Feed on

rocking-horseIt was a bit of a toss-up, determining where to start on the question of riding. My instinct tells me that Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling is right: you start with the human and not the horse, for ultimately it is the human that needs to change and to rediscover what it is to be human if they are to be of any value to the horse. On the other hand, the horse already knows how to be a horse and has not lost that knowledge of its species as we have of ours. Yet in the absence of the horse, a human has no need to consider the matter of riding, a realisation which seems to suggest that the horse must nevertheless be mentioned first, for it is the sine qua non (without which nothing) of riding. So let us turn to the horse in the first of this series of posts dedicated to the preparations which Pip and I are undertaking towards riding.


What is a horse?

Gosh, what a dumb question! We all know what a horse is, don’t we. It is a “solid-hoofed plant-eating domesticated mammal with a flowing mane and tail, used for riding, racing, and to carry and pull loads” (Oxford online dictionary) or a “large animal that is used for riding and for carrying and pulling things” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). So there you have it. Let us take the common denominator of these definitions from the most authoritative dictionaries in the English language: a horse is a domesticated animal used for riding, and carrying and pulling loads.

Which means that, if you did not have any idea what a horse was before you read either of these definitions, once you had, you might only expect to see a horse with bits of metal, rope and/or leather about its body to enable humans to ride it or get it to carry or pull a load. If you want to get to know horses better, you would probably start out by visiting a riding school, where your initiation would start through an interface made up of your bum and the horse’s back. Odds are that this is probably how you started out with horses, if you did not grow up in a family that keeps them. But if you did, the chances are pretty high that the bulk of your relationship with a horse has developed through that very same interface.

Interfacing with horses: bums on backs. Here the French mounted police.

Interfacing with horses: bums on backs. Here the French mounted police.


Doesn’t it come with tack on?

In fact, most people who spend time with horses and have come to learn about them can probably trace much if not most of their knowledge of equus caballus back to that interface of bum and back. You learn about the tack you need to keep your bum on the horse’s back and the training you require to do the very same while learning how to make the horse do things while your bum is on its back. Indeed, you may even go further and learn about the accommodation, feed and care a horse should have in order to be able to bear your bum on its back.

If you are really keen, you may even learn a bit about the biomechanics of a horse, which will enable you to “train it” to such a high level that you can make it do spectacular moves while your bum is firmly ensconced on its back. Indeed most of us who spend time with horses will probably know of few ways of spending that time with a horse other than with our bum on its back, and if we do manage to find another way, it is usually merely designed to enable us to do just that but with greater finesse.

horse-lower-legWe should therefore be excused if we fail to comprehend how anyone could walk with a horse on a lead in a forest instead of being seated on its back (a lack of comprehension which numerous riders have expressed to Vicki and myself when they have encountered us walking next to Anaïs and Pip in the forest). Indeed, we might even be excused if we have difficulty visualising a horse without tack on its body, a saddle on its back and metal studs on its hooves. Doesn’t a horse come with tack and metal studs on it? If you were unfamiliar with the concept of a “horse” and saw this illustration from a highly recommended book on equine biomechanics, you might even be forgiven for thinking that. Actually, I do highly recommend this book by the British horse masseuse, Gillian Higgins, along with the accompanying DVD. Details below.


The light comes on at fifty

This is more or less how horses came into my life as a teenager. I knew nothing about them other than that many of my friends owned one and that every now and then I was given the opportunity to ride one of them. Someone taught me the basics of how to keep my bum on the horse’s back when it moved, and how to make it move while my bum was on its back. This stood me in good stead on the odd occasions when a horse bolted under me, although it was not much help the day Gulliver and I encountered a wallaby (a smaller “version” of a kangaroo) in Australia. Good old Gulliver instilled in me the knowledge that a horse is a creature of flight, the lesson being learned the moment he veered out of the path of the skippy and I kept on going straight without a horse’s back underneath me and landed on my head. Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet. I may have been macho in my younger days but I was not comfortable with the idea of dying (let alone “being”) stupid.

And so horses drifted in and out of my life as creatures with whom a relationship could be developed through my bum and their back, until I lost interest in about 2002. Yes, I was prepared to help Vicki with our two geldings, Gulliver and Farinelli, when work commitments allowed but I was no longer interested in riding or doing anything else with them or any horse really. I could simply no longer see the point of making another creature do something for me, especially one with whom I did not seem to have much affinity and only really appreciated as another member of our menagerie (we had four dogs and four cats at the time) and fellow earth inhabitant.


It was in the year when I turned fifty, that everything changed. I discovered Nevzorov (and through him Michael Bevilacqua later on) and Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling. In ways peculiar to them these people inspired me to set off on a journey which, amongst other things, has led me to discover horses for what they are and not merely what we humans would like them to be. It is a journey that has revealed what other humans have discovered about horses but more importantly it is one that has allowed me to develop the skills and ability to start learning what horses offer us for discovery about themselves and ultimately what we can discover through them about ourselves.


Horses before humans

In a sense Nevzorov, Bevilacqua and Hempfling (and later Imke Spilker, Frédéric Pignon, Carolyn Resnick, Mark Rashid and Linda Kohanov) made it possible for me to start seeing horses as they are before humans exert their influence over them. It became clear to me that they are exceptionally sociable, seeking safety and security in relationships with other horses both as members of the same equine community and as close friends with another horse in the same herd. They are also creatures that are highly sensitive to and equally perceptive of an array of stimuli that are visible and invisible, audible and inaudible, tangible and intangible, and are capable of responding intuitively to them. In addition, they prefer collaboration and cooperation to the disquieting effects of conflict (with the exception of stallions competing for mares). It has also become clear to me that horses are capable of bonding closely with humans and those in captivity rely on us entirely to have their physical, emotional and other needs met, while acquiescing in or enjoying our guidance. To this extent”, but only to this extent, we are the dominant species and, as such, we have the challenge conferred on us to empathise with horses, to be enlightened in our dealings with them, and to empower them, rather than to dominate them for our own selfish purposes.

These perceptions and deductions have since been confirmed by further study, for it is my belief that I should not aspire to riding a creature in the absence of instruments of force – that is, placing my trust in the horse to the extent that I unconditionally put my aging bones at its mercy – without understanding its nature. High on the list of studies recommended for anyone seriously wanting to understand the essential nature of the horse must be the work of the New Zealand ethologist, Andy Beck, and the cinematographer, Ginger Kathrens. Based on an ongoing, long-term study, Beck’s Horsonality is a work that no one who is serious about spending time with horses should neglect to read. Nor should such a person forego the opportunity to watch Kathrens’ enormously informative and entertaining Cloud trilogy, the story of a stallion and the horses around him in the Arrowhead Mountains of Montana in the United States of America.

Yet there is another aspect which needs to be mentioned, because it explains why of all the animals on the earth, the horse has held an appeal for humans over the centuries beyond its role as a beast of burden which is more widespread and extends to more profound spheres of human endeavour than any other. In the course of time the horse has featured prominently in human politics, religion, sport and imagination as expressed in the arts and iconography, and still does to a significant extent today. At a personal level the horse is also arguably the only animal species with which humans can interact in a way that is capable of generating a nobility and beauty which is greater than the sum created by the two species doing what they might otherwise do best together on their own.


Safe, secure and at home

In his YouTube videos, Immediate Connecting with Horses: 1 and 2, Hempfling notes what I feel is so important, that I wish to quote it here. Speaking about the connection he achieves with a horse during his first encounter with it, he states that to get a…

positive response from the horse immediately means that I have to have a kind of unspoken contract with the horse. And this means, for example, that I will do everything not anyhow to hurt you, and I promise you to be on the maximum of peace in whatever I am going to do. I’m promising you that I’m going to take care that I will not be doing anything, not a simple step which is not in accordance with your proper individual growing.

I’m the one who has to lead. There is no doubt about it. I have to lead in accordance with the needs and with the nature of the horse: give him safety, give him everything he needs to feel at home.

Whether or not you agree with Hempfling’s claim that he manages to connect immediately with every horse that he encounters for the first time – there is evidence that he does with most of the horses he chooses to encounter and evidence is also available to the effect that he fails to do so with a small proportion of the horses that he selects – is utterly irrelevant for our purposes. What is relevant is the essence of what he states, a lesson which Pip has personally been trying to teach me since April 2012 and which she finally managed to do in January this year (some of us are hard learners).

That lesson is this: if you truly want to achieve a true, magical connection with your horse on a lasting basis, you will have to do everything in your power to show through your actions that your horse is safe and secure enough with you to be able to relax and be itself, which is simply its way of expressing its trust in you. It is my belief that anyone can make a horse move and some of us are far better doing that than others. The true challenge though lies not in making the horse do something but in the human finding it within themselves to encourage the horse to want to join in the dance with us, to become a willing partner. This, if I correctly understand the Nevzorovs, Bevilacquas and Hempflings of the world and the other guides whom I have cited, is the true goal of training. Yet without that true, magical connection it will be impossible to achieve that goal and without the horse feeling safe, secure and at home with you, it will not be able to trust you and that connection will remain an unattainable aspiration.


So what?

So what does this mean to Pip and me, as we continue our preparations for riding? In a nutshell, it means that before I can even begin to contemplate preparations for riding, Pip needs to be a happy, healthy horse in mind and in body. She needs to feel so safe, secure and at home with me that she will trust me enough to go along with anything that I ask, which she might initially feel is utterly alien and inappropriate, and that she will trust me enough to know that I truly do not seek to ask more of her than she is willing and able to give.

So how can I gauge the progress that we are making in this respect? Simple. Pip shows me. She has shown me that she is healthy. I look at her neck and see that the short, hard muscles which she had when she came into my life have given way to long, loose muscles which give her greater flexibility. My mare’s feet have also improved. Not only has her hoof healed but she is now also capable of negotiating the hardest surfaces without any pain or discomfort. In addition, she is straighter and more balanced when she stands and walks. Pip now stands square and upright, and when she walks she now overtracks (the toe of her hind foot lands beyond the print of the toe of her fore foot) on both sides instead of only on the left.

Pip up close and personal

Pip up close and personal

The evidence is also discernible in Pip’s attitude towards life and me. She is no longer that anxious bundle of nerves she used to be. Instead, she is more self-assured, is moving up the ranks in the herd and is even beginning to challenge Anaïs on occasion. Pip and Anaïs are part of a herd of 18 horses that have been living together relatively uneventfully for some five months now. When Vicki and I arrive at the yard, either or both of us normally call to the horses from the entrance to the horse enclosure and our mares simply come to us. In the past Anaïs used to initiate the action and arrive first. Now it is Pip. In fact, on many occasions she recognises my tread on the pebbles close to the gate before she sees me and often arrives at the entrance before I have even looked around to find her.


Putting Pip on a pedestal

Another example. Vicki has taught Anaïs to stand on a pedestal. For ages I had tried to do the same but every time Pip simply walked off almost shaking her head as if to say, “You’re crazy”. As I mentioned in my previous post, caring for Pip while she was having problems with her hoof was a watershed experience for us. Her attitude towards me changed completely. I did not realise just to what extent it had, until I took her to the pedestal, put my foot on it and uttered the cue, “Step”, as I had vainly done so many times before, and she lifted her hoof slightly. I then bent down and raised it on to the edge of the pedestal to show her what I meant and then we tried the whole thing again. This time Pip simply put her foot on the pedestal and turned her head towards me as if to say, “Oh that’s what you want? Well, here you are then.” I could not believe it.

But more was still to come. A few days later I took Pip to watch Anaïs put both front feet on the pedestal but my mare did not seem to be overly impressed. A week later I discovered why. Asking Pip to put one foot up onto the pedestal and trying not to expect anything, my mare looked at me, turned back to the pedestal and simply stepped up onto it with both front feet. The next time I asked her a week later, she promptly walked right up and over the thing.

Pip watching Anaïs step on the pedestal

Pip watching Anaïs step on the pedestal

Is Pip ready for preparations for riding? I do not think that I am putting her on a pedestal when I say, “I think so”. Of course, although I am hoping to start riding Pip next month, I am aware that I may never do so for one reason or another, for instance if she declines to have my bum on her back. At the beginning of April Pip and I will have been together for two years. Next month we will also both celebrate our respective birthdays. She will turn 17 and I will be 57. It is not the youngest age to contemplate a new start and certainly not one which envisages riding without metal in the mouth or on the feet. With the exception of the odd occasion on which Vicki has sat on her for a few minutes at a time in the manège, Pip will not have felt a human bum on her back for a little over two years. I have not had my bum on a horse’s back for more than 10 years. There are moments when I suspect that sanity has deserted me. But then a consoling thought comes to me: even though I may never get to ride Pip, it sure is great preparing to do so. For both of us, I think.




16 Responses to “Towards Riding 1: The Horse”

  1. Gary Whinn says:

    Dear Andrew,
    It’s been a while since I commented and I do not have anything particularly deep or perceptive to say on this blog other than I really enjoyed reading it! It feels very much as if you are in a “new place”, a more relaxed and optimistic place. Though you speak about the same people you often speak about it feels different, there is a tangible change in your energy or something which I cannot explain, I just get a “feel good” sense of it…….as if you have perhaps assimilated a huge amount of information from these people, “chewed the cud” about it for a good long while and then finally picked out the most relevant and pertinent bits to add to your own philosophy about horses and humans. And it is as if you now feel quite “at ease” with your own thoughts and feelings about you and your horse….not so much questioning about whether you are doing the right thing….just knowing that you are. At 57 you’re just a few years older than me, but at 17 Pip is a good few years older than my own horse. That you are even contemplating getting your bum and her back together so relatively “late in life” for both of you is inspirational and makes me feel much more optimistic about my own prospects for riding. Having come to know you through your blog and some private emails I know that you will approach this with the utmost care and attention for the well-being of Pip first and foremost and thereby ensuring (as much as one can realistically do so) your own well being in this undertaking. So I wish you both well and I hope that one day we are watching a little video clip of you and Pip instead of whoever and whoever…..and if it doesn’t happen, that’s OK too because as you say, even preparing to ride is good for both of you. Good for you Andrew! Take care fella and enjoy every minute of it.
    Kindest Regards,

    • Kelly Bick says:

      But Gary, you did have something very perceptive to say. You have articulated exactly what I was thinking as I read the blog post.

      Andrew, it is so lovely to read a post of yours that “feels” calm and settled and at peace with yourself and those who have inspired you on your journey.


      • Andrew says:

        Dear Kelly

        Methinks that much of it has to do with shifting my focus from writing about generalities of what inspires me or fails to do so, to the specifics of what Pip and I are doing together. When you are busy with the now as it unfolds from moment to moment, there is little room for regrets or fears.

        Be well!

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Gary

      Gosh! I did not quite realise just how transparent I am.

      Essentially, you describe where I am, which is actually a pretty good place. A few years ago I left Australia in search of a guru who might help me find joy through horses. I have found him and as an added bonus I find myself with a horse who brings me joy every single day.

      This is not to say that I no longer have doubts and questions or fall into the trap of focusing too much on the destination instead of the journey. I do. The difference is that I now know how to deal with them.

      May your journey with your horse bring you joy, both of you.

      Be well!

  2. Glenn Wilson says:

    Couldn’t have said it any better than what you said Gary.
    Andrew, nice post, nice place to be, and enjoy the moments.


  3. Hi Andrew,
    I’m sure Fuego enjoys it as well as I do, when we go out for a ride. Probably Pip and Anais will do also… The environment is beautiful for trail rides.
    Don’ think too much about old bones, just get in the saddle again !

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Diane

      You are right: the environment is beautiful. Pip and Anaïs already enjoy it about three times a week when we take them on walks through the forest.

      It is not my old bones that I am concerned with but Pip’s. After all, when we get to riding, it will be Pip who will be doing the carrying and not me. As far as possible I would like to ensure that it is a safe, pleasant and pain-free experience for both of us and not just me. This means helping her to develop her strength, physically, mentally and emotionally before I get on.

      Be well!

  4. Dear Andrew,

    ……….”Read my lips…….sense my nostrils…….I love you…..I am proud of you”………..Pip to Andrew……

    ……….”Änaïs thinks she is so clever and fooling Vicky as well………oh boy, are they in for a surprise when they really get to know me”…………….Pip to Andrew……

    Be well,

  5. Hello Andrew,
    My reaction to your latest blog……Frustration…..I couldn’t read it word for word, just skipped through it.
    You make it so difficult for yourself….Trying too hard to be perfect….You or I will never be a Nezerov or a Hempfling (I don’t want to be).
    We are all UNIQUE human beings.
    To me, the bottom line is…..If you have a bond with your horse, are kind, considerate & don’t ask too much too soon……….That is it in a Nutshell !!!!!!
    Just do it. If you can read your horse she will let you know if you have gone too far & is unhappy.
    Believe in yourself……It’s not Rocket Science…..Be positive…..You are you.
    I also need to say I realize your Blog is very important to you..Maybe too important.
    Your Friend ???????
    Peggy. (Please don’t analyze my words ….It’s simple…We have had this conversation before.:-) )

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Peggy

      It is never my intention to analyse your words but merely to respond to what you write as I understand it.

      You are right, we are all unique beings and there is absolutely no need to try and be anyone else. My aim is nothing more than to be the best Andrew-Glyn Smail I can possibly be for myself and my horse. The external gurus are simply sources of inspiration and guides. At the end of the day it is not to them that I have to answer but to Pip and the guy who stares at me in the mirror every morning.

      To you the bottom line is “if you have a bond with your horse, are kind, considerate & don’t ask too much too soon … that is it in a nutshell”.

      To me this is not enough. Why? Because, as I go about completing my Equine Touch studies, I realise that I am constantly dealing with owners who are sincerely doing precisely that and yet their horses are in pain. Part of the reason for this is that most horse owners are ignorant about the true nature of horses and their ability to hide their pain. Another part of the reason lies in the fact that, partly due to our ignorance, we humans have been accepting the abnormal as normal for far too long. In addition, the vast majority of our horses are not aware that a far better life would be available to them if their owners were aware that the daily conditions in which we force them to live are abnormal and committed themselves to actually caring properly for the creatures they claim to love. And even if they were aware of this, they are so focused on living in the now, that such knowledge would be utterly irrelevant.

      This, I believe, imposes a responsibility on those of us who are fortunate enough to be more aware, to commit ourselves to giving our horses a better deal. This is what I hope that I am doing with Pip.

      Yes, I believe that my blog is important, not because I am some guru but merely because I am just an ordinary, aging fellow who is honestly trying to do the best he can do for his horse and himself, and there seems to be a worldwide audience for something as mundane as this. The blog attracts 30,000 to 40,000 visits from around the world every single month. Obviously, someone other than myself also feels it is important. And if it can be of assistance to at least one of those visitors, then it will have served its purpose.

      Be well!

  6. Jade Martin says:


    I have been following your posts closely lately because I have been contemplating the ethics of asking horses to carry us on their back, amongst other things we ask of them.

    I am not sure if you remember, but I wrote to you a while back and explained how you had helped my on my journey with my two geldings, Dougie (my brumby) and Cisco (andalusian cross). The boys are living in the most natural setting I can find for them, about 100 acres of hills with only Australian native grasses in it, in a herd of about 12-15 geldings. The paddock is beautiful and has natural waterholes and is very rocky, so for the most part their feet take care of themselves 🙂 The only thing I feel they are missing out on is a more natural social structure which includes mares.

    I was just wondering if I could ask you about this paragraph in your answer above

    “To me this is not enough. Why? Because, as I go about completing my Equine Touch studies, I realise that I am constantly dealing with owners who are sincerely doing precisely that and yet their horses are in pain. Part of the reason for this is that most horse owners are ignorant about the true nature of horses and their ability to hide their pain. Another part of the reason lies in the fact that, partly due to our ignorance, we humans have been accepting the abnormal as normal for far too long. In addition, the vast majority of our horses are not aware that a far better life would be available to them if their owners were aware that the daily conditions in which we force them to live are abnormal and committed themselves to actually caring properly for the creatures they claim to love. And even if they were aware of this, they are so focused on living in the now, that such knowledge would be utterly irrelevant”

    In context of the paragraph above, when you say “we humans have been accepting the abnormal for too long”, are you referring to the pain that most riding horses are hiding or the abnormal lifestyle most horses live?

    I have been thinking a lot lately about the horses pain and riding and through working with a local equine bowen therapist, I have realised that horses having some degree of muscle soreness or pain is generally accepted as a part of them being ridden. And the more I think about it, the more I realise that I have not come across one regularly ridden horse that does not have pain somewhere in the body, which scares me greatly. Now I’m on the search to see whether there are ways to prevent this.

    Thank you for an interesting blog post, and making me think!

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Jade

      It is so good to hear that you are still around and have managed to find a reasonably good solution for Dougie and Cisco’s general well-being.

      In answer to your question, I am referring to the pain that most riding horses hide, the abnormal lifestyle most horses live, and everything else that we assume is normal about the way we keep horses but which is probably abnormal in the sense that it does not gel with the innate nature of the horse.

      You mention that you have come to realise that “horses having some degree of muscle soreness or pain is generally accepted as a part of them being ridden” and even more pertinently that “the more I think about it, the more I realise that I have not come across one regularly ridden horse that does not have pain somewhere in the body”. This scares you greatly and so you are now searching to “see whether there are ways to prevent this”.

      I can confirm from my experience with Equine Touch (which was developed from Bowen, amongst other things), that your fears are fully justified. Horses are regularly ridden into pain even by very likeable, friendly, horse-conscious people every week. The realisation that this occurs, one which has been backed up by scientific tests, largely explains why people such as Michael Bevilacqua, Nevzorov and Stormy May have resolved not to ride a horse again. There are few humans who bother to consider the question of whether to ride or not from the horse’s perspective. Yet it is a question which must be raised and one which I hope to do so in my next post.

      If ever you would like to share an update of how you are travelling on your journey with your horses with our readers, please feel free to contact me.

      Be well!