cones and adamant to walk over them rather than around. When she was free she was interested in everything and everybody but her mother and danced and pranced around as a ballerina. Her score was 8.45.
Star of the day was the last one in: the dressage foal Newton Flexitime, a bold and beautiful chestnut filly who seemed to want to tell the judges and audience, by the way she stood and looked at all of us, that one day she is going to be famous. Her dam by Vivaldi and sired by Furst Romancier certainly produced something very special and she scored a well-deserved 9.00.
Despite the lack of a bigger audience one thing was a revelation. Unlike some of the competitions I've visited over the years, the atmosphere was so very friendly. There was a lot of exchange and some good laughs amongst breeders and audience. Very refreshing indeed.
Top foto: Natalie Pote waiting to go in with her dressage three year-old gelding Ragazoo (s:Richelshagen, ds: Chagallo) with a score of 8.20.
Middle foto: Dressage one year-old Janne by Maxamillian Voltucky owned by Sophie Parsons with a score of 8.45. I can't help to mention the very sweet Dutch name of the dam, Blosje, which translates as Little Blush.
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Timing and competition riding
Every so often I join one of my pupils at a competition. It has happened that I am sat waiting in my car in order for the rider to arrive some time later. I'm a strong believer in the fact that arriving too early never ruins the day, but arriving too late does. I simply do not see the point of putting all that training time in, paying substantial entry fees, filling my lorry up with a hundred quids worth of fuel in order to end up feeling rushed. Enough nerves are involved already and (don't take me wrong, a healthy lot of nerves can up your game) do not want to be running around like an idiot, proceeding to not be able to find things, getting moody with my horse when trying to get studs in, or worse, not getting them in at all.
I am going to paint you a picture: A red faced rider is moving in a stiff trot to the ring steward to find out where to go, knowing very well that there is very little time left to warm up. The horse had already figured out, the way it was yanked of the lorry and saddle and bridle chucked on that things weren't exactly relaxed and after the stiff trot has its adrenaline running even more so. Result: frustration is unleashed with perfect timing when the bell of the judge rings.
What a shame, not only is the day partly or completely ruined, but also the chances of the next outing as horses do not forget anything, ever.
I am lucky to have sensible pupils but also they occasionally underestimate holiday traffic or maybe their horse is a little less willing than normal to walk on the lorry. First piece of advice: do not pass your hurry on to your horse, but stay in control of your emotions as that gives you the best chance to save what is left. A short but relaxed warm-up is always the better option.
The first time I competed in Cornwall it was in Launceston at Andrew Reeve's yard, some 25 years ago. Being Dutch the problem already started at home. I had to drive the lorry for some 10 minutes along a steep narrow lane, mirrors in, with no passing opportunities at all. No satnav to depend on then, so direction's written out on a large piece of paper. I knew my horse well enough that, it being her first competition as well, she would be 'full of it' to say the least. When I arrived Andy wasn't even up yet and there was no one to be seen. I was on top ever so relaxed well before the rest of the competitor's started to arrive and Marie took it in her stride, literally. I got of again and gave her a hay net for half an hour before I got back on for a short warm-up and she did great.
Another timing problem, often for event horses at the beginning of the season, is that I hear riders say: my horse was like an idiot for the dressage but when I got back on for the show-jumping it was fine.
Simple solution, arrive early, work your horse for a short time, put it away just as you would between dressage and show-jumping, and get back on. Nine out of ten times it works.
If all this rings a bell to you, then set your alarm a little earlier than you used to at a competition day. I bet it pays off!
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Aids are to help and submission is not slavery
When some years ago I was chosen to be part of a clinic with Conrad Schumacher, together with my Prix St George horse Marie, I jumped sky high for excitement as he was my guru. I had already been to some of his clinics as a spectator and was totally smitten by his training technique.
What really caught my attention was when he questioned the term 'submission'. He said he didn't like that word as it sounded as if the horse was your slave instead of rider and horse being a partnership. I loved that. 'Submission' stands for the German term 'durchlassigkeit' which is not easily translated. It means the aids are fully accepted and digested by the horse which subsequently turns it into self carriage and suppleness.
Now the term 'aids'. We have a bit in the horse's mouth, and a leg on each side. We can add to that a whip and spurs. Now we have the ability to yank, kick and whack as much as we like in order to create submission. If we don't achieve quickly what we want we try fiercer bits and sharper spurs. Great, now we have turned our horse into our slave.
The dictionary explains 'aid' as 'help' and that is how I look at the equine term 'aids'. Instead of looking at it as pressuring the horse to perform, look at it as helping the horse to achieve what you want it to do.
Yet again I have helped a rider to turn her horse from a lazy, angry horse with dangerous explosions into a horse which shows every potential to compete at least at Medium level if not Advanced. He is still slightly awkward at times, but only because he gets frustrated when he wants to please but can't quite get his head around it, which his rider has learnt to understand. That is when we let him of the hook and do something easy which he knows and understands. Only last year you could not canter him without a chance of a rodeo. On outings he was a liability. A couple of weeks ago he went to his first x-country schooling session and behaved all the way. Why? Because he is happy that he feels understood and it makes him feel safe.
Turns out he's super sensitive, saw the leg as a threat and backed up on it. This was misunderstood by the rider who pushed more and more to the point of no return. We spent time on the lunge desensitizing him by teaching him the lunging whip can touch him without being a threat. This we could use on top as he now responded more positive to the whip which would be used educational; rather pointing at the place of the part of the body that needed to put in a little more effort. Voice aids are important to him for active transitions: walk to canter is now a piece of cake, extended trot is showing incredible promise. Rider and horse can now finally have the love affair they so badly wanted. And...he can now be ridden from the leg without taking offence. The whips are more often than not retired to the cupboard!
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Royal Cornwall Show: dedication and commitment in every ring and arena
The Royal Cornwall Show is an event I can not not visit. I tried it one year and felt miserable for it. Most years I go on the Thursday as I love watching the working hunters. It really is the only showing class I care for as it is both sporty and classy whereas the atmosphere is always great.
This year I went on the Friday and, boy, it was cold. So cold that, after having visited the Young Farmers tent and the Flower tent, I decided to invest in a seat at the Grand Stand in order to be out of the wind. There, for the first time in the thirty years I have visited, I watched basically everything, The quad-bike driver with his giant leaps; the phenomenal bird of prey display from Ben Potter with eagles soaring closely over the heads of the spectators; all the different hunts from around the county creating total chaos; the parachutists who, unfortunately for them, had to wait for the wind to die a bit which made them have to land after well over a hundred excited hounds had run around the arena, leaving lots of presents behind; the grand parade with all the different breeds, the giant South Devon bulls about the biggest, the dapper goats the smallest; the two Friesian horses Aurelia Van Burmania and Bounkje Van De Koetserij from the Tregothnan etsate trotting proudly and in total harmony around the arena in front of their immaculate carriage; and the last show-jump class of the day, the Open Accumulator, in which local riders Andrew Williams and Sammie-Jo Coffin made sure there were plenty of exciting moments.
The only time I left was for my favorite visit, a late afternoon wander around the cattle shed after all the rosettes are dealt, the animals bedded in loads of fresh straw, chewing away on well-deserved hay and breeders and handlers looking tired but happy, still fiddling about or chatting or just sitting back, feet up on the well-worn wooden trunk, evening sunlight oozing through the windows. It is the place where you find the core of the show, what an agricultural show is all about. Proud and hard working farmers who have dedicated themselves one hundred percent to producing the finest dairy- and beef cattle you can find.
So why am I talking about motorbikes, birds of prey and cattle so much in my equine blog? Because there is one thing everything previously described has in common: dedication. The same dedication and commitment I demand of myself and see in my pupils. It is the only thing which gives us the chance to become good at something. No matter how much talent the rider or how good the horse is, only putting in the time and effort will make it work. And there are no shortcuts! Shortcuts always backfire.
One last note: I think it is terrible practice when riders are still to have their well-deserved round of honor, after having given us hours of excitement and entertainment, for most of the spectators to leave their seats in order to get to their car as quick as possible.
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Martyn Humphrey: aiming high
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Meet Tristan Tucker
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KWPN stallion show Den Bosch: Henke and his proud owner
I am nearly ashamed to admit that I had never been to the Dutch KWPN stallion show, ever. Therefore I made a commitment this year to not let an other one go by without a visit of at least two days.
It is an extremely important show for all stud owners who have entered stallions as it is the final procedure in order to be accepted for the performance test.
This used to be the 100-day test when the KWPN did not yet have separate inspections for dressage horses and show-jumpers. Now the tests are slightly shorter.
I was there for two phenomenal days which consisted of an enormous amount of mouth-watering. On the first day of the dressage stallions a very nice lady asked me politely whether the chair next to me was free. It was, so she sat down and, just as many other people, she got her telephone out in order to use it as a camera.
Although all stallions at this show have already come a long way in the grading system and they are all extremely good and good-looking horses, some won't make the third grading, others will and a few are just breathtakingly beautiful. In came one of those show-stoppers. His canter was so smooth that all his changes were effortless and mostly clean and it took him very few powerful and elegant trot strides, which did not seem to touch the ground, to get to the other side of the arena. He was one of those who made your heart beat a little faster and the crowd showed its appreciation with a few whistles and some clapping.
I was so excited and joked to my neighbour who had just finished filming: "How about buying him together?" To which she answered with a shyish grin: "He actually is mine." I made her repeat that sentence twice before it sank in, after which we had a good laugh. I was chuffed to bits to be so lucky as to meet the owner and I told her I hoped he would make the championship. She then told me that she had to go to the doctor that morning after a long night with a sick child and had to hurry in order to plait the stallion to be ready in time. My respect grew by the minute.
Although Henke (Apache x Tolando) was accepted he did not make it to the championship. It still is a great result and I hope Qurien and Dennis van Erp are happy.
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Gert van den Hof at Jumping Amsterdam: an act or true horsemanship?
Gert van den Hof is a Dutch horseman. Gert also has a very dry sense of humor and has phenomenal 'stickability'.For this very reason he was given the opportunity to perform his act at Jumping Amsterdam, the big international show of nearly two weeks ago.
I call it an act as in my opinion it as exactly that. His act contains the ability to put a saddle on an untouched horse within minutes of entering the very big and impressive arena, including the lively audience and then, as the icing on the cake, to climb on top, proceeding in something between a canter and gallop, in the meantime entertaining the by now overexcited audience with halfwitted jokes and funny, somewhat helpless sounds. He has an assistant (his brother) who reads the horse's mood to perfection and complements this with a lunging-whip. The timing is sheer perfection.
I could not help but loose my generally critical eye as the horse barely bucked, seemed to settle ever so quick and also Gert knew the exact moment when 'enough was enough'.
Although it all seemed so very convincing, somewhere inside my head a little alarm went of and I googled Gert and found several clips on You Tube. Not all was as smooth as what I witnessed at Jumping Amsterdam and of course not every horse is equally uncomplicated, This is also not my problem with his performance. My problem is that in some cases I know from experience that giving the more complicated horse a little more time means less trauma for the horse in its initial phase.
Horses can buck and rear. Gert van den Hof has no fear for that. He understands horses to perfection. His show is powerful. I dread to think that some horse owners might go home and try this themselves and I also know this will happen. They will inevitably end up with possibly Gert in order to sort out their by now scared-out-of-its-wits horse..... if they survived their ordeal, that is.
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Jumping Amsterdam; quite a party!
It must have been 1979 when I witnessed David Broome winning the Puissance show-jumping in the most spectacular manner. If I'm not mistaken he was hanging on to to the neck of his horse in order to cross the finish-line without his feet touching the ground. Also, I vaguely remember the commentator yelling histerically something about David having just become a father for the first time.
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Princess Anne and sailing
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A happy horse is more fun to ride
Initially, when I started to venture into the English equine world I was surprised by the difference in attitude of horsemen and women in the various branches of the sport. It may have changed by now in Holland as well, but some 30 to 40 years ago everybody was through riding club jumping and doing dressage affiliated on the same day at the same outdoor premise. Only indoors was split up but you would still meet with your same chums.
In England everything was separate and also jumping riders seemed to be a very different kettle of fish from dressage riders and event riders seemed to be a different species all together. There was of course the occasional all-rounder, good or no-good at everything, but that was only sporadic.
What did strike me though, that particularly in dressage the word discipline was taken so very literal. It was nearly as if the horse had to feel it was made to do it rather than getting some enjoyment out of itself.
This was completely averse my own training philosophy. Having worked with many difficult horses, some having given up on trying to be helpful at all, I had to learn early on that you have to make the horse believe that it wants to do it because it likes what it is doing. Only then can it turn into a discipline. And even then we can maintain the fun-bit.
So, here is a message to those who aspire dressage: vary the work with sufficient hacking and pole-work and certainly do not brainwash.
Also a message to the show-jump riders: flatwork is an important and necessary part of your training in order for your horse to enjoy its jumping so much more.
And last but not least, the event riders; do not treat your dressage as a necessary evil in order to get a decent score for your test. Your horse does not 'hate' dressage and neither do you, you just don't know it, yet!
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Goodbye Paul Martin, hello Mike Douglas
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One hundred years of eleven-eleven-eleven
Ever since the First World War reached a ceasefire on November the eleventh at eleven o'clock it has been the moment for the countries involved to commemorate this. As today it is the centenary of the beginning of First World War, I, as a horse lover, would like to pause for a moment in order to remember the thousands of horses which were lost under the most atrocious circumstances. With that many of the men who were caring for them had to suffer the loss of their four-footed comrade at a time when they needed every bit of emotional comfort they could lay their hands on. Sadly, when the war was over many horses, having gone through hell and back, were now paid by being slaughtered for their meat.
It does not hurt my feelings that the cavalry is a changed phenomena and horses no longer go to war. Through the beautiful and enormously popular theatre production 'War Horse' (and also the movie) the tragedy was brought a lot closer to us. Horse lovers and non horse lovers found it an equally emotional experience. Personally, I could not keep my eyes dry for a minute through the whole play, not so much because of the story line but knowing that this one romantic tale represented also an endless amount of tragedies.
My first pony was a Haflinger. Somewhere I read that this small compact horse was much loved by the cavalry in Austria as it was able to pull cannons very well in difficult terrain. Last night on the English program 'Countryfile', which was dedicated to the Great War, it was mentioned that the mule was so popular for its stamina. One does not need a whole lot of imagination in order to realize how sad that actually is.
Dressage is going through an enormously popular phase. Dressage to music has added to this greatly. I think that occasionally we should remember that the cavalry is (partly) responsible for all the knowledge we have about what makes our horses respond to us. For me, for example, a book written by Gregor de Romaszkan was an important source of information. He was an Austrian cavalry officer in the Great War and also was involved in the Second World War, in Poland and in France.
Part of the cavalry is the uniform. In the dictionary another word for 'uniform' is 'identical'. This is what I sincerely hope we will never loose in the dressage world. The uniformity of what we wear when competing. We owe that to our horses. So that, when dressage is being watched by enthusiasts, the horse is not overshadowed by its rider. Also, it is a way to honour those who gave us the foundation for what is now our sport, but once was such a vital part of protecting one's country.
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Perseverance and more perseverance
A couple of weeks ago I was translating an article about a Dutch dressage rider who, after a brake because of an injury, had started to compete again at Advanced level and did rather well. It said he had competed Prix St.Georges in the past and was now hoping to prepare in order to compete Grand Prix.
Small detail: the rider Maarten van Stek has only one arm. As soon as I read that I raced back in time and was sitting again on the side of an indoor arena somewhere in the east of my home country Holland, crutches lying next to me, after a car accident which nearly caused for me to loose my left leg and disabled me for quite a while.
Maarten was teaching and had just got on a horse of a client. I must say, I was completely starstruck. Watching him ride made me also so unbelievably envious. Here was a young guy who did everything I had wanted to do and not only did he have this wonderful quality of being able to explain in a very uncomplicated and humble way very complicated things, he transformed a quite unbalanced and confused horse in a relatively short time into a well-balanced horse which started to show itself of and in the process growing happier by the minute. It didn't even occur to me any more that this man had only the one arm.
I came away confused, angry but also with that itch of wanting to not give up and stick the pain and the frustration in order to get back on a horse again.
So, thirty five years later,still going strong as a dressage trainer, I am sitting behind my little laptop in my Cornish cottage and in the meantime learning about the fact Maarten had lost his arm in a car accident when he was only six and started riding as a therapy. A lesson in perseverance to say the least. I wish him all the best and will follow his achievements, hopefully in the Grand Prix not too long from now.
Oh, and by the way, thank you Maarten, that time in the indoor school in Haaksbergen was a life-changing experience.
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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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Riders meet: relaxation and timing is everything
On Sunday I organized a little gathering for a few of my pupils who for various reasons have not been able to compete regularly.
They each had to pick a test which was bordering their comfort-zone. It had to include all the movements they have trained with their horse so far which would be a tad higher than their competition level of the moment.
They were each given one and a half hours. One hour to warm up, if needed; a set time to do the test; a little time for comments from the trainer and fellow riders and for the horse to have a break; finally, if needed some more time to work on some of the issues and another try for the test.
The first horse, a big stalwart event horse at novice level with the potential to do an intermediate one day, has had a back injury, is now fit again and came in like a tank. Often event horses are a `bit full of themselves' at their first outing and he certainly was. In a situation like that it is virtually impossible to plan a warm-up: when the horse starts to settle it will then immediately feel tired. Also, it is a fine line between trying to get rid of some of the surplus energy with some canterwork and winding up the horse even more. Starting in a trot and picking the right moment for some canterwork generally is the best option, occasionally checking whether the horse is ready to settle in the walk. as soon as he is ready for that it is important to not over-practice the movements as the energy level will now drop fast. Instead, save the energy, trust your homework and during the test help your horse rather than the horse having to help you.
The chosen test included shoulder-in, counter canter and simple changes. When his official time was up the bay gelding was still `chomping one the bit' and therefore everything looked hurried and unfinished, although it got better as the test went on, the canterwork in particular. A sign of a mature and thoughtful rider as she herself did not get flustered and so was giving a calming signal through her seat bones to the horse. Nevertheless, she was disappointed. After a little brake she worked on more relaxation and did the test again. He was a little too tired to do a perfect one but the regularity of the trot and the canter had improved, the shoulder-ins looked more finished, the simple changes were more accurate and the mediums in canter were surprisingly spot-on. The rider had hoped for more but gave the horse a good foundation for the next competition, which was the whole purpose of this day in the first place.
The next horse arrived in similar fashion if not even more excited. The rider wisely decided to lunge him first. I know this horse has a `funny button' and although getting better,can buck and occasionally rear. It took only minutes for him to literally go as quiet as a lam and the rider showed a beautiful warm-up. Especially the trotwork looked soft and was beautifully balanced. The problem was the horse was threatening to peak before its time. so the rider added some breaks which helped to slow the process down.
The horse is still young and has only just started to compete, however, the rider bravely choose a novice test. Apart from the odd toss with its head, the horse did a very acceptable test. The upward toss the trainer blamed on the fact that the horse only recently started to go on the bit correctly and does not have a strong poll. It is an effort to carry your own head around when it lives a foot or two in front of the rest of your body at the best of times. Give this horse a few months with the right exercises and he will have outgrown this problem.
After the short break we worked on the walk, which was too sluggish, also the free walk on a long rein. By using the whip a little more assertively the rider was able to sit stiller and not use too much leg. The horse looked more focused and energetic in its free walk. Also this horse was a little tired during the next test but the walk certainly had improved and yet another settled horse with a good experience under its belt left the arena.
Also the horse of our host started on the lunge. This striking skewbald gelding can be sharp and a little nappy at the beginning of a session at times, particularly when he has had an easy week. Strange, as once he gets going he seems to love his work. This horse has a travel issue but fortunately its rider loves her training and, although she hopes to compete again, does not allow herself to have any sleepless nights over it. In the meantime they have become very comfortable with the lateral work and also the counter canter and simple changes are part of his `vocabulary'.
The rider added some shoulder-ins to an otherwise suitable elementary test and she really did herself proud. Although she got lost at the very beginning she recovered and rode a test which was not quite consistent but had some glorious work in it. Trainer and rider were pleased the horse did not bolt when a spontaneous little applause came from the side.Trainer and riders all felt this horse did not have to do the test again. After having shown their half-passes rider and horse went back to their stable both looking satisfied.
During lunch we discussed the morning and all agreed on the fact that, during the warm-up, there is no point trying to ride some of the movements of your test until the horse feels relaxed in its environment. Once competing at a regular basis a pattern will establish itself which the rider can then start to depend on.
Timing is everything. Also leaving home in time! I always add an extra hour in order to leave with plenty of time for a relaxed drive rather than be late and get stressed. Your horse will respond accordingly.
When the horse takes too long to relax at a competition, try lunging before you leave.
Finally, some horses need longer to warm-up than others. Listen to your horse in order to give it what it needs, as only then it will be able to give back what you want so very much.
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I have given away my competition coat... To my goddaughter.....It wasn't difficult, to my great surprise. As a matter of fact, it was a very quick and spontaneous happening and a decision I shall never regret as the most wonderful and dedicated `pony-girl' was shining from ear to ear when she tried it on and looked at herself in the mirror. As I looked in the mirror with her I saw what I wanted to see: dreams of what that coat would be doing in the future, on which horse it would be sitting, which tests it would be riding and how well, of course.
I saw myself... in her. Is that dangerous? A little bit, but it's worth the risk.
My competition coat is a lucky one. Together with me that coat was very successful until Prix St. George when it was replaced with the so very much desired tails. I loved wearing it. It was, and still is, a beautiful woollen Pikeur dressage jacket, dark blue as I preferred that over black, blue was always my colour. It made me feel smart and ready for another good performance. Putting it on together with tying the stock always was a routine which had a certain quiet importance to it. It was a routine which put me in the right groove, gave me the right focus.
Do I miss it? No, actually. not anymore. I miss the horses I competed, Marie, my stalwart chestnut mare who surprized all who knew her with her fiery work attitude, in particular.
So, when do you stop competing whereas it has been a lifestyle for so long. For me it was clear. Fifty five years old and after Marie's sudden death, starting again with a young horse would not necessarily mean the same highs. And I did not want a slow decline after all that was achieved.
Is that weak? If others want to consider that weak, so be it. I never looked back and continue working with my wonderful pupils and their horses, who give me so much satisfaction and always make me sing out loud when driving home after their lessons. This is of course a luxury which hobby riders do not have.
It is a very personal decision and motivations will be different for every personality. The right timing is everything. Also making a good plan to fill in that time with something worthwhile. Fitness is an issue. Also, riding less means extra pounds. I replaced it with swimming lengths.
Occasionally I open the drawer filled with rosettes, with on the back written when and where and which class. A drawer full of indispensable memories. It was special and I hope for that to continue... with my goddaughter... because she wants it...badly.
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The thing you really don't want to think about
When you are thinking of buying a horse, there are lots of things you have to consider. One of the things to think about carefully is the one thing you never like to think about. One day your horse will probably have to be put down. Hopefully because of old age, sometimes because of an injury or a disease.
In the twenty five years I have owned horses I had to make that decision more than once. My farrier at the time, Brian Webber, gave me some great advice: You, as an owner should probably not be holding your own horse when it is put down. Your emotional state could very well worry your horse. Ask a dear and competent horse connection to do it for you.
It made sense at the time and several times I took his advice. The last one, however, my very loyal Prix St. George horse Marie, was a different matter altogether. She was not to be trusted with others and I knew it had to be me at the other end of the rope. It went as well as it possibly could….. for her. I was proud of the accomplishment, but traumatised.
It is different from a dog or a cat, somehow. That is because it’s so very big and to put it bluntly it makes a terrible thumping sound when this huge body lands on the ground. That’s what they call dead weight.
Also, for your vet it doesn’t make things any easier when confronted with your emotions. For them it is something that comes with the job but not something they enjoy doing. It is important for them, in order to do it right, to be able to concentrate and not to be distracted by your emotions.
So I do think my friend Brian was right. He had some more advice, though. He thought shooting was better than injecting. Being from Holland, it never occurred to me to have your horse shot. But I did see the point Brian tried to make about how quick it went and how slow sometimes the injection is. So I did that several times. Somehow, when it came to having to hold Marie, I could not face up to the shooting. Since that time I have held more horses when put down by injection. I honestly have never seen a horse worry and do not think there is much in it. Also, if your horse needed an operation it would go through the same initial thing.
A horse can’t think in the future so it does not know whether the injection is for getting better or in order to die.
Oh, and one more piece of advice: don’t wait too long and keep the suffering to a minimum. We owe them that, after everything they have done for us.
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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.