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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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
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