The 2020 lockdown impacted people in many different ways so as we reached the end of 2020 we asked readers to share their lockdown stories. Gemma, Kelly and Lucinda were kind enough to share their experiences with us.
The culmination of years of hard work
I have been fascinated since childhood by those men who established a deep relationship with their horse, which is much more than just using them to reach certain levels in their sport. Learning to ride in Italy, where I am from, there was little understanding of ethology and natural horsemanship, and I rebelled against the conventional methods I was taught.
Later, inspired by Giorgio Pagliaro and Chiara Angelini in Italy and Amy Bowers, who all use collar work to strengthen the bond with their horse, I took horsemanship classes with an instructor in Brescia, northern Italy.
I then decided it was time to tame a three-year-old foal that I'd had from birth, putting what I'd read into practice. Things went well until I tried to ride him. I knew I couldn't do this on my own, so I looked around to see where I could get help. We moved to Lodi, in northern Italy, to train at a specialist centre. Both he and I progressed massively, and I had the opportunity to ride lots of different green horses. The centre had assimilated ethology into their methods, with excellent results.
Back home, this gave me the confidence to work in this way with lots of different horses. The horses responded well, and although I was still a beginner, I fell in love with this new way of doing things. I broke in my filly, Cocò, and started to take on new clients and their horses. It wasn't always easy, and inevitably some problems took longer to resolve, but using natural methods and asking for advice when needed, there was always a happy ending.
By the time I started to break in Caprice, a filly, in early 2020, I was obsessed with the practice of natural horsemanship. She was very gentle and calm by nature, sometimes a little too laidback to respond to my requests. She's a big horse, so we started by helping her become more responsive. After this, we moved on to the collar. It was difficult at first; she went where she wanted to go and was very slow to respond to directional commands, completely refusing to jump obstacles. I began to think I was expecting too much too soon and realised I needed to take things one step at a time. I started with a simple bitless collar to give her a greater sense of freedom without freeing her head, always keeping the collar in contact. After doing this a few times, I tried again to remove the bridle and had much more success this time. She developed remarkable balance and was much calmer. Once again, it reminded me that being gentle and showing patience and trust in young horses will always, sooner or later, bring the desired result.
We entered a cross-country race for the first time in August 2020. It was a challenging course, and we got off to a really slow and faltering start. I had to ask a lot of her, and she responded well to my requests; I was overjoyed when we won. For me, this was the culmination of years and years of work and served to emphasise the benefits of natural horsemanship. I couldn't have been happier, despite the fact 2020 had been a truly awful year for so many.
All being well, we will enter again in 2021. I certainly don't advocate writing off the classical approach entirely, but I believe you should combine it with natural horsemanship to improve the relationship with your horse.
Lockdown saved Lakota's life
I was horse-mad and living in London, working at The Civil Service Riding Club to get my fix of horses. I'd rush home from work and then out again like your average twenty-five-year-old, but as time went on, I realised something wasn't quite right with my health. I learned later that my kidneys were failing, and within six months, I was on dialysis. I was close to dying on four occasions over the next seven years.
This is where my journey into the healing power of horses began. I'd always favoured a more natural and holistic approach to horses. Realistically, as a teenager, the BHS route was the only available training option. I took their exams, but my heart wasn't in it, and no doubt that was apparent from some of my exam responses. Fast forward five years, and a man called Monty, who looked like a cowboy, turned up at the Royal Mews. For the first time, I'd found someone who seemed to think a bit like me. My journey into understanding horses has continued to develop and is an ongoing process. I'm forever thankful to Monty for showing me it's okay to think differently and to train horses in a whole new way.
I remember, as a ten-year-old sitting in my pony Tanzy's stable, watching her eat. I noticed that if I held my breath, she copied me. If I sat completely still, she would come and rest with me. When I was feeling sad, just sitting with her would calm me. Even then, as a child, it had been clear to me there was more to horses than just riding and competing. There was a whole new level of unconditional connections. Whilst I'd always had my own horses, I'd taken a break from having my own and was absorbed in the daily hustle of training, competing and working for others. I was seeing a renal consultant and waiting for a kidney transplant. I needed a focus, a distraction. My consultant agreed with me that a quiet cob would be great therapy (I later found out that they hadn't expected me to survive and concluded it couldn't harm.)
The cob I chose was a 16.3, two-year-old Hannovian cross thoroughbred, William, who would grow to 17.3.
We brought William home, and I soon realised all I had learned in the past had to change. My failing health meant I had to slow down. I would sit quietly with him, sometimes for hours. I noticed everything about him and what he did. I approached his education at a much slower, more thoughtful pace. Much as my health was a struggle, I'm thankful it forced me to take notice. I started to connect with him and all horses, on a whole new level, with lightness and empathy. William thrived on this approach, with me spending time with him and educating him at a pace he could understand. I went on to back him alone, calmly, with dialysis tubes inserted into my heart and abdomen. He became a fun and confident horse, and every day spent with him helped me heal and stay focused. William had his own health issues. I believe the amount of quiet time I spent with him helped him massively, and many believe it also kept me alive and well enough to receive my kidney, and later, a pancreas transplant. He gave me a focus and time away from the frightening process of daily dialysis and waiting for a life-saving transplant.
Just three months post-transplant, I was back on my mother's fantastic shire cross. This time, it was George who healed my soul. His huge and genuine heart looked after me every step of the way; this showed me how incredibly therapeutic riding is for the mind, body and soul. Each time I rode, all my worries disappeared. My mind was quiet. I was healing on a deep level. My biggest healer and teacher, though, had to be Lakota. After another gap of not having my own horse, I reached a point in 2016 when I couldn't bear it any longer. Lakota came up as a 'project horse', and something about him just drew me in. He came to me as a petrified four-year-old Appaloosa cross, newly off the moors, and until a few weeks before I got him, a stallion. What a lesson I was to get. These horses are a species apart from domesticated horses. I was known for my patience and quiet riding style, but Lakota helped me take this to another level. I had turned him out for the winter to relax and recover from his experience at a dealer's and just be a horse again. He obliged and became utterly wild. How was I ever going to catch this pony?
Despite my attention and love, his fear still dominated his life. Lakota had experienced some tough times, and four years later, he was still petrified of humans. He was non-domesticated and didn't need or trust humans. He needed medical care but vet trips, with his level of anxiety, weren't an option. In November 2019, I'd reached the toughest decision that the kindest thing was to release him from his fear and pain, as his quality of life wasn't getting better. My heart told me not to rush into it. Four months went by, and I was still torn, and then lockdown happened.
Inevitably, the events of 2020 have brought challenges for most of us. I had to shield, which meant moving out of my home and stopping work, all in one day. There was, however, a strange peace which I enjoyed. Lakota liked it, and it presented a whole new opportunity to deepen our trust and bond. Throughout this time, our yard and the horses were my salvation. I had time to truly stop and to offer Lakota space to come and relax and meditate with me. The air was cleaner; there was no traffic, and you could hear the birds so clearly. It was heaven. Lakota loved it and softened like never before the more time we spent together. Lockdown taught me how to slow my mind and live in the moment. I can really notice what my horse is saying in that space, how they are feeling, and what they need. I don't ask anything of them. They can just be, with no expectations. Thank you, lockdown, for teaching me this!
Lakota is now well. He will let some people handle him, which is a huge relief. He's happy and continues to improve. I thank lockdown daily for giving me the time to slow down and notice, and this little horse is still here because of it, I swear. And will be for the rest of his days. He still has his own deep trauma to release, but he is also capable of healing the most troubled souls. Just sitting quietly in meditation with him brings a sense of inner peace I've never experienced, and he adores it too. Without him, I'm not sure I'd have the strength to get through the physical challenges I'm facing now, as my body rejects my kidney. Time in Lakota's presence helps me heal and gives me the peace to get through this. My purpose is to provide him with the best life possible and share all he's taught me; this makes me fight even harder to save this amazing kidney I've been given.
If I could offer one bit of advice, it would be to take some time for you and your horse and just sit together and breathe, with no expectations. Allow their souls to heal yours. We all need this right now.
Homeschooling - swapping classrooms for horsemanship
For Oliver, aged ten, and his little brother Austin, aged seven, lockdown may well be remembered as one of the happiest times of their lives. As a family, we have always been aware of how fortunate we are to live on a farm in such amazing surroundings. During these unsettling times, we've appreciated it even more.
I'm sure I'm not on my own if I say that homeschooling was, in the main, challenging. The distractions of outdoor life, ponies, dogs, and beautiful weather made concentration on school lessons virtually impossible. Most days, I would call the boys in for lunch, only to find that two children and two ponies had gone missing. More often than not, after heading out to look for them, I would find the ponies tethered to a bush in a far-field, with nothing more than head collars on, and the two boys knee-deep in a muddy stream, cray fishing.
There is, however, one aspect of home-learning that both the boys particularly enjoyed, and that was 'horsemanship'. In my opinion, this teaches many essential values and life skills anyway. Pre-lockdown, normality for the boys featured a busy pony club, mounted games and polocrosse schedule. With quite a few ponies here at home, they soon set about building obstacles and finding new and different things to do with their ponies every day. We built a whole Trec/Trail/XC course around the farm in the summer. Oliver watched Extreme Trail videos on YouTube and was on a mission to convert the entire farm into a world-class trail course.
I often tried to get some 'me time' by catching up with Warwick Schiller on YouTube or through his impressive video vault. These quickly turned into family viewing sessions; Oliver, in particular, was hooked and just loved the way Warwick explains things in such an easy-to-understand way. The boys would then go out and try and practice what they had just learnt.
We were also fortunate to have one of my best friends, Racheal Eden, of Core Horsemanship, grazing her horses with us during the lockdown. Rachael did a fantastic job helping the boys with the different ponies and inspiring them to persevere with Liberty, which of course, improved their overall understanding of equine behaviour. Another huge lockdown inspiration for the boys was Mia Rodley, a superb horsewoman known for 'The Heart of Horsemanship'. We were all having lessons with Mia pre-lockdown, and so when lockdown hit us and lessons were cancelled, we started to follow her journey on Facebook. Mia is such an inspiration to both boys, as well as being a fantastic instructor.
Mia was Oliver's inspiration to try Roman riding with two of his ponies. She also inspired him to enter the Horsemanship Showcase Contest, a fitting last chapter to 2020, enabling him to practice everything he had learned over lockdown. We are all so proud of him for reaching the contest's final round. We have been genuinely humbled by the support he received from brands, such as Thunderbrook, Heavenly Horsehair, the United Kingdom Polo Cross Association, and Jason Webb and Warwick Schiller. We also want to say 'thank you' to everyone who voted for him in the contest.
Oliver still has lots to work on; two ponies are relatively new to us. He's doing a fantastic job developing a solid foundation with little Dexter so that his little brother Austin can take over the reins next year, both literally and metaphorically.