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.
Viewers will be able to choose whether or not they would like to choose commentary during televised competitions on the BBC. This is following the commentary for the Olympia freestyle where several complaints were received. BBC have said it may be too early to be specific about Rio 2016, but that "wherever possible" the broadcaster will nownbe offering the option of a non - commentary feed for freestyle dressage shown on the red button.
The internet has really changed things for everyone – the understatement of the decade. But seriously, as a professional horsewoman - it makes one think. Looking back over a career of teaching that has (embarrassingly) scanned over 5 decades ...with a few breaks in between, I often wonder how we ever managed to make it out there without it?
Word of mouth is and always was a great thing if one just wanted to teach generally, school or take in livery horses locally. No matter how accomplished or efficient however, one rarely got ‘known’ unless you passed an inordinate amount of expensive exams or were talented enough out at the shows to be noticed by a magazine such as Horse & Hound. In days gone by this latter truly represented the alpha and omega of the entire British horse system – whatever the discipline.
Even then, success as an instructor or ‘trainer’ was often more about competition results. Yet talent to impart knowledge and clarify does not necessarily depend upon cups won, places on a team earned or top horses. It’s often more to do with communication and understanding - with the ability to step back and observe, before picking up on the salient points to advise others. It’s also about improving the person in the saddle as well as the horse – although even today we still see too many instructors who only attempt to correct the ‘dumb animal’.
I have always thought the saying ‘If you can – do; if you can’t teach!’ to be rather unfair. It generally requires rather more intelligence and experience to pass knowledge onto another person than simply doing things that come to one naturally. Clearly a good teacher will have a wide, all-encompassing knowledge of horses – of all types and of all shapes and size. They must also understand that people can be as difficult as horses – and while some learn quickly, others may be less supple, fit or lacking in feel.
When it comes to dressage training – more specific skills are required. Without understanding the nature and biomechanics of the horse, there is less likelihood of progess or genuine improvement. What is often forgotten in the rush to get great results is that both sides of the partnership must be addressed, but I am often shocked how ignorant people can be about their own bodies! You simply cannot ride well if you have not achieved a good seat, so your trainer will also require a good understanding of anatomy and human biomechanics but there must never be any sense of force or pressure. Basically, what we do in the saddle should be as natural as what we do on the ground- so if it isn’t, you may need to look elsewhere.
Facebook (or its equivalent) is a two edged sword. There are many ‘instant experts.’ It is too easy for people with no depth of understanding to come across with a great show of confidence. Good PR can catapult hitherto unproven methods or ideas straight into the limelight. On the other hand, we hear of people with exceptional talents, who can be destroyed by a single photograph or remark taken out of context. Unfortunately, the ‘no smoke without fire’ syndrome thrives on social media – so whoever you are, instructor or instructed, step warily and exercise caution at all times. As I have always maintained, many people can talk the talk, but it is harder to ascertain that they can walk the walk.
When it comes to choosing a trainer, without seeing them on and around a variety of horses and if possible those they have trained themselves, it will be hard to assess whether or not they can help yours. Many people think they have to have a trainer, but often do a better job themselves. Wherever and however, you do seek help, it’s as important that your horse likes them as much as you do. Don’t forget, he doesn’t go on the internet... and he must still be allowed to enjoy his lessons.
We often hear the expression’what’s in a name?’… and I often think there is much more to a name than might be assumed. This was confirmed for me recently when I read an article in one of the Sunday magazines that certain names e.g. Anne, George, Susan were happy people, whereas apparently those who went by Molly, James and Joan were sad. Actually I’m just plucking these names out of the air, and it could well have been the other way round!… but the point is, certain experts believe ones choice of name for a child can make all the difference, and I would actually agree with that – from my own experience.
I also think names are hugely important for animals. In my own case, it somehow seems more than coincidence that the ponies and horses who have played the biggest part in my life should have a connecting first letter. Some of you may dismiss this, but may I just say that the letters ‘P’ and ‘T’ really do have special significance for me. Consider this!
The very first riding lesson I ever had was on a beautiful black pony called Privet. He was the pride and joy of a young girl who lived close to us in Midlothian, on a nearby farm. She coached me on Privet – who gave me that first unforgettable canter – by running alongside us in the cold of the Christmas holidays. I can still remember my frozen fingers and toes, and the frosting on the trees, but the sheer exhilaration of being in the saddle at last is a magical memory! Sadly, she went back to university in early January, and then I think poor Privet got sold because I never saw him or her again.
Such was my desire to continue, my father then managed to find me a ‘proper’ riding school. Looking back, it may not have been that ‘proper’ but with 4 ponies all at different levels it seemed very grand at the time. I was put on Pixie, a small dun pony of about 11.2 who looked after me beautifully all that idyllic year. We rode in a felt saddle with a crupper and I had my first jump on her, over a series of sticks and logs in a wood on Dalmahoy estate which is still there today. Patient Pixie taught me a lot, so did Mr Nicols her owner.
Mr Nicols then found me my own first pony. He was a smart grey Welsh, 13.2 and pretty hot headed. He frequently ran away with me on my solo excursions into the woods, but I absolutely adored him so told no one. His name was Tommy and Tommy lived with us until I went to London at the age of 21. Then, getting on in years and infinitely more sensible, he was requested by the laird of Dalmahoy for his small son Stewart - now the Lord Aberdour! - where he stayed until he died.
In between all this I had started my own small riding school and my first purchase for this was Polly a stunning black mare, whom I bought at Kelso sales. (I did not know then that one day I would live at Kelso, but perhaps Polly was the connection – it always held great nostalgia for me). In fact Stewart’s father was bidding against me for Polly and after she was mine, came up to congratulate me, saying ‘you’ve got a good eye for a horse Sylvia… good luck with her!’ Polly stayed with us until eventually at the age of 36 and long since retired and in the care of my parents when I moved to Portugal (another ‘P’), she died.
Then came my darling skewbald Trigger my second serious pony after I’d outgrown Tommy. With Trigger I went to Pony Club Camp and at the local shows and gymkhanas experienced the thrill of winning red and blue rosettes for the first time in my life. Trojan came next, a pony that was deemed unrideable by his then owners, but one who I was able somehow to train to a semblance of good manners and who finally became soft as butter. I hasten to add that none of these names were chosen by me… the Ts and Ps just kept on arriving, including Tango – a little ex-beach pony who was adored by the children whom I taught in the holidays.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. What I will tell you is there were more Ts and Ps in between, but after Henry died and I was forced to close down our huge equestrian centre at Stoke-by-Clare, Suffolk, my life changed again with the purchase of Palomo. The story of how Palomo came to me is recorded in a couple of my books, but suffice to say he completely changed my life. If it hadn’t been for him I would probably be doing some other job now – I had thought about going into Politics, would you believe!? – but how could I when I had such a wonderful and natural schoolmaster?
When I lost Palomo, our horse whispering friend Peter Neilson came around one day to look at my other horses. We talked about Palomo and he said, ‘you realize Palomo will send forth his successor?’ ‘Is he here?’ I said politely, hoping he’d point out Espada who was gazing snootily over his door. ‘No, it’s not him – but you’ll know when he comes...’ came the enigmatic reply. About a year later, another grey stallion arrived on the yard.
His name was Prazer. It was another P. Prazer who stars in Sensitive Schooling as a youngster and then again, in the latter series, has turned out to be a wonderful schoolmaster for the more competent rider. Espada – who only really likes his mum on board – is not a natural teacher and can be quite grudging. To be truthful, Peter’s words (oops!… Peter begins with P too – this gets more and more eerie as I write…) only came back to me after Prazer had been here a good 6 months. He had come as a schooling livery, having belonged to a charming couple Richard and Melanie Jones. It was only when they rang up to say, they were going to emigrate to New Zealand and I agreed to buy Prazer, that Peter’s words came back to me. ‘You will know when he comes.’
As I sit and write this, with my faithful dog Tosca at my side and Pansy, our cat on my lap - I can’t help thinking – there’s a lot more to a name than you’d think.
Addendum: Our family has always had a habit of making nicknames out of proper names. Tommy's nickname was Tomar - where that came from who knows - but my parents used it use it as well as me and he was probably called Tomar more than Tommy at the end. Well, by coincidence, the town nearest to Golega where they hold the great annual Horse Fair in Portugal - and where I have spent so many happy days - is also called Tomar. None of us had ever been to Portugal in those days and knew very little about it... so I do find this quite a coincidence, looking back. And every time today, I drive through or past Tomar today - well yes, of course - I think of Tommy.
Picture - Sylvia (aged 10) and Tommy
Judging and watching events at a recent show for the Iberian Horse, I was suddenly struck by the fact that a very highly schooled horse could in fact be a hindrance rather than a help. I say this, despite the fact I have always recommended students to take the opportunity – when they can – of taking lessons on a schoolmaster. But of course, that is done under guidance. The instructor demonstrates or explains to the student how the horse should be ridden and then leads them step by step to a greater understanding of how horses react to the slightest aid, the smallest change of weight etc.
This can be the most rewarding process. A humble student will recognise that the horse knows more than him and responds by riding quietly and carefully until he begins to attain the right responses, the right feels. He will not want not try to ‘run before he can walk’!
What I had never witnessed before was the sight of a rider mounted on a highly schooled, versatile horse which appeared to have absolutely NO idea of what the rider was telling it. I have seen many horses and riders at odds with each other, we all have, but never to this degree where nothing worked. And it was alarming. There, before my eyes was an anxious, worried horse being manoeuvred this way and that, often at an alarming rate but ONLY DOING WHAT THE RIDER ASKED. The problem was, the rider was clearly unversed in the classical principles and was trying this and that to achieve a result. Only, it was the wrong result.
All this proves how vitally important the teaching of the weight aids must be at this level. Forward, stop, go and how to rise or sit to the trot is fine - practised on novice horses, but even those simple commands incorrectly applied on a schoolmaster can turn into a minefield.
It was also interesting but tragic to see how the incorrect use of the reins could affect a finely tuned horse. The rider I have in mind simply could not ride a straight line down the edge of the very fine indoor school, simply because his horse was permanently bent to the outside, not so much by the outside rein – but because the inside rein was pressed against his neck at the wither. This turned the rein aid into the ‘indirect rein of opposition’ (as per the teachings of the French School). Of course none of this was helped because the rider’s inside shoulder and inside hip was advanced which immediately caused the horse to assume a head to the wall position.
Instead of quietly soothing the horse, and dropping the legs, relaxing the hands, matters got worse as the rider tried to make corrections. Only, they weren’t corrections. They reinforced the problem. At one point – nay, I tell a lie – twice, I was nearly run down, so even standing in the middle of the school was a dangerous place to be. Had it not been for my courageous steward, literally stepping in front of me and putting herself in the way – who knows what might have happened next!
So when people say – ‘I’m going to buy a schoolmaster and learn how to ride better!’ I no longer applaud the decision unless it’s made very clear that they will have help on hand and the quality of instruction which befits a schoolmaster. In other words, NOT ‘the very nice local girl down the road who’s just got her AI...’ but someone who has ridden and trained to the level that the horse is working at.
A quick peep at our Trainers List might help!!! And remember, although lessons with an erudite trainer may be more expensive, you will save money and a lot of heartache in the end. You will also save your horse’s good nature as well as his future as a schoolmaster. SL
Prazer is not naturally a naughty horse. He is as good as gold when giving lessons - one to one with a fairly competent student in the arena on a calm day - but when Mum rides him in something approaching a gale (common in these parts) and out in the woods and fields …. well that can be a different story.
Frankly, I am very very lucky to have such a comfy, well balanced horse. When he gets aerated, he grows about 2 hands, but that’s simply the stallion in him. What I love about Lusitanos is their backs; even in the midst of a sideways leap or buck, they are incredibly soft and springy. This means that all the energy is ‘contained’ – like a big puffed up pillow - rather than unleashed - like a rocket, so while you have to keep your balance, there is never the feeling that the horse is going to get rid of you or indeed go against your hand.
Now aged 18, Prazer is in many ways the strongest he’s ever been. He does have stifle problems (the result of an accident in his early years and something that I knew about when I took him on – how many people are mad enough to buy a horse that fails the vet?… me for one!) but the muscling over his topline is firm and strong and he is incredibly elastic. This gives the rider the feel of being joined together as one when you ride, and when the ground is soft – we’ve had a lot of rain lately - it also gives him the confidence to indulge himself, when out on a hack. Today, amidst sunshine and showers we came upon a huge buzzard as we cantered down a grassy track that runs the length of what was, until recently, a field of rape. The great bird was intent on something small and bloody that lay in the long grass, but he was slow to take off – probably weighed down by his meal – and the airs above the ground that ensued under my seat were not inconsiderable. Nevertheless, I sat them – praying a stirrup leather would not bust – as I do depend on taking my weight forward during some of these antics – and the bird flew laconically into the distance. We continued on our merry way, but now my horse had a taste for it… another canter, another leap, a full pirouette at one point because he thought he spotted something over the hedge, and finally – now in passage - we made it to our destination.
As we left the area and Prazer was still jogging happily, determined that walking home was too boring on such a day and with such exciting things going on in the countryside, I felt a great joy in my heart. What can beat a charged up, collected, joyful horse, a gorgeous day, the air full of birdsong, a breeze in the trees and the sound of the great River Tweed flowing down the valley? Those of us who live out of the city and can still ride over great swathes of our stunning British countryside, are blessed indeed. Thank you God, thank you Prazer - long may you enjoy yourself! SL
Dressage Trainer and Olympic Gold Medallist
"I think the Classical Riding Club has an important role to play in bringing riders to understand the ethics and biomechanics of good riding.... also to appreciate the work of the Masters, past and present. It is a great way of bringing people together who really love their horse and want do do better by him."