Lucinda McAlpine is an expert in Natural Horse Management. As a Grand Prix dressage rider she became disillusioned with conventional methods of training and keeping horses. Despite her horses living what many would regard as the perfect life she came to the conclusion that it was unhealthy both physically and emotionally. From then on she decided to keep her horses as naturally as possible, in herds, unshod, unclipped and without rugs, using training methods that encouraged the horse to play and learn without tension, allowing their intelligence and natural athletic expression to develop as harmoniously as possible.
And now she is taking her beautiful, naturally conceived, birthed and reared home-bred horses out into the big wide world of competition. Like any journey it will have it's ups and downs but the goal for Lucinda will always be the good of the horse.
I think it's probably fair to say that if you keep your dominant mare in a herd of ten and then expect her to come out and perform in a strange dressage arena that you must expect a long and steep learning curve!!
As you can see from the photo (above) we struggled to get round the arena at all, which makes riding a Medium test pretty hard.
Photo: BML Photography
The first test had some spectacular moments, some airs above the ground and a lot of peering at the boards, with barely an entire movement executed correctly. You can't help but laugh with this mare, I have bred and brought her up to have opinions and boy is she delivering!
Photo: BML Photography
The second test was a HUGE improvement. It felt like I was barely riding the same horse. Oddly it only earnt 0.3% better but judging this mare is never going to be easy. I think I'll stick to riding because with Biba it's really a lot of fun!
Photo: BML Photography
It was a long way off from being perfect, but look at the grins on our faces. In years gone by my "shut down" horses could do a better test than that and I would leave the arena close to tears. With these natural horses I understand that it is quite traumatic for them in comparison to their field at home, but I am committed to finding a way to make it okay for us to perfect our dancing partnership at a show. On Sunday we laughed and grinned and had a ball! Imagine how it will feel when we actually do the test properly!!
Find out more about Lucinda McAlpine HERE
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.
Summer is here- we hope! But, unfortunately for our equine friends, the warmer weather brings with it, flies, midges and other irritating insects. In the battle to protect our horses we cover them in fly rugs and masks, and spray them in chemicals. However if you prefer the idea of beating those pesky critters with something a bit more natural why not try making one of these these effective, homemade concoctions. But remember, always do a patch test on your horses skin to check for signs of irritation, and if none occurs, you're good to go!
• Essential oils mixed with water - The following list of essential oils work wonders in the prevent of flies and other insects. When diluted with 2 cups of water in a spray bottle, you can combine 3 or 4 oils to create a smell you prefer. Personally, I’ve tried the Lemongrass, Eucalyptus and Lavender which smells delicious and keeps the flies at bay. The oils help the mixture stick to your horses’ skin, and when combined with water the formula is gentle and soothing. However, as your horse sweats, this fly prevention will wear off, so make sure to reapply as and when you feel is necessary.
Add 100-150 drops of any blend of the following oils:
• Witch-hazel and vanilla extract - This combination is very popular among livestock owners. The combination of the witch-hazel, which is quite a sharp smelling essential oil is complimented by the softer tones of the vanilla extract. You can combine these with water or baby oil to use as a spray or a rub. Vanilla is great at preventing mosquitoes and horseflies, and it smells nice too!
• Listerine and baby oil - This can be used on your horse’s dock to soothe and prevent irritation and dandruff caused by insect bites. The Listerine contains antiseptic properties including menthol, eucalyptol, tymol and methyl salicylate. You must dilute the mouthwash with an equal amount of baby oil to ensure the mixture is gentle on the skin. Rub the solution into the dock, as this area is targeted by microscopic insects that secrete themselves amongst the tail hairs.
• Fresh or dried herbs and rubbing alcohol - Instead of using oil based products, you could go for dried herbs such as, peppermint, spearmint, citronella, lemongrass, catnip, lavender, etc. it is recommended that you use a mint herb of some sort and combine with rubbing alcohol and water. To create this fly prevention formula, you can use any combination any herbs you fancy and add 2-4 tablespoons of each herb to a cup of boiling water, mix well, cover and allow to cool. Next, strain out the herbs and add one cup of rubbing alcohol and mix again. This is another great solution; the alcohol acts as a disinfectant alongside the soothing elements that have been brewed out of the dried herbs.
• Apple cider vinegar and dried herbs - WARNING! This mixture is very strong and horses with more sensitive skin may become irritated by it. You will need a 32-ounce bottle of Apple cider vinegar and 2 tablespoons each of dried Lavender, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme and Mint. This formula is best contained in an airtight jar or something similar. Firstly, put the vinegar and herbs into your container, then seal and store somewhere safe at room temperature. This mixture must be shaken daily for 2-3 weeks. Once the time is up, strain the herbs and dilute to half with water and transfer into a spray bottle and store in the fridge.
Summer is a wonderful time to enjoy your horses company and sometimes it can be dampened by flies and insects, intruding on yours and your horses’ space. So why not give a few of these recipes a go in place of store bought sprays, they smell delightful and they’re entirely natural; you can’t go wrong!
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It's raining, it's pouring! Yes, the UK weather has been pretty extreme at the moment so does Natural Horse Management expert Lucinda McAlpine worry that her horses might not cope with these worst of weather days? Read on and find out…
It always amazes me that after almost 20 years of exploring natural management for my horses I still worry about their ability to cope with a night of hideous weather. I constantly check the forecasts and dash out as soon as dawn comes, ready to minister to their needs if necessary. It doesn’t matter that more often than not my fears have been completely unfounded, I still fret. I am also aware that there are passers-by that assume that because my horses do not have stables or wear rugs that they will be suffering terribly. However, I know the science – horses stay warm through fermentation of fibre in the hind gut and the coat is remarkably efficient if left to do its job as it should, with naturally produced grease rendering our horses virtually waterproof. Horses given sufficient space will stay warm through movement and herds will even share body heat huddling closely together. I can keep on going – barefooted horses are much warmer, we provide shelter, both natural and constructed etc, etc, but the anxiety is – from the warm cosiness of a thatched, centrally heated house - still there.
Unfortunately stabled or field-kept horses on the Somerset Levels have lost their homes to the floods.
Take last night as an example. Devon and Somerset are currently getting the brunt of the storms attacking Britain from the west. The Somerset Levels are submerged and weather warnings a daily occurrence. My farm is on the hill and the water gushes through but thankfully drains away given some respite from rainfall – a big plus that I noted when I first chose the property. We have put a lot of hard-standing down to give the horses access to dry ground but when you hear that the winds will be gusting up to 90 mph overnight it is hard to believe that all will be well in the morning. I dashed out at about 7.15 to let my “special needs” group in to the indoor. The fact is that so long as a horse is healthy and well acclimatised to their environment, Nature provides them with the tools to survive extremes of weather. But are they healthy? Four of my horses are in their 20’s and the 27 year old had a major crisis in late autumn that required intensive nursing. I worry.
The reality of the situation – yes, the “Special Needs “ group were grateful for a roof over their heads, a run around on dry ground (where it had not leaked in and flooded one side) and a feed but within an hour or so were desperate to return to their paddock. The wind rattling around the building and the noise of rain on the roof was alarming them. The horses outside had dried off much faster and by 10.45 the sun was coming out periodically.
As I rushed around to tend to the other groups I could see the reality of the situation, not just my perceived view tainted by weather reports and central heating. There is no substitute for getting out there, suitably wrapped in waterproofs. Of the 27 horses it was only the ones who had, albeit many years ago, been stabled that had a glimmer of discontent. I think it couldn’t be more horrid, but they are munching contentedly on their hay and though they seem pleased to see me they are not fighting for their feed and not a runny nose amongst them. When the sun comes out they mooch out to the field to eat grass and catch every drop of Vitamin D from the sunshine.
It is so easy to have an incorrect perception of the weather. Rain comes in droplet form but when it hits a roof or runs down a gutter it becomes a stream and sounds terrible. Interestingly the people who question whether “those poor horses, out in all that rain” are alright are often the ones who are the first to run a hosepipe over a sweaty horse, oblivious to the detrimental effects that can cause!
Time for the addition of a man-made windbreak.
There is of course a fine line. All too often we see horses confined to taped off squares of grazing with no shelter and this is very much a cause for concern. It is all too easy to be envious of people who have ideal facilities but if we observe the horses’ behaviour then solutions can be found that dramatically improve their lives without huge expense. Last week we heightened a wall to provide a windbreak. The horses have since changed their behaviour and instead of standing in a muddy hollow away from the hay when the wind gets up, stand beside the windbreak by the feeder. Hay consumption has incidentally reduced as they do not gorge during breaks and they are standing on clean concrete. And to boot we found a use for some timber that had been lying around in the barn!
All horses are different and hard and fast rules must never be set but it is clear to see here at Bowhayes that the naturally bred individuals deal better with the elements than the others who had a more cossetted start. Nature takes care and I always think of the Exmoor ponies that have evolved to grow a double thick tail to provide protection for their back ends. I shudder now when I see a tightly pulled tail that would have made me proud in my showing days. What astounds me is the ability of horses to adapt to their situation and now I try to think of what I can do to provide them with what they need for survival, which is not the same as the human need for houses and clothes.
I have been developing, improving and enhancing this system of management daily for so long now that I should not worry, but I do particularly feel for the people who are new to it when it gets this bad. Worry is never good but due concern, dedication, observation and love for these remarkable, noble animals can only help. Horses live in the moment and once the rain stops, it is as though it never happened!
Find out more about Natural Horse Management expert Lucinda McAlpine at www.lucindamcalpine.com