Sarah Williamson, had always had a knack with difficult horses but then she met Gerd Heuschmann and started to use his methods to rehabilitate those that even the vets had written-off. She is now on a mission to stop riders from destroying their horses, by simply teaching them to ride in balance.
Thank goodness the reception on our two mobile phones is good because I wouldn’t want to miss a word.
“Gerd Heuschmann changed my life,” says my interviewee. “It’s so incredibly simple and yet it could literally save the lives of thousands of horses. It could prevent the development of kissing spine, depressed sacrums and hind leg suspensory problems. If people could just learn how to ride in balance, they’d stop destroying their horses.
“Any backward pressure, draw reins or such like, forces horses to move in a way that damages their structure and goes against how they are meant to move.”
This is firebrand stuff and she’s not done yet.
“I want to ask top riders how many horses they go through that break down before they even get them to Medium level in dressage. And don’t blame the horses – what we are breeding today would knock spots off the horses of 20 or 30 years ago. They are fantastic – and yet we are destroying them.”
Sarah Williamson, a trainer, eventer and dressage rider, had a long-standing reputation for having a knack with difficult hoses - “I have never had any money so I have always taken on problem horses as they are the only ones I could afford!” People started to seek her out, but it wasn’t until she met Heuschmann in 2011 that Sarah felt confident in training others. She is not simply a Gerd groupie who’s read the books, done the clinics and gone off with the delighted sense of being ‘in’ on the latest fad. She has applied his methods to rehabilitate written-off horses and is now teaching riders and owners how to keep their mounts sound and healthy.
Connor was due to be retired: he was found to have arthritis in his neck vertebrae, a hole in a hind suspensory and 'issues' in his front feet. After five lessons with Sarah over two months, his owner brought him back into work. Here he is winning a show class.
“I’d been told all my life to work the horse from the back so that it pushes into the hands. But you know what? I don’t think I ever completely got it and I certainly didn’t really teach it. It just ended up as ‘hold tighter and kick harder’ because that is what you see all the time in clinics and at competitions.
“What happened with Gerd was that he explained it to me in a way that I could explain it to my clients. And it works!”
As well as taking on horses destined for the bullet, Sarah is now working with vet Donna Blinman to help both Donna’s patients and their owners.
“Donna’s knowledge regarding the internal and skeletal health of our horses seemed to be the final piece in the puzzle for me,” says Sarah.
The relationship began when Sarah took one of her horses to a clinic at Desnage Lodge Stables near Newmarket a couple of years ago.
“What everyone before had said was a stifle problem, Donna treated as a bladder issue. And the mare came sound!” Sarah says. “Since then I have brought various horses that I was rehabilitating to her and she started to notice that my horses were staying better for far longer than those of other clients who had horses with similar issues – kissing spine or depressed sacrums. So she asked why. And we worked out that it was how I ride now.”
Sarah provides some clues for spotting a depressed sacrum and says tension in the back affects the facia of the internal organs and vice versa.
Donna is adamant that Sarah’s riding technique, thanks to Heuschmann’s training, has critical implications for horse health. “She has so much to teach people about ridden work,” Donna says. “Sarah could reduce the need for my job that's for sure!’
“Over the last two years,” says Sarah, “I have been working with many horses with long term issues, many of which had been written off by vets at the highest level and I still find it amazing that with a few simple rebalancing methods and a lot of care with management, these horses are back competing with their owners, many of whom had resigned themselves to owning expensive lawn mowers.
“I don't claim to be able to fix any horse but with what I have learnt from Gerd, I hope to be able to head them and their owner or rider in the right direction. Combined with what Donna has taught me, I also have a fair idea of where to look if we think pain is the issue even when other vets have been unable to pinpoint the reasons for lameness, bad behaviour or just poor performance.”
The partnership between these two horsewomen has proved so effective that both are working round the clock.
“I can’t take on any more horses,” says Sarah. “Donna and I need to be split in two to do all the work we have already. But I just want everyone to know that riding your horse in balance really isn’t difficult.”
I met Sarah initially for just ten minutes at Desnage. I listened enthralled – and yet I couldn’t believe this was something I could do. After all I have been trying not to damage my horse for the past five years and had ended up thinking that if I just didn’t ride very often or for very long I could limit the ill effects of my inadequacies. I asked her, skeptically, if riders like me, ones who aren’t very good, really can ride in a way that doesn’t harm the horse.
“Yes,” she said, “it’s simple.”
Really? I’d heard about ‘feel’ and chewing the bit out of your hands, and lifting the shoulder and how I needed a perfect Classical seat and spot-on balance myself. I’d heard about Philippe Karl’s legerete and I’ve read at least half the old masters – plus Loch, Moffat, Wanless, Hester, Kurkland, Klimke, Kottas and so on and so forth. I’d had lessons from wonderful competition riders and superb classical riders. For years. On schoolmasters and on my own lovely uphill Hanoverian. And I still couldn’t get him off the forehand and going forward freely.
Sarah demonstrates lifting the rein with a different hold that makes the hand lighter.
“All you do is hold your hands high. And wait. And wait. Then, at some point, you will feel the horse slow down, and you’ll feel the horse slowing as if he’s held back at the sternum and then he will reach for the bit and then your hands follow. That’s it. You might have to do it a thousand times, and it’s really boring. But it works. It’s so simple. And what will happen is that the horse will be taking his weight back and he will reach forward in balance into the bridle.”
Yeah, right, I thought, another magic formula. But I tried it. And it did work. Five sessions and now I have my hands high less of the time and I can feel my horse swing through his back – even in trot! Even I can get this change to occur! Even me!
And so why isn’t everyone doing this? Why are horses ridden in a way that damages their bodies?
Because people are short on time and money and so they take short cuts. Because the working lifespan of the horse has perhaps become less important than making a brief splash with flashy gaits and a forced outline. Because professionals need to keep on getting the rosettes and if forced outlines are not penalized while flashy gaits get the points, they see only one way to go.
“It’s criminal,” says Sarah. “Four year old horses have suspensory problems because of the way that they were produced for the sales. They inject the joints of all the top horses now to keep them sound. When they are as young as five or six!
After some simple changes, George starts to move through his back and his owner, Nic Partington can't stop smiling!
“I am totally passionate about the welfare of our horses and am happy to lead by example to maybe alert people to the destructive methods of modern riding. If I can save a few horses from early retirement or being put to sleep, I will be happy but if I can get people to see the damage being done and get the message across to a wider audience then I feel that I am giving something back to the horses that I love so much.”
Donna Blinman www.donnablinman.co.uk
Issy Clarke thespokenhorse.wordpress.com