A week or two ago, in the same week two people asked to learn more about my life and equestrian journey. I had to admit that I don’t usually talk about my personal life (other than animal stories), but my point of view does come through the subjects that I’ve written about over the past 20 plus years. These kind peoples’ questions started me thinking, though…how did it come to pass that I became an equestrian journalist, author of a training manual best-selling in its Amazon category for nearly 10 years, blogger and publisher? Looking back, my experiences all unfolded and just took on a life of their own. I was looking for something better, something I couldn’t describe other than I did find that over time, I knew it when I saw it.
As the cliche goes, “it all started…” when for some reason that I can’t even really remember now, I decided I wanted an Andalusian horse. I’d had various breeds in the past, a few times because someone just gave me a horse they didn’t want. In this way I owned grade horses, quarter horses, an Arabian, and an off the track Thoroughbred, a granddaughter of Northern Dancer who inherited his terrible temperament and was a terror on four legs. She didn’t stop trying to throw me off for six years. In my quest for the very expensive Andalusian, however, that I could not afford in its purebred state, I started small and mistakenly.
I bred that perpetually angry Thoroughbred mare to the many-times-over champion Andalusian stallion who had the best temperament in the U.S. The Russian roulette didn’t work out…her filly was born with her mother’s temperament, times two. I sold this filly and her mother and tried another part-bred Andalusian filly. She was perfectly docile, but there was something missing, that thing I was looking for. By accident, but most fortunately, I ended up with my Andalusian Val, who was a two-year-old colt and only 600 pounds when he arrived at my door 22 years ago. He was sweet, kind and biddable, even as the stallion he grew to be. He has continued to be my muse, as he was from the beginning, because of his extreme intelligence and amazing disposition.
But there was still something missing…my knowledge. I had owned and ridden and cared for all these horses before Val, and now I wanted something better for him. And for me. But what was it? I’d had no instruction to speak of, and my success with horses over my riding career was due to my constant study of horses and equitation on my own. I wanted my horses to enjoy whatever we did together as much as I did. When I looked around, I often saw people pushing and pulling on horses who were often stressed-looking, if not downright frightened and confused. I didn’t want to be that person.
Then one day I saw this book by the wonderful British author Sylvia Loch; my soul shouted “THAT’S what I want!”
What was it, though? The portrait showed the loose reins of the western riding I knew, without the pushing and pulling of the tight dressage reins I saw today. The horse had a focused expression without the anxiety so often displayed on the part of the horse. He had a proud posture, and was carrying himself and his rider with power and poise. The rider’s aids were invisible. He seemed to be just sitting there and his well-trained, confident horse seemed to be doing everything himself.
What this was, was classical dressage, and a horse in self-carriage.
At this time, more than 20 years ago, Sylvia Loch was the main modern writer on classical equitation who was accessible to the American audience, and this was because Trafalgar Square Books was the American sister publishing house to J.A. Allen Books in the U.K.. Trafalgar, who later became my own publisher, did the printing and distribution of Sylvia’s books and DVDs in the U.S. I bought everything Sylvia wrote or did and started studying this new method.
I attended a local dressage clinic, and because I was a writer, was asked to do a clinic review for California Riding Magazine. They liked it so much they immediately offered me my own column. Suddenly I was a journalist, and whatever I found of value in my journey, I could share the best with more and more people as other magazines asked for feature articles. Soon I was traveling around Europe at my own cost because my need for knowledge was so urgent, meeting master trainers and watching them work. What did they show that I liked? The same classical balance and self-carriage in their horses that I loved in Sylvia’s book cover portrait.
The French trainer and author Michel Henriquet became a special inspiration on the day I interviewed him at his home outside Versailles when he told me about the School of Versailles run by the King’s ecuyers at the Grand Ecurie of the Chateau Versailles. He described the teaching there as having been the zenith of fine horsemanship, which ended with the French Revolution. I was absolutely fascinated by this idea and read everything I could find about this School and its legacy. Unfortunately, there was precious little to find. So over time I started doing my own research to find out more about what happened at the School of Versailles.
I have upcoming projects to share on this work that was standard in its day, but is foreign today. I think these will be my last projects and I will retire my pen.
Suddenly I was an author, traveling to the Netherlands to watch a friend train her Andalusian stallions several times, and writing up and photographing what I was watching and learning. Well, it wasn’t suddenly, it was a huge effort and took an aggregate of a couple of years. It was a tremendous satisfaction to hold the first printed book in my hands, however!
As time went on, suddenly I became an equestrian magazine editor for a year. That was a lot of fun, but through that experience I could see there was now less interest in classical dressage in the U.S. audience. The other mainstream equestrian magazines wanted fewer feature articles and then they started going out of business or downsizing their scopes, turning more to advertising and advertorials in terms of content. I wasn’t interested in that, so I started my own website to reprint my favorite articles and continue to write new material that I hoped would inspire readers to investigate classical traditions for themselves. “Classical” is a tradition that has stood the test of time, so the classical arts don’t need to be improved upon. As more time went on, the masters with whom I corresponded, who all had as their first commandment “put the horse first,” retired or passed away. With each of these events, the classical legacy seemed to lose allure, visibility and following.
Suddenly I published a book for another author and coached an author in self-publishing her own book. Both of these authors had written memoirs about their own remarkable equestrian journeys. It was a great pleasure to be part of making a book and although I am told fairly frequently that people hate reading, which I can’t actually understand, making books is right up there in satisfaction for me. And I continue to keep my website up because it’s a place for people to go to read about the best.
Which brings me to my latest project, “Foundations of Horsemanship: Understanding the Nature of Horses and Their Progressive Education In-Hand” which I have edited and re-printed with permission of the family of the Irish author, the Marquis Mac Swiney of Mashanaglass. I purchased this out-of-print book, which was previously published by J.A. Allen in 1989 under the title “Training From the Ground: A Special Approach,” because I thought it might be a good resource for any future project of mine concerning in-hand work.
But when I started reading the out-of-print book and got a few pages in, I actually put it down and thought “Everyone should read this book! I don’t know anyone who knows everything in this book and that includes me, after a lifetime of study!” The perspective of the author comes from deep love and consideration for the physical, emotional, and yes, spiritual, welfare of the horse. He writes about the sensory world of the horse compared to the human’s, and emphasizes taking the time to educate a young horse, or one needing retraining, about the human world and what it requires him to understand if he is going to become a confident equine partner.
What comes through in this book is the difference between “training” and “education.” Training often is done without the horse understanding; he is made to submit and do what he must to try to figure out what his rider or handler want, and satisfy them. However, when a horse is educated, the understanding and knowledge both become his. The experiences he has and what he learns from at the hands of his “educator” become part of his foundation from which to continue to learn and develop. What also comes through, to me, in this book is the gap between the love the author has and the love that many people don’t seem to have for the horses in their hands. Rather, these horses seem to be more like, well, objects used to gain satisfaction for the human.
I was so touched by this book and the ideas within that I brought it to you to share. I realize now that I made a mistake in retitling it “Foundations of Horsemanship” because it seems to be that few people today feel that they need to know foundations of horsemanship. Yet to me, many people today don’t know one end of a horse from the other. And especially they don’t know how horses experience their own natural world and what they must do to conform to the human world which is as different to them as to humans, Mars is to our Earth. We remove their natural environment and their natural social life from their reach, and what do they have?
That is a good question. Because if he does not have your love, he has to face this strange, often frightening world of ours alone.