I am freshly home from the wonderful Dressage by the Sea at Willinga Park. What an amazing setting for this year’s FEI World Cup Pacific League Final. Roger Fitzhardinge asked me one morning after I had ridden my horse for arena familiarisation, “What motivates you to get up early and do this, fitting it in around work and all the other things you do, year after year?”
The first answer that came to mind I discounted as too trite, so I gave him a longwinded reply about training a succession of Grand Prix horses. But I want to set the record straight. The reason I get up early and work so hard to fit in my riding is because of the love I have for horses, especially my own riding horses.
I love to see my horses in the morning and care for them. I love that they recognise me and seem to want to see me – even if it’s because they know that I have carrots in my pockets, especially since I have become more committed to positive reinforcement training.
I love to get to know them as individuals, their quirks and likes and dislikes. I love to get to know how they react to new things. All horses are naturally curious, but some are braver in approaching things, some are more timid, and some are quick to run away. Some seem to want to do the right thing, some are grumpier and need to be helped to learn that, really, they do want to do the right thing.
I love to help them become strong and gymnastic, see them become more beautiful as the correct work muscles them up and they become rounder, more powerful. A well-trained horse becomes more confident in themselves, and sometimes a clearer personality shines through as the horse matures.
The thing I love the most is building a relationship with a horse. Trust is the foundation of all relationships, the way I see it. I want my horses to feel safe and secure with me. I want them to feel that I am someone who helps organise their experience – a secure base to explore from and a safe haven to come back to if they are stressed. I want to be attuned to their experience so that I can respond to them in a sensitive and reciprocal way. As I become attuned to them, they will become attuned to me. I will be able to get a reaction to a smaller aid or signal to get a response.
A young riding horse learns to stop and go and turn from signals with the reins and the legs. As you train a dressage horse to respond to the subtler aids to build balance, suppleness and obedience, they become more attuned to you, the rider. They come to respond to the half-halt, that I understand as like a ripple of energy across the horse. First, a little balance with the rein and second, a moment of push with the legs followed by a softening to encourage him to find self-carriage with the little bit of energy you have created.