One of the things which struck me whenever I watched The Countess ride my horse in dressage competition; was the lack of visible aids given by the rider. She could ask the horse for a specific movement without showing any visible signal to the onlooker. Partly this was because most of the aids were applied through the seat, the inner thighs and a few through a slight resistance of the reins. It was magical for me to observe even though sadly it came home to me forcibly that the way I rode the same horse was in conflict with the way the horse should be ridden for competition. Either I would have to change my riding style or otherwise I might ruin DiDi’s chances of proceeding up the ladder of competitive affiliated dressage.
My pleasure of her eventually came from acting as her groom. After DiDi’s performance in competition, The Countess would dismount and go off to gossip with her friends and I’d take over the procedure of getting DiDi ready either for the journey home or, sometimes, for the next round in the arena,. I’d untack her; I’d wipe her down; I’d give her a soft wash around her mouth. I’d dress her with a suitable day blanket or fly sheet . I’d give her a treat or two. Then, if I sensed she was still in super hype mode, I’d walk her in hand around the lorry park, so that she could see what was going on and making so much noise. The whole process of settling her down would not be finished until eventually we had arrived back home and she had said: “Hello” to the other four horses on the yard and she had been fed and made ready for the night. However on some of these competition days, there had been a period of potential mayhem created largely by DiDi playing up.
The constant risk with her was that if she flipped at the show and went for any of the other competing horses then, she would quickly be banned for life from competition by British Dressage. With the benefit of hindsight and further knowledge, I eventually surmised that her occasional bad behaviour towards other horses could have been caused by the, as then unsuspected, ulcers later discovered deep down in her stomach. Or perhaps I’d got it wrong. Who really knows? Maybe she was just a neurotic mare.
But DiDi’s problems weren’t to be solved by standardised positive or negative techniques. The problem was to be addressed by knowing her and recognising the clues as to when a bout of misbehaviour was imminent. Thereupon the handler had to quickly bring the horse back into a state of reasonableness. The recurring question was whether DiDi’s problem was the result of fear, sexual hormones, excitement, adrenaline, pain or whatever? Somehow I had to find the way to making her ‘calm’ and this usually meant my getting in close to her, and using my hands, my voice and my close presence to settle her down. It was on such occasions that I needed steel toe capped boots. But I had the advantage that I knew she would not want to harm me - a fact that had been proved on many occasions. She would not bite me whereas she might barge a bit and she’d wave her head about but the only serious risk to me was that she might tread on my feet. But she never did.
Dr David Servan Scbreiber writes in his book: “Healing without Freud or Prozac” that humans have two active parts of their brain - the conscious brain and the emotive brain over which we actually have very little control. It is the emotive brain, inherited at birth which controls our instinctive reactions and which largely directs our responses to situations. I believe there is a similar mechanism to be found in horses. Much of their behaviour is inherited at birth. Many of their responses are taught by the dam in the first year of life. Other fears and counter measures are learnt later in the herd or on the stable yard. We can readily see that a horse’s life is dominated by the need for food, water, shelter, safety and sex - just like we humans. Horses, dogs and even humans all seek routine and continuity.
The deciding factors in the lifestyle of a horse are health and environment. As a result horses like many animals have to come to an arrangement with the top predator in life on Earth - the human. If a horse does find a caring human then it has the chance to live to a ripe old age. The caring owner will make sure that the horse has all it needs to survive. The horse is not stupid, and with time it comes to know which side of its bread is buttered, just like my dog knows it is me who gives him the leftovers from my lunch plate and not my wife.
I accept that a damaged or broken horse calls for different techniques. Somehow that horse must be rehabilitated. The obvious damage has to be repaired; the deeper breakages have to be healed; and the harmful memories must be soothed and pushed, if not erased, to the back of the horse’s mind. Horses have long memories. The healing process calls for knowledge, patience, time and perseverance in the human carer. Not many humans have the skills required.
My DiDi knew exactly what to do to please her trainer/rider The Countess. The horse had learned through regular daily training by rote, how to respond to a squeeze of a thigh muscle. DiDi also knew that when she was in my care, that I’d see to her needs which she herself could not meet without my help. She couldn’t speak, but she could talk by non verbal communication, so long as I had learned how to interpret the tell tale signs such as the wiggle of an ear, a nudge of the muzzle, a look, a movement of the neck, a wave of the tail, a strike on the ground of the foot, etc, etc She had come to expect the regular routines of the day and she waited for me to perform my part in them. That was the bond formed between two animal species which bound us together
And ‘No‘, she would never have been asked to jump a four foot fence, nor a six foot tall hedge, neither should she be asked to race against a bolting group of super hyped Thorobreds. Nor would she be asked to charge against a gun emplacement; nor pull around the streets of London, a cart carrying crates of bottled milk. Time has moved on.
Nowadays horses are firmly established as companions in leisure. It is time we humans re-examined from scratch how we communicate with such unique beasts. The horse undoubtedly has a brain just as we have, but it can‘t speak our language. If only horses could speak, then co-existing in harmony with them would be so much easier. As a beginning we should give the animal the respect and the understanding it deserves. Also we, the casual riders, should re-examine the ideas passed down by the cavalry officer, the hunt master, the race horse trainer, the professional show jumper and the old fashioned horse dealer. We should ask ourselves if their aims and objectives, all forged in a byegone era, are in harmony with the thoughts of the riders and amateur trainers of today?
I could once chastise my horse with my tone of voice, as do I chastise from time to time my dog of today. I never needed a crop to chastise DiDi and anyway to use one on her would have been counter productive. So long as she understood what I was asking of her, the chances were invariably that she would do it. Responding to her demands by sign language, was far more of a challenge to me.