Today was such a day! Windy, noisy - trees swaying loudly - a rush of air - everywhere. After some work in the school - all rather exciting - we braved the wind and went for a hack. At times like this you keep your wits about you... so many distractions, sounds, wind in the mane and in the ears... and spooks! My boy may be approaching his 19th Birthday... but he is as active and forward as ever - although tires more easily. Out on a long stretch of grassy track, as usual he wanted to fly - fast. First in trot, then in canter. The worse thing with forward-going horses is to pull - they than have something to pull against. No, the best way of containing all that impulsion and power is to sit as central as you can and let your weight DROP. Yes drop. Don't let your own energy get directed back in an already energetic horse, don't grip, don't pull back, don't lean back. Just drop your weight. More into the ball of the foot than the heel. Then, another little trick - push the rein back at him. Towards the base of the neck; even against the neck. If your reins are the correct length this has an immediate calming effect. Try it and see. Gravity is far more powerful than you think and it calms the horse and contains him.
Further to the last section of News, Sylvia's letter to Horse and Hound was published this week.
"I am a keen supporter of all equestrian disciplines and have a huge love and admiration of the horse. I have been lucky enough to live near Sylivia Loch in the Scottish Borders and seen at first hand her wonderful Classical Riding Club demonstrations at Ladykirk. An inspiration to all that have watched them. The importance of good riding, through the education of the riders at any level is paramount to the protection of the horse. To watch a horse enjoy his work in harmony with his rider is both elegant, exciting and beautiful to watch. I was thrilled to accept the roll of Ambassador and look forward to seeing the Classical Riding Club grow from strength to strength and to learn more myself about the empathy between horse and rider."
I have to say I was mildly surprised. Then, the more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became. A new post on our CRC Facebook had basically poo-hooed the concept of biomechanics in riding. Whether they meant human biomechanics or equine, was initially hard to determine, although it soon became clear they meant the latter. What surprised me was this was the musings of an advanced level trainer and at first, quite a few of the trail followers seemed to agree ... 'oh yes, I ride by feel'....or - 'thinking about it too much can get in the way'.. or words to that effect.
How different from the philosophy of the old Masters! "Equitation is confessedly a science; every science is founded upon principles so theory must indispensably be necessary, because what is truly just and beautiful cannot depend upon chance." These are the words of one of England's pre-eminent horsemen, the Earl of Pembroke, penned in l778. His book Military Equitation still contains many techniques which we use in the schooling of horses for dressage today and there is an excellent article relating to this very practical horseman in the CRC archives. Indeed, many authorities before and since have echoed his wise words.
As a teenager, breaking and schooling horses and ponies often bought at auction and turning them into suitable riding school mounts, I admit I had never heard of the Earl of Pembroke, let alone more modern Masters such as Podhajsky or Oliveira. What I did have was the Pony Club Manual - my 'bible' - put together by educated cavalry officers for the young of the day. Quite simply, it gave me some very good pointers. It also helped me to teach - which, don't laugh - I was doing every weekend, aged just 16. My l960 version of this precious handbook was far superior to those dumbed-down versions that followed over the decades. It included the aids for turn on the haunches and for flying changes - now considered far too advanced even for AI students - and its painstaking advice on the rider's hands was admirable. I tried to follow all this to the letter and taught the same.
So why this issue with theory? I get the impression that for the many who ride and compete today, there are so many books and articles to choose from, the doctrine gets muddied and muddled along the way. Often, it's easier to talk about 'feeling' rather than establishing proven principles especially if the so-called trainer or writer is a little hazy themselves. I can only conclude this may explain a noticeable disparity in the riding methods of one school compared to another. Without the 'basics' being put in place, contradictions and confusions may follow.
So what exactly is biomechanics? As one author* puts it 'Biomechanics is the mechanics of living systems and differs from the mechanics of inanimate objects. The latter concept concerns the effect of a force on an inanimate object. In biomechanics, this pure mechanical functioning is modifed by the effect of gravity on muscular actions, the nerves, voluntary muscle control, automatic and learned patterns of movement' etc etc.....' In my humble opinion, the way in which we as riders impact on the horse beneath us is immensely relevant to all riding, surely? Our weight, the action of our hands and legs, our seat in the saddle and so on all create an effect. We would be very unfeeling riders if we failed to appreciate that everything we do has a consequence. So is it really fair to the horse not to have some notion of biomechanics particularly if we are going to take it upon ourselves to train?
Some may argue it's more rewarding to get all personal and feel ones way around a horse, experimenting with this and that and gradually getting there all on our own. I think that would be fine if the horse was an inaminate object, but to pursue a trial and error path with a sentient being risks souring his goodwill and may do real damage. Indeed, you would have to be exceptionally gifted to take a horse to Grand Prix dressage or at least school him to advanced movements without a fairly comprehensive idea of the biomechanics. And as to training others - even if you yourself, have a natural gift for schooling horses, how would you impart it to others less gifted than yourself?
My first insight into the subject was when I read a book called Thinking Riding by the late Molly Sivewright, Fellow of the British Hose Society who not only ran one of the most successful riding schools in England, but who had trained with the best abroad. Having also taken horses to GP level, she was well qualified to write on the subject and the thing that grabbed me in my own early career was the infallibility of one of those laid down rules.
This concerned the role of the rider's leg on the girth to create impulsion, to lift the forehand, and to bend the horse as and when required, all based on - you've guessed! - biomechanics. The author suggests that a good instructor will take time to explain these matters off the horse as well as on. For example, 'We must explain... that the intercostal nerve is nearest to the surface [of the skin] just in front of the girth, halfway between the lower edge of the saddle-flap and the horse's elbow. This nerve instigates an arching reaction om the horse's lumbar verebrae, as well as a strong forward reach of the hindleg on the same side.' For that reason students should never be allowed to kick or spur for forwardness well behind the girth - and yet even at higher dressage, I have seen more than one so-called 'advanced' rider using stronger and stronger legs halfway down the horse's trunk to try to get a reaction. If only someone had told them where to apply pressure and just as important - where not to! It doesn't take a lot of working out to realise that when the leg is applied too far back...forward movement is diverted.
To sum up, if you want to ride in the best way possible for your horse, you need to work with him. In other words, your aids should create a natural and spontaneous response. It worries me greatly that that those age-old, proven methods - all based on biomechanics - are not available to all. I guess that was one of the reasons I started The Classical Riding Club. As I wrote in my latest book** - 'With the demise of cavalry, traditional principles [based on biomechanics] have all but disappeared and riding has gone through many changes, not always for the better. Contradictory advice is everywhere. Different countries now promote different styles, while teachers of little experience or understanding of the entire spectrum, abound. With the emphasis not so much about how to ride, but rather on what you ride, the aids are often forgotten'.... Whilst correct aiding can liberate the horse, incorrect aiding can exert a very adverse effect.
To conclude, unless your trainer has a reasonably good grasp of the biomechanics of riding, I would be seriously worried. There must always be a reason for a particular action of the seat, hand or leg but unless that person can explain how and why it affects your horse, you might do better to brush up on your literature instead. There are some very good classic books out there, both old and modern and you might like to start by browsing through the CRC libraries. Good luck!
* Equine Biomechanics for Riders by Karin Blignault
** The Balanced Horse by Sylvia Loch
Carl Hester's Horse & Hound comment is always good value and can cause controversy. So it would seem from the activities of Twitter and Facebook in recent days and what seemed a fairly harmless remark was seized upon and then (to my mind) taken out of context in the Letters Page the following week. This has caused something of a furore in some quarters and it will be interesting to see if Horse & Hound publishes any more letters this forthcoming week, i.e. on Thursday, 15th January. Here we reproduce the Comment and the Letter - with the latter of which, we firmly disagree. As regards a closer look at the interpretation of the FEI ruling - clearly Carl has made a good point, since too many confuse the height of the horse's crest with the height of the poll - and this is regrettable. CRC's position is that this calls for better clarification on biomechanical issues at judge training - as opposed to a change in the Rules themselves.
This is the letter by Dr Susan Kempson which was published in Horse and Hound, 5th February 2015.
'I am writing to support Carl Hester's request to the FEI that the rule of the poll being the highest point for a dressage horse be removed. Looking at the photographs of the dressage horses in the same edition, only one had the poll as the highest point. This horse was the one who looked the most unhappy.
Anatomically, the only way a horse can fully engage and move through his back is with the neck round and the head very slightly behind the vertical. Watching all the top dressage horses, including the magical Valegro, the poll is never the highest point.
As I watched the horses at Aachen last Summer, there was only one with the poll as the highest point, and his head and neck had been pulled backwards. It was horrible to watch as the horse was clearly very unhappy.
Despite this, he did receive good marks from the judges. It is definitely time this was removed from the FEI rules.'
It is with great regret that we learn of the passing of Geoffrey Gibson. As well as being a Master Saddler, he was a very able horseman, who insisted on sympathy and tact at all times and was well versed in the precepts and principles of classical horsemanship. As a trusted friend, he rode regularly at my stables in Suffolk in the early 90s and was an enthusiastic supporter of The Classical Riding Club when we first started up in January, 1995.
GEOFFREY GIBSON. 1930 - 2015
I have to thank John Lewis for sending me the details from The EDP of the death of this great Equitation Master and Master Saddler. My trainer between the 1970's and 80's. Photograph taken of Geoffrey, during this time with Palomo, Sylvia Loch's beloved horse.
I would like to pay my sincere respects to this man. Who had the discipline of the Masters of That era. Did not adhere to quick fixes, and instilled in me the art of dedicated training.
A generous but very strict teacher, he would buy me books from Allens book shop in London, this gave me a vast catalogue to help me. Until I looked in the front cover, where he would add a note of his own. Usually berating my equestrian shortfalls.
I learnt so much from this great man, who new so many great masters himself, and past on everything he could to me. I will remain always in his debt. Many of the sayings and the way I teach today, came from him. If at any time you think me strict. Then you have to know what I came from.
Sincerely and sadly felt. Sue Barber, Pinelodge Equestrian Cenre, Norfolk
Most of us know about War Horse the stunning play, later made a film - of Warrior and his soldier owner from Devon. But there is another horse crying out for recognition. Equally incredible, the story of The Sikh, a Thoroughbred mare that belonged to Lt. A. C. Vicary of the Gloucestershire Regiment has come to light. The courage and sheer tenacity of this beautiful horse, with her white blaze and two white socks is mind-boggling. Dodging artillery fire and bombing on the Western Front she worked tirelessly for the allies for almost four years - first in Belgium, and finally ending up in Russia. But that's not the end of the story. The amazing thing is - despite all they had gone through together, she walked most of her way home. Her courageous master went on to be awarded a Military Cross and two Distinguished Service Order medals. At the end of the war, their long tour took them through Turkey, Greece, Italy and France... a journey quite unimaginable today. If you want to know more - tap into the Daily Express website - the story ran on Thursday January 22nd. I think CRC Members might help calls for a Petition to commemorate her through the War Museum. Something to think about to show you care....
It's not easy throwing away notebooks, papers, photos, posters, folders, old programmes and countless cards and letters that were never thrown away before because they were too precious! My office is stuffed with these un-throwable things and most will probably move with me, when eventually I move south. Still, some things have to go. For reasons of space if nothing else.
The passage of time does not help of course because although one loses count and the boxes and files get heavier and grow in number... as more and more is added, they also grow in importance. The past is the past and no one can replace it; but all this memorabilia brings back memories galore - and theories too - and it is these which are so difficult to chuck!
But I am learning to be brutal. The books I will never give up, the diaries will be kept for my lifetime - I always feel it important to put a date on something, as my brain needs to work in a fairly orderly way as I'm one of these people who needs that to make sense of things and put them in perspective. But the letters are something else. Some will have to go.
I do not envy the spouse of any writer. Fiction writers may get away without a big library, not so those who are fascinated by history, especially the history of riding. Of course, if I was writing about the discipline of motor racing, it would all be so much easier. One would only be dealing with at the most 100 years. Not so with riding. Riding goes back over several millenia and the training of horses with it. That's what makes it so fascinating. I'm a real sucker for it!
And what about research?? Well, all of my 8 books have been written, so I could - I guess... part with some of the research stuff.
So YES!!! I am NOW about to offer a folder of American horsey stuff to the wider public. I wonder who's out there?
Whoever is happy to pay for the postage may have this... with a small donation to CRC for the privilege of us taking the trouble to pack it up and send! It's a real mixture on the old American breeds. For a start, newsletters for the Spanish Mustang dating back to the 1984s, a booklet on the American Quarter Horse edited by Charles W Conrad 1968, correspondence from Gilbert H Jones of Oklahoma who ran the Southwest Spanish Mustang Association in the '80s and a great article about the same gentleman, all roped up and ready to saddle up from the Daily Oklahoma, November 4, 1985. There are notes from the Alamo Paso Horse Group, plus a great article from the Peruvian Horse Review, and for me one of the most fascinating, the National Geographic's stunning article 'Following Cortes' Path to Conquest' by Jeffrey K Wilkerson, 1984. For dressage enthusiasts, The Evolution of the Training Methods of the Peruvian Horse is fascinating as is The Horse in the History and Traditions of Peru by Dr Juan Valera-Lema. This surely is a must for some of you. Towards the back I read from the American Quarter Horse Association the words of President C Norris who starts his review of these special horses in the US by stating ...'Last year was a difficult year as the sluggish economy touched almost every industry...' Well, that sounds very modern. I see that nothing changes!
This is just the start of my Library Downsizing. I will keep you informed if other STUFF I can bear to part with comes to light. I will say this to any writer out there. You have to be inspired to write about horses in my opinion. It's not a case of just leaping on the internet. There's nothing like holding a letter in your hand from someone, somewhere far across the world who loves these horses and has bothered to help you with your investigations. A tattered and torn magazine article comes to life in your hand far more than a screen grab. A face smiling out of a faded newspaper 30 years old touches your heart. With treasures like these, you are away! Is there anyone out there?
I can't believe that this very untechnical (when it comes to the web) Author is actually posting her first Blog! Hooray!! Previously, with the old site... everything got sent by email to our Admin who kindly put items up for me. Now, I am blogging solo for the first time! Of course people who are used to me on Facebook will wonder what the difference is. Actually quite a lot, but no matter... I feel liberated, away!! So this is the end of a week which saw me motoring down to Hadleigh in East Anglia last Saturday - a good 6 hour journey from where we live in Scotland - to give a Talk that evening (over a glass of wine) about CRC Dressage and a whole different system of judging. Although just an informal event - almost 50 enthusiasts in all tutned up and there was a great atmosphere followed by a lively question time. The main spur seemed to be that the CRC mark-sheets concentrate on the overall picture, rather than getting too tied up on - say - the specifics of turning down the centre line too soon or too late, or 'circle not quite 10m' etc, etc. We also allot a larger proportion of the marks to Rider Position, which means people can score up to 8s, 9s or 10s if they have a good seat, don't over-use the leg and don't pull on the horse's mouth!! On the Sunday, I was set to work to judge BD tests with CRC marksheets. A great show had been organised by Water Farm's proprietors, Gerdie and Chryssie Warner, the indoor school was immaculate and a good mixture of horses and riders turned up. Intro, 2 Prelims and 2 Novice tests were on the menu. I'd been co-erced into judging all 4 - so we didn't finish until well into the afternoon, but despite the January chill, there was a warm feeling of achievement from everyone who took part - I especially enjoyed the young horses.
No peace for the wicked on the Monday. I drove to Stansted to collect Angela Hinnigan the Club Secretary and Admin who had valiantly got up at 5am to catch an early plane from Edinburgh. After a small argument re parking - 'Sylvia this is England, not Scotland!!' - we headed for Matt Lovejoy's office - to meet up and engage with the new WEBSITE. This, as you will have gathered, couldn't be more different from the old one, and although Angela and I (in our different capacities) have been working behind the scenes on it for months... the final lay-out took our breath away. Matt has done so well, and got it just as we always wanted... but didn't think possible... and once I OK'd all the photos and final menu, I left it to the two computer buffs to sort the last minute minutae. Not an easy task and you could almost hear the little grey cells ticking away... but finally, we were talking about Launch Day for sure by the Wednesday and the EXCITEMENT was tangible.
Needless to say, the whole family - Angela's and mine - hardly got to bed that night. So much to check, see and enjoy... and FB was humming.
On Thursday, I was driving back to Scotland, another 6 hours behind the wheel and today it's been catching up with all the emails and pms that have flooded in... PLUS (equally important) riding my lovely Luso who had missed his Mum apparently. This morning as the sun drifted over the Tweed and peeped between the huge oaks and beeches in our wood I was rewarded by the most beautiful sight (not site...for once!) A tall young buck, dark of skin, with a white bottom and two little baby horns sticking up on a beautiful head, stood sentinel on the crest of the hill just 15 metres away. He stared at us... as they do with horses - not realising the threat, but before Prazer had spotted him too (the last time involved too many caprioles and pirouettes for comfort - not good amongst low branches)I managed to turn his head in the opposite direction and we went safely back down the path in the direction of the stables. Wonderful! As I said, it's been quite a week!
"Do national federations actively place welfare at the heart of their strategies? " Question posed by Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, at recent FEI general assembly. WHW has been an advisor to FEI for 30 years - welfare integral to growth of equestrian sport. The article questions if the sport is doing enough to help itself? The FEI code of conduct dictates that the welfare of the horse should be paramount, above all other considerations. "But do we really do this?" asked Roly... "It's no secret that some FEI disciplines have come under the spotlight for dubious welfare," he added. "There are some clear red lines - equine doping, excessive injury rates, preventable fatalities and a general flouting of the rules are quite simply flagrant abuses of equine welfare." Encouraging the horse sport to use social media more effectively and proactively as it is becoming a greater influence and viewers worldwide will not tolerate abuse of animals for entertainment. Horse welfare needs to be top priority for national federations.