The Carneddau Mountain range in the Snowdonia National Park is home to around 300 Carneddau ponies whose history is thought to date back to the Bronze Age. Although they are not a rare breed as such, they are genetically distinct from the more well known Welsh Mountain pony. These ponies roam over some 20 square miles of mostly inhospitable terrain above Bethesda, Llanfairfechan, Capel Curig and Conwy.
The annual gathering of the Carneddau ponies: https://janruth.com/2018/11/05/the-big-picture/
Carneddau ponies as therapy ponies: https://janruth.com/2017/11/18/with-or-without-you/
A post in support of those who have made the right decision for themselves either to ride, or not to ride.
As the lockdown continues, the rage of the social-media exercise-police gathers momentum. There are no specific rulings from the government as to how we take our permitted exercise, other than we should avoid high-risk activities which are likely to put further strain on the NHS, and that we should practise social-distancing at all times. The latter is an extremely easy business to achieve on the back of a horse. The rest of it is proving to be something of a grey area, and provoking considerable hostility, especially through social-media where people are lightning quick to sit in judgment on someone they don’t actually know, let alone the world of equitation – and, where any one individual sits within that sphere. Anger is high towards those still able to continue with some of the activities they’ve always done. Families are grounded at home, and not only is this encouraging lots of on-line activity, but I’m wondering if the accidents on quad bikes and trampolines over the easter bank holidays could potentially outweigh those of low-key horse-riding!
At the time of writing the UK government, quite rightly, recognises the fact that exercise is vital for mental and physical health. And the need for it to continue is also relevant in order to keep the population fit, and to avoid a whole range of problems for future NHS services. Those who exercise regularly already know the benefits and understand the reasons for doing so. But these waters have become muddied by hoards of people taking exercise together, or hanging-out in the park and for some reason, the lone rider or cyclist, or walker, is an easy target for fear and anger. Some situations need to be understood in context. Someone walking, cycling or horse-riding from their back door in the Welsh hills and covering 10 or more miles, is virtually no risk compared to a guy attempting the same activities in a highly populated city.
If your horse is kept on a public livery yard then the decision may already have been taken out of your hands. If you have to travel a long distance to ride your horse, then its probably not a good idea either, unless the issue is also the fact that you need to feed, water, and do all the things necessary to maintain basic welfare requirements. But if you choose to ride, how do you evaluate the risk factor? It’s obviously down to the individual horse, your own confidence and ability, and the type of riding available to you. If your horse is only used to competing in an indoor school and this is now unavailable, is your horse safe to hack out in your designated area? And if you don’t ride your horse at all, how safe will he be once you decide to get back into the saddle?
I am currently riding a 17 year old 12.2 pony and able to ride mostly off-road – not that the roads are a problem, there’s never been a safer time to use our country roads! I hack at a steady pace and consider my activities to be as low-risk as they possibly could be. Compare this scenario to that of riding a young thoroughbred and perhaps schooling at home over jumps. I would evaluate both the horse and the activity to be pretty high-risk. There are a million permutations in-between these two extremes. This is why riders should be allowed to make their own, honest judgement in deciding whether they should or could be riding at this time, or not. And without fear of reprisal or guilt.
A response from someone who works in an NHS emergency department.
” We’ve had 2 trauma calls in the last few weeks. They were both RTAs. We’ve had around 20 large bone fractures. There were a couple of cyclists, but mainly elderly falling in their own gardens and 1 drunk person on a hover-board in their house. I have seen zero horse injuries. Zero sport injuries. People really are listening in this respect and we’ve been very thankful for the lack of this work whilst the respiratory work increases daily. I think the key is low risk. You know your horse and local area. You know whats an easy ride Vs challenge. We trust you to make good decisions, and if you don’t, that’s called autonomy and we’ll still be there with open doors to help if needed.
You still need to enjoy life, responsibly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, its mental health and domestic violence we’ve seen rises in.
Personally if going for a gentle ride in a remote place stops your mental health declining, I’d rather you did that.”
Cantering over Canny Hill, Cookie, and the Cartmell Fells.
Who knew we’d need to learn how to tie a boating knot and trust an ex-car mechanic – someone who’d only sat on a horse some three years ago – to escort us on an 80-mile circular trek across Lakeland. I’m always up for an equine adventure, and I was ready to accept that being five foot nothing with short legs and on the wrong side of 60 might carry certain limitations. Or so I thought. I thought I didn’t want a big cob. Physically, big cobs and I don’t always get on. The width and the rolling gait can leave me feeling compromised. No, I wanted a small, slender beast I could manage without assistance. A horse who’d wait patiently outside the pub without feeling the need to untie himself in order to send my hat rolling down a steep bank towards a stream. A horse that didn’t feel considerably taller than 16 hands towards the end of the day, when jumping off onto hard ground felt increasingly perilous on tired legs.
But I got Cookie. The Cookie Monster. The mighty Cookster. My feet dangled somewhere behind his immense shoulders, and his special treeless saddle initially felt as if it offered little in the way of anchoring. My toes nudged the saddlebags slung across his withers; fixed by straps through the girth and balanced out by two bags of hard feed – his substantial lunch. Once up top, I couldn’t even reach the girth straps and his massive head felt an awful long way out in front. This was going to hurt. My riding fitness was mostly based on hacking out a pony belonging to my good friend and travel companion, Sue. Fortunately, thanks to her nursing background Sue possessed impressive medical supplies, including some black-market Voltarol – a potion apparently strong enough to handle the pain of childbirth. It all sounded good until we learnt it could only be administered via suppository. A thoughtful silence descended as we headed out across Canny Hill and up through the forestry at Simpson Ground Plantation. Maybe we’d make do with gin, heat pads, and ibuprofen after all.
Four mature ladies, five days in the saddle. Sue and I were joined by Lydia from Manchester, and Wendy from Virginia. We were following mostly ancient bridleways across the fells, through forests, villages and fords, calling at predestined pubs for lunch and overnight stays. The route would take us along the east side of Windermere as far north as Kentmere, before circuiting both Ambleside and Grassmere across central Lakeland, and then heading back via Conniston and over the top of Walna Scar. Basically, it was a massive pub crawl on horseback, starting with the Hare and Hounds at Bowland Bridge. Cookie had proved himself eminently reliable through the morning and waited patiently for me to untack and tie him to a suitable bit of fence in the car park, before I emptied the saddlebags and tipped up his lunch onto the grass. An hour in the pub for us meant plenty of time for the horses to digest their hard feed. Cookie would invariably be resting one hind leg and snoozing in the sun on my return. Mostly. If any of the horses were going to get tangled in their own lead rope, sit on a car bonnet or get loose, it would be Sue’s Lusitano-cross mare, Gaia. We began to call her Princess Gaia for good reason. Probably more a testament to her fitness, but she didn’t even sweat.
Throughout the morning we’d glimpsed the long shivery stretch of Windermere in the distance from the considerable height afforded by forestry tracks and the open hillside, but the afternoon saw us crossing lower ground as we headed up the valley towards Ings. Cookie felt fortified after his lunch and we picked up the pace with some steady canters through fields and along little-used bridleways. This horse knew where to take on water and how to pace himself, and exhibited the same stoic sensibility whether crossing the deep ford at Winster or trotting along a short stretch of busy road to the next bridleway. We meandered through open pastureland to arrive at Ings by late afternoon. Six hours in the treeless saddle, and although I felt tired I was more relieved to discover that not only was the saddle a good fit for both Cookie and I, the horse was a gentleman to handle.
The horses stayed overnight at an international showjumping yard, and our billet for the night was an old-fashioned guest house run by the lovely Mrs J. Our rooms were an eclectic mix of floral, flock, and frills, a blend of historical styles which stopped somewhere around the seventies. A crocheted mat for every item, a pile of Reader’s Digest circa 1999, china knick-knacks, faux flowers and brass beds, patterned rugs on swirly carpets, snake draught excluders, and the radiator in the hall set to scorch level. It felt reminiscent of visiting Nan as a child or seaside holidays with Mum and Dad. And sharing with Sue took us both back to school trips when mild exhaustion and forbidden drink took the form of giggly hysteria. But then things took a sinister turn when we decided to Google the meaning of the Latin scrolls on the wallpaper. The best we could come up with translated to the iron hand of blackest terror… Safely cocooned in nostalgia, the discovery of this felt mildly disturbing and for some unfathomable reason we thought it might be prudent to check inside the wardrobe. We grabbed a handle each… tugged. It lurched, then suddenly toppled towards us and a hundred mismatched hangers flew out. Trying to push the thing back upright against the wall and replace the innards made a considerable racket. Likewise the litter bin which seemed placed for musical impact rather than practicality, since the lid bashed the party wall with a resounding boom-tish every time the pedal was depressed. Sensing we might already be unpopular with our fellow companions, we retired early to our flowery beds and stifled our inner schoolgirl.
Sticky Toffee Pudding, the Troutbeck Valley, and Trotting On.
Another day promising sun! Mrs J had already taken our breakfast order the previous evening, but lost the list. When it came down to it, any variation on a full English had her in the iron grip of blackest terror; so we all pitched in. By the time Mike arrived in the pickup to collect us and our bags, we’d cleared the table and said a fond farewell to Mrs J. Back at the showjumping yard, we collected the horses from their overnight grazing and began preparations for day two of the trail. A quick groom, a fresh saddle pad (all of them washed at the end of every day) saddle, saddlebags, breastplate, and the halter left on under the bridle for convenience, with the lead rope secured out of the way using Mike’s special boating knot. I loved day two, perhaps because I was already familiar with much of the area, and as we drew closer to central Lakeland the countryside developed into the classic, rolling English countryside the Lake District is famous for, inspiring not only Wordsworth but also Ruskin, Arthur Ransome, and Beatrix Potter. Plenty of sun and a warm breeze kept light cloud scudding across the fells, highlighting miles of drystone walls and some of those iconic Wainwright summits.
Continue the ride: mybook.to/MyLifeinHorses2
Browsing through an online list of vintage books I came across an ancient, yellowing copy of this book, first published in 1965. I decided I must have it, purely for the sake of nostalgia and, I told myself, pertinent to the writing of my equine diaries. And so I reacquainted myself with the story of Dundreary Riding School and its imminent closure. Narrated partly by eight rebellious inmates it soon becomes clear that the future is not entirely in the hands of their owner, Daisy Dedleigh-Sirkett. Being especially bright, Daisy’s ponies are fully aware that the most desirable outcome lies in acquiring a loving, knowledgable little girl of their own. Of course, all ponies know that little girls are something designed by nature to look after them. Naturally, they dread being sold to an ill-trained, wilful child. In the event of impending disaster along these lines, Old Smoky’s advice is to fully utilise the four equine aids at their disposal: the head, the hooves, the whinny, and the teeth. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, he says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
Smoky goes on to explain that head-shaking is usually enough to dispel small disagreements such as being asked to trot instead of staying in walk, turning left instead of right, and so on. Fix those too-tight reins by stopping to graze; thus allowing the errant child to suddenly shoot forwards and hit the grass. If the child clutches at your mane and begins to kick and scream instead, fling up your head and hit the child smartly on the nose. With exceptionally ill-mannered children it might be necessary to force a temporary separation through swerving, rearing, or bucking. At any chosen moment – preferably in full gallop – simply change course with no warning and the offending child will sail smartly over your withers. Some ponies scamper away after such an event, others choose to consider the matter closed and graze quietly. On the yard, it’s important to draw attention to any instances of neglect by whinnying; instances such as being late with your bucket feed, not noticing an empty hay-net, failing to refresh your water, and so on. If all else fails, a firm nip is always a good reminder of who is in charge. Meanwhile, at The South Dorset Pony Club, there’s a dismounted rally taking place and Miss Nutshell offers some sage advice to the beginners and nervous children. It’s important to seem more confident than you are, she says. And don’t forget… you are in charge.
I begin to wonder just how much ‘training’ I’ve been given over the years without realising! Is ‘being in charge,’ quite so relevant these days? ‘Show him who’s the boss,’ was something I heard throughout the sixties and seventies. The principle is perhaps much the same, although we talk more about Leadership than Mastership in these politically correct times. And as the ponies of Dundreary discover, that point when novice riders became tolerable and gain sufficient equine intelligence (what a wonderful term this is; it suggests that good horsemanship is a satisfactory dovetailing of a concessionary partnership, something I believe in wholeheartedly) they vanish, and buy ponies of their own. And the tiresome learner-rider business begins all over again. How true these sentiments are. And I love that Smoky tempers his advice with the idea that once discrepancies have been settled, the relationship between rider and pony must continue with kindness and consideration. Every pony deserves an owner blessed with a modicum of equine intelligence. I do hope there’s a special place in heaven for all riding-school ponies, fictional and otherwise. They sure deserve it.
Proving that the power of community spirit can change lives…
2019 will see the 50th anniversary of Riding for the Disabled and by way of celebration a campaign called 50 Faces will comprise 50 portrait photographs of people within the entire UK organisation who have challenged the perceptions of disability, volunteering, or equestrian sport.
More on the project here: http://www.rda.org.uk/rda-seeks-50-faces-for-anniversary-project/
In small, relatively unknown RDA communities across the country, there will be more than one face who qualifies for inclusion but of course, not everyone will make the final 50, so it seems an appropriate time and place to bang our own small but very significant drum here in the wild Welsh hills of Henryd, Conwy, North Wales. We’ve created our own special collage: an acknowledgement of each and every individual, including our riders, all the volunteers, the teaching staff and of course, the horses.
Conwy Community Riding Centre. The team of horses – loaned and managed by head instructor Wendy Tobias-Jones at Conwy Community Riding Centre – are of course, key to the entire operation. The mental and physical benefits of horse-riding are far-reaching and it would be impossible to list all the attributes here. And it’s not all about winning rosettes and the more obvious success stories – although there have been plenty of those too, with some of our disabled riders reaching both the regional and national finals in dressage – it can be as simple as participating in something which provides a broader scope for less inward thinking. For some riders their enjoyment can simply be down to enjoying close proximity to the horses and perhaps feeling more aware of the environment. It’s no secret that the companionship of a horse can engage the senses and heighten a feeling of wellbeing in both able-bodied and disabled riders. And for the latter, the physiological affects are doubly beneficial purely by encouraging a different range of movement.
Founder Member of our RDA group Liz Futyan, herself the parent of a disabled daughter, is our longest-serving member. She is currently the safeguarding officer as well as organising many yearly holidays; often taking on all the catering requirements herself (I can vouch for her goat’s cheese tart – in fact, I did hear that one child thought the food was the best part of the holiday. Sorry horses, you’ll have to try harder!)
“I have been involved with RDA since 1985. All the local groups have merged from that period into the present Conwy Gogarth, ” explains Liz.
“There were originally two groups. I started an RDA Group for the children of Ysgol Wern y Wylan, where my daughter Hannah went to school and where I worked as a physio. Hannah was already riding at Bwlch Mawr, where Wendy Tobias-Jones ran a pony club. She loved riding there and I was very keen to get other children with learning disabilities to learn to ride, so I started the Wern y Wylan Group at Glanwyddan. There was already a group there for physically disabled from Ysgol Gogarth which diminished as the disabled moved into standard schools, and Ysgol Wern y Wylan moved into the present school amalgamate with Ysgol Gogarth (and I moved my job into Ysgol Gogarth too) and our corresponding RDA groups also merged. The West Clwyd Group was for adults and that was started at Pinewood, and later changed the name to the Aberconwy Group. When Pinewood closed, we merged the two groups to form the Conwy Gogarth Group we have today at Tanrallt Farm with Wendy Tobias-Jones.”
Do you remember any of the previous groups? Have photos and stories to share? Send them to our Facebook page!
Volunteer! Our workforce is always busiest behind the scenes. Prue Timperly (Conwy RDA charity shop), Carol Moore (secretary, charity shop-shifter and master cake-baker), Peter Davies (permanent loan of a horse to the group and horsebox transport as and when required), Kerri Rockey (Chair trustee), and many, many more. Several volunteers return each week to brave the Welsh weather in order to prepare the horses for lessons, keep the muck heap in good order, and make the tea. Without this network, the RDA wouldn’t exist in Conwy. We work on very limited funds and rely heavily on volunteers – allowing local disabled riders to experience something that would normally be out of their reach, mostly down to the strict health and safety limitations of ordinary riding schools – lots of them now closed due to spiralling insurance premiums and the very real dangers of riding along the roads – and the significant difference in costs.
So although our collage is a special thank you to our local community, it’s also a shout-out to you. If you have a skill set you’d like to share – general dogsbody abilities always welcome. Fundraising would be most desirable and would likely earn celebrity status and extra cake – or, if you know someone who might benefit from riding with us, please get in touch via the RDA Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/conwygogarthrda/
Where do ideas come from? Even if I tell myself I’m done with writing for a while – and I do, frequently – something will eventually worm its way out of my subconscious. This mutation of daydreaming is often coupled with observations of other people and happenings in their lives, as well as my own, until eventually all of these considerations are pulled together and mulled over, like some sort of fictional tombola. And for me, it’s those personal stories which add an extra layer of reality to a work of fiction. Write what you know is all about understanding your subject thoroughly, and preferably having experienced some of it first-hand.
I’ve been working with disabled people through my local RDA (Riding for the Disabled) for some eighteen months. Then earlier this year I was offered the opportunity to train as an assistant to a therapist working for WITH (Welsh Institute of Therapeutic Horsemanship). This is all about people with mental health problems, and the astonishing success of equine therapy relies purely upon the interactions between people and horses. I hope my modest experience adds a touch of reality and richness to the story of Gift Horse.
Of course, I’ve touched on horse-whispering techniques, therapies, and mental health issues in the Midnight Sky series, and part of Gift Horse is a natural continuation of that theme, one which this time connects more directly to my main character. Caroline is a product of her sheltered upbringing. In direct contrast her flat-mate, Niamh, is part of a loud, sprawling Irish family – including the gorgeous but licentious Rory O’Connor; Caroline’s nemesis. Unfortunately, Caroline is intent on pleasing everyone except herself, and there’s a price to pay…
Gift Horse is a contemporary time-slip novel about the choices women make, the healing power of horses, and the devastating consequences of human error.
I tend not to plan too much, other than factual things like dates, and timelines. And I don’t have a messy desk with endless notes stuck to my screen or big notebooks overflowing with complicated scribblings. What I do have is a good instinct for the order of things. I think this comes from reading a lot of good fiction and learning why and how something works; what to hold back, when to reveal, how much to tell, what to show, which scene works best as dialogue, or narrative. This balance will be slightly different for every writer, the literary stamp of personal style?
If there’s a parallel to be drawn between trying to break into commercial publishing and staying true to myself as a writer, then for me it’s the creative freedom to write the books I want to write. So many mainstream books are all following the same trend, and some of them feel like different versions of the same book! This might sound a bit like sour grapes, but I prefer to let a story grow and mature until it’s ready to be picked from the vine, and there’s a tremendous satisfaction in penning a story which is unique to me.
‘Ruth digs up the bones of what really matters to the human psyche and Gift Horse is no exception.’ John Hudspith, Independent Editor.
Imagine living eighteen years of your life around a mistake…
Caroline Walker’s daughter suffers a horrific riding accident. Her distraught parents wonder if she’ll ever walk again, let alone ride. And when Mollie’s blood group is discovered as rare, her husband offers to donate blood. Except Ian is not a match. In fact, it’s unlikely he’s Mollie’s father. Eighteen years previously, Caroline had a one-night stand with Irish rock star, Rory O’Connor. Caroline fell pregnant. Deeply flawed boyfriend, Ian, was overjoyed. And Caroline’s parents were simply grateful that their daughter was to marry into the rich, influential Walker family.
Caroline turns to Rory’s friend Connor; and although his almost spiritual connection with his horses appears to be the balm she needs, Caroline cannot forget Rory, or her youth – both lost to a man she never loved. Eighteen years on and after surviving cancer Rory lives as a virtual recluse in the Welsh mountains. Through his well-meaning but interfering sister, he is shocked to discover he has a teenage daughter. Or does he?
Someone has made a terrible mistake… someone is going to get hurt…
W.I.T.H – Welsh Institute for Therapeutic Horsemanship
How do animal therapies work? Don’t go looking for scientific evidence or hard facts as to why animal therapies work, they just do. Maybe it’s a sixth sense and only tenable if one is open to the idea. After all, communication is key to all forms of life. We do know that horses are a flight animal, reactionary to body language and more than capable of understanding what’s going on inside someone’s head and heart. Friend, or foe? Their survival instinct depends on being able to monitor situations and either look for a means of escape, or seek those beings who offer that safe harbour, a trusted leader. Trust. Once we have trust, we have the foundation to build good relationships, both human and equine. And rehabilitation can be all the richer for being a two-way journey.
When W.I.T.H advertised a course of instruction for freelance assistant equine therapists, I applied immediately. Not only was this the most wonderful opportunity to experience the craft at close quarters, but I felt personally drawn. I passed the initial exam over two intensive weekends, and began to assist fully qualified therapist Jackie Williams at her centre on Anglesey. Bryn Gaseg operates as a satellite partner to the main W.I.T.H base in Portmadog, and is home to a wide variety of equines. Abused, neglected, misunderstood. It’s a well-known fact that getting back to nature can offer a healing balm to those minds and bodies disadvantaged by modern life. Jackie has taken this concept a step further by introducing wild or broken horses to help heal broken people. It may sound ambitious and unlikely, but Williams is adept at bringing the right combination of horse and human together, to create new bonds of trust, hope, and mutual respect. Horses which have been abused can regain trust in us in much the same way an abused human can. And those wild Carneddau colts which have been removed from the mountain and hold no preconceptions of humans or equine practices, are perhaps the most interesting participants, because their interactions are pure.
Ted’s story: a worried horse who had been asked to do a job which was perhaps beyond his capabilities or maybe he’d just been confused by his role – meets Miss X, a young person suffering with PTSD. Miss X was an introvert and found interacting with anyone quite painful. Six weeks of being encouraged along the road of confidence with Ted at her side, proved that these types of therapies are not only unique but extremely powerful. As a fairly gung-ho well-balanced sort of person, I was quite unprepared for how these sessions would affect me. A good few days after the final session I was relating the story of Miss X to my husband – and I burst into tears. How could something so simple as a horse shadowing a sad girl connect so deeply within? Our busy lives are crammed with so much negative stuff that often the answer to our problems is to just be. And horses know how to do that.
Sapphire’s story. The wild Carneddau pony with blue eyes had been ostracised by the main herds for a long time and wasn’t doing too well. It’s something of a mystery why this mare was shunned, but we think her poor eyesight may have much to do with the herds’ strict list of criteria for survival. After a few months of basic nurturing, ‘Saffy’ has been physically transformed, although she remains shy. Williams is keen to keep her ‘wildness’ and avoid over-familiarity, in order to add genuine authenticity to those therapy sessions.
The frustrations of the job are mostly funding, or lack of. (WITH lost some of its funding and so sadly, freelance work dried up for me some time ago) And, because this is a relatively new area, anyone can set themselves up as an ‘equine therapist’ with a couple of horses and plenty of bluff, and so possible exploitation of the craft is always concerning. As well as equestrian knowledge and experience, and a deep understanding of equine body language, what else does it really take? Empathy and observation are paramount skills as a therapist; as is an ability to be able to allow someone the mental, emotional, and physical space of self-discovery and empowerment.
WITH is a pioneering charity based in Portmadog, which aims to help disadvantaged individuals from North Wales and the wider community to improve their health and well-being through equine-assisted, educational and recreational activities. We work with individuals of all ages, many of whom face multiple disadvantages and might never have the opportunity to spend time around horses. Our unique method pairs clients with rescued horses for mutual gaining of trust and respect, and hope for a better future.
More information; book a course of sessions, sponsor a pony or become a volunteer: WWW.with.wales
More information on the annual gathering of the Carneddau ponies: https://janruth.com/2018/11/05/the-big-picture/
Loved and despised in equal measure, the annual Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria describes itself as an annual gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in the town of Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria, England. A fair has been held every year in early June since 1685 when King James II granted a Royal charter allowing a horse fair by the River Eden. The tradition of washing the horses in the river prior to the sales, is one which attracts huge crowds. Some aspects are fun and the scene is certainly colourful, but like most events which have grown too big and too modern beyond the original concept, Appleby Horse Fair doesn’t always showcase the best examples of horsemanship… or mankind.
Just when you think you know everything about a subject, along comes someone to blow apart a lifetime of assumptions.
Monty Roberts’ father was virtually destroyed by his son’s belief in ‘horse-whispering’, as a far more humane and less exhausting method of breaking and training horses. It’s no secret that Monty took a severe beating for it. A remarkable man, Roberts went on to foster disadvantaged children, using much the same wisdom and insight he’d learnt through studying horses and their social groups in the wild. It’s too easy – and often misguided – to bestow animals with human emotion, but maybe trust is rooted in the same place in humans as in horses, and observation and interpretation is all that’s required to make a valuable connection, regardless of language. And isn’t whispering usually far more effective than shouting? Much the same as writing good fiction; and if we’re talking analogies there’s nothing worse than clunky dialogue. Is Natural Horsemanship simply natural dialogue?
Guido Louis Leidelmeyer: “In the words of the horse: ‘Listen’ by observing me, and communication between us will come naturally and silently. In my words: Can I help you do that?”
As with most things that work well, it’s based on a simple concept of alignment with nature. Horses like to hang in a crowd (herd), follow the leaders – usually the older mares – and be out in the open simply because if there’s a predator, they’re more likely to bolt, than stand and fight. That’s about it. If a horse is singled out he is more likely to turn to us without fear or aggression once he comes to realise that we are not predatory, and as a surrogate leader can offer the ultimate protection. And that’s where the ‘following’ or ‘joining-up’ comes in.
This principle works with wild/un-handled horses as well as re-training by reiterating the relationship of horse and leader for equines who have formed bad habits, or those with anxiety issues. Actually, most bad habits stem from anxiety and a lack of leadership. It’s a little like your pet dog – and dare I say children, too? – needing to know their safe and secure place in the family pack, although the body language between dogs and horses is rather different. Flattened ears in a dog is more likely to mean subservient greetings whereas a horse … well, watch out!
Not everyone agrees that these principles are quite so cut and dried, and as is often the case with a lot of unquantified skills, there is perhaps some sixth-sense at work gleaned from years of experience. There are many equine behavourists who claim the ‘following’ principle is flawed. But the proof is in the pudding. I’ve watched Guido use these techniques on a couple of riding-school horses – both of whom he’d never ‘met’ – with amazingly fast results: 20 minutes to resolve a problem with electric clippers on a mare which had for some 12 years, aggressively avoided the issue. The owner was quite rightly, open-mouthed. But the problem isn’t solved in its entirety, as Guido explained: Tilly’s owner needed to learn and understand the process for herself, and as is the case with most success stories, a certain measure of self-belief is required. It’s this psychological leadership which is perhaps where the sixth-sense bridges that gap between human and equine.
I think we can also safely assume that nothing much in life is achieved through bullying or force, certainly cooperation would be bottom of the list so far as horses are concerned; and there’s no way we’d win any kind of fight with an animal quite so strong and fleet of foot as a Lusitano stallion. Yes, Guido’s horses are compliant, but they are also as naturally spirited as they are trusting. Once that bond of trust is formed, the sky’s the limit; demonstrated in perhaps more extreme style by Guido’s stunt riding – swinging beneath galloping horses and leaping fire is pretty spectacular to watch. Some of these moves were developed from Cossack riding, which in turn originated from wartime ploys to fool the enemy.
Guido has an interesting, somewhat unconventional history too. From humble beginnings in a circus, he’s achieved worldwide acclaim in a number of disciplines: Cossack riding in Germany, the formation of Rockin’ Horse Productions, top trainer for the Royal Cavalry in Oman… I’m sure there’s a novel in there! Horses have been a lifetime’s passion for me. No surprise that they feature in most of my novels, more so in MIDNIGHT SKY and PALOMINO SKY. Both books draw on the principles of horse-whispering and the power of self-belief – but I take on this theme in a fictional sense rather than a technical sense. It’s so easy to swamp the narrative with too much unwanted detail. And yet, it’s the minutiae of life which underpins the storyline in PALOMINO SKY. As with horse-whispering, it’s the observation of perhaps something seemingly inconsequential which can change an entire situation. If you’re not horse savvy or enjoy only a passing interest, I’ve tried to portray the equine aspect as secondary to the storyline in these books. On the other hand, horse enthusiasts will hopefully embrace the setting.
I do wish my mother wouldn’t answer the door or phone in my absence with, ‘Oh, she’s not in, she’s riding Tom.’
Most callers probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but I can guess that the postman probably smirked. Let me tell you about my love affair with Tom. He’s so tall I have to stand on a box to mount him. He’s very dark, apart from a couple of white socks, very male, and impossibly handsome but he knows this, so that’s possibly a minus. He always smells divine too, although I appreciate this is an acquired taste. He ran away with me once, and you might think that an incredibly romantic thing to do, but Tom’s idea of excitement was tearing hell for leather across open parkland whilst I danced that crazy line between exhilaration and terror.
Tom is, of course, a horse. A Thoroughbred-Welsh cross, no less. I’m not new to riding horses but Tom sometimes makes it feel like the first time… I should probably stop with the double entendres now, but in some ways I can draw comparisons with riding beyond middle-age, with getting back into writing from a long, dormant absence. Getting back into the saddle as an author has been challenging, sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding, much like my obsession with horses.
I thought I’d reached the finishing line about twenty-five years ago when my third attempt at a novel (Wild Water) attracted the interest of an agent. If you are a self-published author yourself, you can probably guess the rest of the story. I fell ‘between genres’. The experience was not unlike hurtling across a cross-country course, bravely leaping the enormous fences, not always with style but nevertheless safely over, even to a smatter of applause here and there, before stumbling over an inconsequential rut in the ground, to fall between a rock and a hard place a few feet before the winning post, no podium, not even a mention, despite the glory of the race.