There is a problem with naturally managed horses: they have become used to having opinions. In fact, they are smarter than the average horse.
This isn't just a matter of speculation: scientific research has shown that rats in enriched environments with the opportunity for complex social interactions and voluntary exercise show improved memory function and perform better in learning tasks. Their brains develop more neurons and neural pathways.
Learning better is a good thing, for sure, but there is more to the effect of natural management than the purely intellectual. The horses have become used to making decisions and thinking for themselves. Indeed, it is that freedom which is part of what enables this mental development. So far from robots, these thinking equines grow in personality and individuality.
Lucinda McAlpine deals with this on a daily basis. Ten times or more.
"I have given them freedom to choose," she says, "and I can't take it away entirely just because I want to ride, or they will lose some of their trust in me. And that is a difficulty for people who have been conventionally trained in dressage. So we have had to adapt."
"And this I believe: that the free exploring mind of the individual [....] is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for:the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea [.....] which limits or destroys the individual. That is what I am and what I am all about." John Steinbeck, East of Eden.
Come on Mum, pick me!
"If I get it wrong, I will know at once," Lucinda explains. "They will be unwilling to come out of the herd. They'll put their heads up when the head collar is presented, or be unwilling to have the saddle on. I don't want that so I have to get it right.”
I watch as she rides Richie in the outdoor school. His dam, brothers and sisters are now either back out in the field or up in the yard awaiting their turn. Rich has immense power. He is a sensitive horse who is inclined to get anxious if he feels he is not achieving.
"These naturally managed horses," Lucinda says, as I watch, my camera dangling round my neck, and Rich, the eldest of her home bred horses, stretches into the snaffle, "they are keen from the get-go. It's so different from when I was doing dressage the conventional way - and it was all leg,leg, leg, then spurs and a schooling whip. With these, their muscles are already warm and loose - because they haven't been standing in a small space, they have been moving around the field. And because they are so free, they are so much more generous and expressive, they haven't been stressed by anything, and so they try incredibly hard. The biggest problem is making sure they don't do too much!
"I have to make every moment fun for them," she says. "I can't afford for them to work too hard and feel stiff and sore the next day. I want that eagerness, so that we get all that wonderful expression. And that means that I have to adapt to what they can do on a given day. I am not saying that I don't push them beyond their comfort zone, but I am incredibly careful not to push them into the tension zone."
This makes sense to me, as I have experienced the apathy and sourness of my horse after intense training that took him well into tension. Nowadays, we have a mutually agreeable attitude to dressage... We 'play' with bits and pieces of lateral work in between a canter up the field or a big trot through long grass. It is easy for us of course as I am not expecting Jet or myself to attain any heights of excellence!
"Do you think it is possible to 'do' dressage to a high level while giving the horse freedom to express opinions?" Lucinda asks me as she canters past on Richie. I tell her that I don't know, but if anyone can, she can. "It certainly isn't possible if you allow your ego to take control," she says. "it takes humility to listen to the horse."
Rich is moving with freedom, his athletic body loose, back swinging.
A swinging tail indicates a horse without tension.
Lucinda explains that sometimes they will feel stiff or tight, and might feel anxious about doing a certain manoeuvre, but she might feel confident that it will ease the tension. That is what she calls 'ridden physiotherapy', and the horses end the session moving better than before it. But on other occasions, their tension might prohibit useful work.
"Work only benefits these horses when they are relaxed. Sometimes, they just can't do what you want. The next day, it might be totally different, but it is never worth trying to force them. So if they can't do it, we don't do it."
We walk back up to the yard. Lucinda jumps off her horse and turns to me,
"It's all about feel. But not just the feel in your hands. You have to develop the feel in your heart."
First published by Trot On in 2013.
To find out more about Lucinda McAlpine visit her WEBSITE.
Lucinda McAlpine is a big believer in the words of Winston Churchill "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." But it also began to dawn on her that there was something particularly special about her own horses and the powerful effect they had on anyone who met them, whether they were involved with horses or not. After inviting a few people who had hit a low point in their lives to spend time with her and her horses at Bowhayes Farm in Devon, and witnessing how revitilised they were afterwards, she came up with the idea of De-Stressage; horses helping humans to help themselves.
Just over fifteen years ago Lucinda McAlpine was at the top of her game, competing internationally as a dressage rider, when she decided that she wanted to give it all up to provide her horses with a more natural lifestyle. So she removed their shoes, stopped clipping their coats and turned them out to live in small herds, never to see the inside of a stable again. She also also likes to free-school her horses but when she rides it's in the classical style.
It's this lifestyle which Lucinda thinks makes her horses so therapeutic.
" They are tame horses who act as they would in nature. They are stress free and still in tune with themselves which is why they are so effective. Unlike a lot of horses used in therapy who are rescues and left damaged in some way, I have bred my horses to be 'clear'.
So what is it that horses can do for humans?
"Being around horses get's you back in touch with nature," says Lucinda, "and they bring you into the now. They act like a mirror and show you who you are in the moment. When you've lost your perspective they can give you clarity and help you discover a new direction. With my horses I want to offer that mirror and provide a calm place where you can assess yourself and start again."
This is why Lucinda believes that her horses can help anyone who has got a bit 'stuck' in their lives, whose habitual behaviour has caused unhappiness and ill health. She also think her horses could help artists, such as musicians who've spent too long in the studio, to get their creative mojo back.
Lucinda is quick to stress that there are no therapists around trying to get you to address your problems. "You're not being examined or judged. What we do here isn't human driven, it's horse driven. I just provide people with the opportunity to learn from my horses by interacting with them in a safe, nurturing environment."
"Neither horses or humans are forced to do anything. My horses aren't enclosed in a small space such as a round pen where they have to deal with a person and their problems. They are free to make choices. We often start at the field gate to begin with and then progress from there. We just go with the flow. The client may even end up riding if they want to but how far they go is up to them and the horses of course."
"If horses don't like a person's energy then they won't come near them. Everyone likes to be liked don't they so this can often be a wake-up call. What I've found particularly interesting is that most people get drawn to one particular horse and that horse in some way will be just like them. My job is to act as translator for the horse and their story usually resonates deeply with the person who has chosen them. From this they start to gain greater clarity about who they really are. Also the act of achieving harmony with an animal can be phenomenally powerful."
From personal experience just witnessing the amazing bond that Lucinda has with her horses is quite wonderful to see and becoming part of that energy can be very moving and change your perspective on life.
So if you want time to reflect, become re-energised and move on in your life, let the horses do the talking with a dose of De-Stressage.
If you want to discuss the subject of horses helping humans or share your story then join our group Horse Therapy For Humans.
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