Feed on

BanishedWhen the celebrations following the inauguration of the Netherlands’ first king in 120 years descended into the calm of the early hours of May, only two client horses remained munching on their straw bedding in our livery yard. Little did they suspect that they would not spend another night in those stables. The Ice Queen, who has wielded power in our livery yard since she assumed the role of tenant a year earlier, had decreed that all clients were to be banished from her yard by the beginning of the month. Our horses were the last to go. And so it came to pass that later that day, after almost two years of interesting times, Andrew and Vicki led Pip and Anaïs out of the livery yard, through the adjoining forest to their new uncertain accommodation several kilometres down the road.


Queen of chaos

Some of you may be familiar with the Ice Queen, as you may have been introduced to her when she first graced the pages of this blog back in October 2012 (see my post entitled When Freedom Comes ). Alternatively, you may have come across her when she again featured in a post entitled In Search of Houyhnhnms in a Land of Hairy Bicycles  in December.

A vice-president with an international asset management firm serving institutional investors, the Ice Queen has done no more than live up to the stereotype of what us lesser mortals might cynically expect of such a role-player in our own back yard. She has sought only the best for herself and her 11 horses, and has been quite happy to sacrifice her staff, suppliers, clients and landlord in the process, leaving a trail of human and equine chaos in her wake.


In darkness there is light

If you have read my previous posts on the subject, you will be aware that at some stage the situation deteriorated to the extent that our horses came under threat. Their health was compromised and that was simply unacceptable. And so Vicki and I went in search of alternative accommodation, spending a few days on the road and scouring the land, ultimately to no avail. Even with the problems that we were experiencing and for which we found makeshift solutions, there was simply nothing available that could compare to what we had available for our horses at the time.

Not too long after, as the days started lengthening towards the end of the year, the pale gleam of a distant light at the end of the proverbial tunnel began to advance on us through the darkness. Having failed to develop the various equine enterprises she had envisaged for herself in the Netherlands, having failed to nurture the contacts in the Dutch equestrian establishment to which money had helped her gain access, and having failed to put down roots in the local community, the Ice Queen sought refuge where she had come from, first exiling her person from the everyday affairs of the livery yard followed by what was supposed to be the piece-by-piece removal of her horses and other possessions. Winter may have been cold on the ground but the periods of daylight were becoming noticeably longer, and not only literally as far as I was concerned.


Rediscovering balance

Towards the end of last year Vicki, who had been actively searching for a programme of activities to help Anaïs redevelop her constitution and condition, stumbled upon something called rechtrichten in Dutch, which its local proponents have chosen to translate as ‘straightness training’, and which I prefer to dub ‘body balancing’ in conjunction with complementary disciplines designed to achieve the same. Ultimately derived from the classical equestrian tradition propounded by the French masters, Antoine de Pluvinel (1552-1620) and François Robichon de La Guérinière (1668-1751), body balancing recognises that horses, like humans’, are asymmetrical in their posture and gait, an acknowledgement which presupposes the need for a programme of action to remedy this.

Marijke de Jong introducing ‘straightness training’

Such a programme of action seeks to help the horse address its asymmetry by developing its muscles in such a way that it acquires balance in torso and limbs and that its centre of gravity shifts to the centre of its frame. This is particularly important where a horse is called upon to interact with its human in exertions which demand great physical and mental effort on the part of both species. Indeed, one may wish to go a step further by insisting that any body balancing programme for the horse be accompanied by one for its human. This is particularly relevant where horse and human are ultimately to interact between their back and bum respectively.


Dispelling the mythology of hardware

Unfortunately, the classical equestrian tradition got lost in the hard, harsh, taut-reined nonsense which currently passes for equestrian proficiency at the highest levels of competitive dressage. Some individuals, such as Bent Branderup in Denmark and Marijke de Jongh here in the Netherlands, are seeking to resurrect that tradition. De Jongh, in particular, stresses the potential healing effects of the ‘straightness training’ which is inherent in that tradition.

Towards body balancing and self-collection on the ground sans hardware

Unfortunately, the emphasis is still placed on riding as the primary focus of these efforts coupled with the almost inevitable use of traditional hardware to realise it. Of course, the double bridle with its metal curb and snaffle in the horse’s mouth, and sharp metal spurs in its side undermine the very image of an equine body in balance. After all, surely the point of equine balance is that the horse achieves it freely rather than that the human secures it with force (however ‘light’). Nevzorov and others have already shown that it is possible for the horse to balance and collect itself in the absence of hardware. Perhaps it is time for the proponents of ‘straightness training’ to rethink the paradigm.


Starting out

Because we had heard that ‘straightness training’ had really helped horses with a history of sacroiliac joint issues (such as Anaïs), Vicki decided to embark on a programme of activity with her mare. I watched one of these sessons and was intrigued. Horse and human seemed to be involved in a subtle interplay of energy which not only brought them closer together but also appeared to benefit the horse.

It was downright inspiring to see Anaïs transformed from an at times somewhat hesitant or bolshie creature into a quizzical mare visibly endeavouring to process the subtle cues flowing her way. This big bull of a horse turned to butter. In turn, the calm of the horse transformed the human, who became more responsive to the slightest variation in equine energy. Horse and human morphed into a gliding whorl of energy.


Equine body balancing with Pip

It was clear to me from the first lesson which I witnessed from the sidelines, that ‘straightness training’ is definitely something that could be of great benefit to Pip (any ultimately myself as well). For much of her 16 years Pip has been dressaged on the forehand with the bulk of her weight flowing into her right shoulder. The outcome has been an asymmetrical bend to the left with the result that her right hind leg steps significantly shorter than its counterpart on the left. The impact on her feet has also been remarkable: her right fore hoof is significantly lower on the heel and longer in the toe than the left. In the absence of remedial trimming, this very impact must in turn have reinforced the asymmetry of her movement to reduce the entire thing to a rather unpleasant vicious circle. I now fully understand why Pip often used to escape into flight, especially when called upon to canter: she was trying to evade discomfort if not pain.

Pip: rebalancing the fore hooves

Pip: rebalancing the fore hooves

Pip and I have been actively involved in body balancing since late December. The first thing I did was find a cavesson which does not have any metal flowing through the noseband, becaue the Marijke de Jong variant which we had does have a metal-reinforced noseband and I refuse to use it on any horse. To me the cavesson is simply a device to facilitate communication while allowing Pip to regulate the position of her head herself (connecting through a halter tends to pull the head out of sync). The next thing I did was to tie my trimming of Pip’s hooves more closely in with the exercises we share by trying to balance them almost to the point of being ‘unnatural’. Ordinarily, I would trim Pip’s hooves down to the sole proper (that is, the sole less its flaky surface), which then served as my guide. Now I have started to bring the heels of her left fore hoof as low as possible while keeping the toe as long as safety allows. Conversely, on the right fore I endeavour to cut back the toe as far as possible and leave the heels long enough to bring them into line with those of her left fore hoof. In short, I am hoping that over time a holistic approach of remedial trimming, Equine Touch and focused ‘straightness training’ exercises will help Pip rebalance her body not only in her movement but also in the shape of her feet. It is a long-term goal and we have time on our side.


Body balancing exercises with Pip

You may be interested in some of the exercises I am doing with Pip. When we started out we were looking for regulated movement at the walk and trot as the horse starts to relearn how to use its body and find its new balance. The focus was on a combination of lateral flexion coupled with the forward and downward movement of the head and neck, allowing the horse to relax its back muscles, strengthen its abdominal ones and learn to step under its mass. If all is not well, as it usually is in the beginning, the horse will seek evasion by speeding up. Pip did so too, predictably on the right.

Pip: learning our body balancing exercises together

We have come a long way since we started. Pip has learned to combine lateral flexion, the downward and forward movement of her head and neck, and the ability to step under in a flowing move in a single direction: the three-track travers, which you see at the start of the video. Again you can see that she finds this more difficult on the right. Much of the work that Pip and I are currently doing on the lunge involves circle work covering a variety of diameters to gymnasticise her body and help her learn to carry herself centred in her being without falling out at the extremities. The video reveals that she is quite capable of doing small circles on the right but her head is sometimes at odds with the direction in which she is headed. In our last lesson Pip and I learned to do shoulder-in. The video shows our first attempt. Clearly we still have a way to go.


Misgivings and issues

Given the background to and origins of ‘straightness training’ along with its ultimate preoccupation with riding, I must confess to having a few misgivings about it and can foresee a number of issues arising. Perhaps the most disconcerting misgivings that I have tend to relate to the emphasis placed on guiding the head and as such, seeking to guide the horse from the front to the rear instead of vice versa, the latter being more logical an approach if self-collection is the ultimate posture and movement-related goal.

Nevzorov at work within the walls of his school  manège

True, I can understand the logic of the horse needing to discover its authentic symmetrical balance and that, as it does so, and as its hindquarters and abdominal muscles consequently start to develop the strength and flexibility required to enable the horse to move from its core, it will ultimately start to shift more of its weight to the hindquarters and to bring up the base of its neck. To my mind, this move towards self-collection suggests that the head will find its own position and that there will consequently be a need at some point to toss out the cavesson in favour of an aid such as a cordeo around the base of the neck, for instance. It also suggests the need for a training environment in which the horse is capable of learning how to carry itself, one which has clearly discernible finite barriers, such as the walls of Nevzorov’s school manège or Hempfling’s picadero, until ultimately, even those will no longer be required. Whatever the case, I cannot envisage any place in this scenario for metal in the mouth or on the foot.


Of curses and blessings

The Ice Queen’s banishment of our horses from their familiar surroundings has been a curse on our endeavours to help our horses through equine body balancing. Still we must be thankful to her through no fault of her own. As she has continued to alienate staff and has consequently been abandoned by them, the number of people using the facilities in our livery yard diminished drastically. As a result Vicki and I found that in the first four months of this year, we frequently had top facilities available for us and our horses to interact with each other in the absence of anyone else. It has helped us tremendously, if the physical and mental improvement of our horses – especially Anaïs – is anything to go by.

Pip: fascinated by the goats in her new home

Pip: fascinated by the goats in her new home

True, our horses’ banishment has put an end to this, at least for the time being. Yet there is a positive side to this as well. For about a fortnight prior to our departure from the Ice Queen’s livery yard, we noticed that all of the horses in our herd (our two mares and two others) had started to lose weight. We started giving all of them additional feed but to no avail. The Ice Queen had condemned our horses to a relatively bare field for months, one in which every bit of new grass was eaten almost before it had a chance to grow. We had had a worm count done and there was no indication that we needed to worm the horses. We complained and nothing was done. Now that we are looking after our horses ourselves, we can see them piling the weight back on and they are beginning to look healthy again. This is a blessing, so too is the fact that we are looking after them ourselves. Neither Vicki or I had realised how much we missed this.


Banishment? Whose banishment?

True, not living on the same premises as our horses does have its drawbacks. There is the time involved in shunting between home and the horse facility, coupled with the inconvenience of forgetting something and not being able to run inside and get it. We console ourselves that this is a temporary solution but how long is temporary?

The Ice Queen is embroiled in a conflict with the owners of the livery yard. Matters have taken such a turn for the worse, that the owners are seeking to have the Ice Queen evicted. The matter goes to court next Tuesday afternoon. The question on everyone’s lips is whether the Ice Queen and the goblins who execute her commands no matter how horse-unfriendly they may be will not in turn be banished from the livery yard next week. It will be as it will be and that will be fine. My only concern is that no horse suffer as a result. The humans can look after themselves. And now it is time to hang out with Pip again….



An afterthought
While researching some aspects for this post I stumbled across the following video depicting a Russian student of the Nevzorov Haute Ecole teaching her horse to communicate in Latin. I am fascinated. So too is the horse by the looks of it.



9 Responses to “Our Horses Banished by the Ice Queen”

  1. alexia says:

    Such trials in densely populated Europe – you must miss the freedom and space of Australia!
    I do like your “taut-reined nonsense” turn of phrase!

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Alexia

      Nice to know that you are still accompanying us on our journey.

      Yes in many respects we do miss the freedom and space of Australia. Having said that, I must confess that we have access to far more bridle paths for the horses here in the south of the Netherlands, than we ever had in Australia. In addition, we find that we have far more interaction with our horses than we have ever had before. Ironically, this is partly due to the fact that we have had them in livery rather than at home with us, as we did in Australia. I guess every situation has its pros and cons.

      Be well!

  2. R says:

    Hi Andrew!

    Since you are taking interest in Straightness Training by Marijke de Jong, I would also suggest you to take a look at Science of Motion By Jean Luc Cornille. JLC has blended the work of Marijke i.e. Classical Dressage with bio-mechanics and science. He trained a thoroughbred horse named Chazot : http://www.scienceofmotion.com/documents/photoblog.php?entry_id=1332456884

    JLC’s website : http://www.scienceofmotion.com/

    JLC’s one year course of Corrective Biomechanics. In Hand Therapy Course (IHTC) : http://www.scienceofmotion.com/documents/in_hand_therapy_course_.html

    Though his knowledge is thought to be exceptional in this field, the only area he doesn’t focus is doing his work at liberty.


    • Andrew says:

      Dear Rohan

      It is good to hear from you again. I trust that life is treating you well.

      Actually, Pip and I are receiving guidance in ‘straightness training’ from someone other than Marijke de Jong. The latter features in my post for no other reason than that she is one of the few who has taken the time to explain what ‘straightness training’ is through the medium of videos.

      I have had a look at Jean Luc Cornille’s website. Thank you for the link. The website contains a great deal of information about horses but seems to reveal little of the essence of the horse. Perhaps the blindness is in me.

      Be well!

  3. Yes Andrew – the straightness training has good aspects and less good aspects – I am sure you are very well capable of picking out the good ones and leaving the less good ones behind…

    My personal view here again as in my previous comments on your various blogs is that energy-wise a lot of work still remains to be uncovered in the field of horse training and/or body balancing as you so creatively call it – I like it!! – a field that is very much a passion of mine …..
    If a horse appears to be not sufficiently grounded it will be difficult to execute the tasks asked from it – it needs to be invited to inhabit its body completely again – however such an invitation sometimes takes time for the horse to accept – that has to do with trust – often also mutual trust…
    If a horse is not sufficiently grounded it could be a reflection of the horse’s human without the human being aware – how many humans are prepared to have a look taken at their horse and then in the case of a reflection of insufficienrt grounding of the human, which is having an effect on the horse, how much unconditionality will there be in the human to have his own insufficient grouding taken care of by self-exploration – before pursuing asking the horse to do all kinds of straightness movements or any other movements for that matter ……

    I heard of Jean Luc Cornille – visited his website and watched his videos – interesting man – he does use a bit though – if you are mordicus against that that is perfectly okay – it makes the challenge more interesting and you are not in a hurry, are you!!


    This newsletter is in Dutch – perhaps Vicky can and will translate this for you …

    This is it for now – perhaps if I think of something I will write another comment – in the meantime I hope that your new stables will ultimately prove to be a change for the better …


    • Andrew says:

      Dear Geerteke

      Yes, I think that you have put it quite well. Both horse and human needed to be grounded in the moment with each other, if anything meaningful is to be achieved.

      Paradoxically or so it seems, the less focused one is on trying to work through an agenda, the more meaningful the interaction between horse and human is. Things often seem to fall apart the moment you bring targets and goals into the equation. Even simply trying to show what you are doing on video seems to undermine the very thing you are endeavouring to depict.

      I suspect though that grounding is not a linear process. If both horse and human were to choose to wait until they were fully grounded before interacting with each other, I fear the end result could be a bit like waiting for Godot: he never arrives. There are many things humans can do to help ground themselves before going to their horse but, ultimately, it is the nature of the interaction between the two species which can in turn help to ground both even more effectively. Of course, this is only my experience and it is rather limited and utterly subjective.

      Thank you too for the newsletter. There is no need for Vicki to translate it for me, as I do speak the language. Best wishes for your new course.

      Be well!

      • If human focusses on fully inhabiting its body it is automatically grounded -however how many humans do inhabit their body fully and if or when they don’t how aware are they that they don’t – besides this is not something human waits for – @like waiting for Godot: he never arrives – it is something human takes action on when being aware, accepting and feeling compassion towards self …….

        If human doesn’t fully inhabit its body and therefore not being fully grounded horse knows even before human is aware – horse reacts – this reaction more often than not takes the form of reflection – not being fully connected to Mother Earth is very difficult for human to know – or at least human thinks he doesn’t know – on the deep level of soul human knows – however it experiences fear to acknowledge that feeling – consequently human may feel the need to correct horse’s reflecting behaviour – increasing horse’s sense of confusion ….

        The above is not an observation that applies to you personally, Andrew – it is meant for whoever feels touched by it …

        @Even simply trying to show what you are doing on video seems to undermine the very thing you are endeavouring to depict. Are you talking here about you, Andrew? – if so, what are you endeavouring to depict – I watched your video with a loving eye and looked at human wishing his horse the best he had in store for horse – so how about your intention ….

        @Paradoxically or so it seems, the less focused one is on trying to work through an agenda, the more meaningful the interaction between horse and human. I agree – it is however a wonder that is waiting to want to happen when human’s intention doesn’t lose sight of his agenda and at the same time remains in the moment – horse will show …

        @I suspect though that grounding is not a linear process. Not a process – a state of being – when being aware and accepting with compassion grounding is already a fact ……

        @There is no need for Vicki to translate it for me, as I do speak the language – I didn’t know – I’ll try to remember that next time …..

        Be well

  4. Cyndi says:

    Another wonderfully written work, Andrew!

    I have recently become aware of the asymmetry of my mare, but was unsure how to ‘help’ her. Marijke’s video was very helpful, as were the other videos you posted!

    I will be thinking of you and Vicki as you await to hear the results of the Ice Queen’s battle with the livery owner. Everything will work out as it should. You and Vicki always have such a positive outlook, I wish you all the best!

    I have recently been thinking about moving my mare to another barn. It’s a long story, but yesterday I met someone who showed me her barn…and I was smitten. The boarders at this barn are there to enjoy their horses, and to learn together. It is a place of no pressure or drama. The barn I’m at now is beautiful, but “empty”. The barn I visited yesterday is “unattractive”, but full of life. That made me think about how some people are; beautiful on the outside, but empty and shallow on the inside. While other people are “unattractive” (by the world’s standards), yet beautiful on the inside and wonderful to be around. I suppose it’s the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing :o)


    • Andrew says:

      Dear Cyndi

      Thank you for your good wishes for us and our horses. What will be will be and it will be fine!

      A livery yard or barn always seems to be a compromise and finding a good one appears to be a bit like looking for the best compromise possible. Destiny has a way of making itself obvious if you are sensitive to the signs. Perhaps your chance encounter with someone who has shown you a place for your mare is just such a sign. Go with your gut. And perhaps your mare has some ideas of her own?

      Be well!