A Potted History of my Life with Horses
The reason for this, is that yesterday I went to see our Exmoors for the first time for a week (I’m recovering from a hernia repair!) and the greeting I recieved from all three was so special that it is hard to put into words. I could feel the warmth and affection that these ponies give to me, and is duly reciprocated. Today, I again visited and again they were full of warmth and affection, Toby remained by my side for ages and I am sure it was to make sure I was OK and did nothing too strenuous, whilst Sariska hovered nearby, occasionly coming up to me to make sure I was not overdoing things.
I have been working with all types of horses for 45 years; backing and schooling all manner of equid, teaching and eventually becoming a farrier. Being in the 10th Royal Hussars (Shiny Tenth) gave me access to all manner of equine disciplines, polo and tent pegging being amongst my favourites. Observing horse behaviour, I tried to mimic how they behaved with each other. There was the obvious herd leader, who kept everything under control and administered discipline, but look more deeply into the herd hierarchy and you will find the horse that seems to comfort those that need it and has a calming influence on the younger members of the herd whenever one of them was worried. This is the horse that teaches the young stock, and the one you mimic in every way possible.
I learnt that touch was a very important tool in my toolbox. I found that by touching a horse, that I could somehow feel how that horse felt (i.e. tense, worried or relaxed), through touch I also hoped to transmit calmness and trust. Touching, at the same time as crooning gibberish, I found I could calm a horse.
Next came posture. I found that by making myself smaller i.e. dropping my shoulders and head lessened the threat that the horse felt. You have to think like a horse. People who have seen me work with horses have asked how do I do it, or can I teach them. I am not a wordsmith, so can not explain how I do it, so I just shrug and say you have to have feeling, and no it cannot be taught by me, as it was the horse that taught me all I know. One has to be able to listen to what the horse is telling you and then react accordingly. Each horse is different and will respond to one thing more so than perhaps the next horse, this is where being able to read subtle signs that the horse will give you is essential.
Upon leaving the Army, my family and I moved to Wales, as in Wales the children had Welsh ponies, on which they had great fun and this was my introduction to Native breeds. One day, I was told that a farmer had just brought some Section A foals off the mountain prior to sending them to market so we went to look at them. I walked into the middle of the field and sat down, watching them mill around. Those poor half scared foals with their first sighting of humans that week didn’t know which way to turn, their mothers being returned to the mountains without them. A couple of them caught my eye so I concetrated on these two. After some time the foals seemed to relax visibly as if realising that this strange human sat in the middle of their field meant them no harm and one, being bolder than the rest, took a few tentative steps toward me, stopped about 20 feet away and we watched each other. She would snort and retreat a few steps, I would whistle a tuneless melody and she would return, this was the one I chose. A few of the others were now also inquisitive, so slowly raising myself to my feet, I walked back to the farmer and his helper, who must have thought – who is this mad Englishman who sits in the middle of a field for 20 mins or so to choose a pony?!
We herded the foals into an old railway wagon, the idea was to let them out one at a time, keeping the one we wanted in. This worked well for the first two or three foals let out and then somehow they all managed to rush out together, the one we wanted came toward me and I instinctively grabbed her, both of us tumbling to the ground, quickly holding her down I put the headcollar on her and let her lay there whilst comforting her. On letting her up she followed me as if she had been doing it all her short life. She turned out a smashing pony and she would do anything for us.We called her Ceniza, after my favourite Polo pony.
Fast forward to our move to Dorset and our love affair with the Exmoor pony. Our fist purchase was Coed-Y-Wern Honeysuckle, rising four at the time, when we went to see her she looked very poor and immature, but there was something about her that I liked, I am sure if it was left to my wife, Alison, we would not have bought her! We were her 5th owners in her first four years and come March 20012, we will have been a partnership for five years.
She has now won at County show level in hand and has been a great ambassador for the breed, gaining many friends and admirers. We decided to put her in foal in 2010, but which stallion to use? There were so many good stallions to choose from, as we are great admirers of the Hawkwell and Tawbits herds, we eventually had a short list of two.
We rang Dawn Westcott of Holtball and enquired about the availability of our first choice Hawkwell Versuvius. We were thrilled when Dawn said that she would love for Honey to come and visit “Bear”. We took Honey to Holtball to meet Bear and we found that he is so gentle with the mares we knew we had made the right choice.
In October 2010 we went to the Hawkwell and Tawbits gatherings (Alison wrote an article for NPSW on our experience). It was whilst watching and photographing these magnificent animals coming home, that I felt something I have never felt before for man nor beast, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and my heart swelled with pride and love for these animals. Proud to be a part of the gatherings and to be in a partnership with our own Exmoors and a love for the Exmoor pony, unaltered by man and still living as nature intended on the moors.
We bought our second Exmoor pony at the gatherings, a yearling filly called Hawkwell Sariska. Her life with us is well documented on the Exmoor Pony Talk and Native Pony Sou’West forums. She too has done well in the show ring this year winning 50% of her shows and even a reserve championship at a County show (not bad for our 2 year old pocket rocket!).
May 9th 2011 and Honey presented us with a fantastic colt foal, Glyntawe Shiny Tenth, and this is where Sariska came into her own. Honey did the feeding whilst Sariska did the teaching, do you remember where I stated that there is always one particular horse in the herd that did the consoling and teaching? Sariska was that horse in Honey’s herd. We watched as she played with him, cajoled him, and taught him the rudiments of being an Exmoor pony.
I have no round pen, I may get flamed for this, as I don’t agree that this is the best method for getting to know and bond with youngstock, but I do think it might have a limited use in exceptional cases. Every youngster I have worked with I have tried to do it in as natural surroundings as possible; this gives the horse an added sense of security as if he has had enough, he can walk away. This way may take longer, but you have a happy horse that will come to you because he wants to be in your company and not because he was coerced.
Our three ponies race each other to be first to greet us, Sariska was always first with Toby a close second in front of his Mum. Recently, I have noticed that Sariska will hang back just before she gets to me and lets Toby in first to get his pampering and then she and Honey will walk in together, standing one each side of Toby and it’s at these times I wish I had three hands.
What have I learnt whilst working with horses? I have learned that by watching how they behave and interact with each other, you can learn more than reading text books, I’m sure some books can put you on the first rung of the ladder but it is the horse itself that takes you higher up that ladder. For me, I think I am about halfway up that ladder, with still lots more for the horse to teach me and to this day, after 45 years of learning, I am still an avid pupil of all things that the Equine can teach me.
If you reached the end of this, many thanks for reading and may my experiences help you to climb the next rung of your ladder.