My Journey, so far...
I learnt all the basics as a child and teenager, did all my Pony Club Tests to B and studied A-Care, but I never pursued the BHS qualifications. Mostly because I never intended to have a career in horses and somehow just never really managed to conform to the BHS way.
My true education has come from the horses and ponies that have taught me so much over the years, but it was Mac who, in 2010, started me on a path that I never expected.
After a brief hiatus in my horse career, to go to University and receive an Honours Degree in Textile Design, I went back to horses.
I was sharing a yard with a Parelli student who did peculiar things like ride her horse in headcollar, spend an enormous amount of time 'playing' with groundwork and running about with her horse following her. When I was younger I had maybe seen a Natural Horsemanship demo at Your Horse Live, I'd heard of Monty Roberts with his join-up and seen some people do tricks with their horses loose at Olympia, all good fun to watch but how does that apply to competition horses? Why would I need my horse to stand on a pedestal? It wasn't really until Mac I began to explore what Parelli was.
Mac had a panic attack when we loaded him on to a trailer and in the end had to be delivered sedated on a horsebox. I had no idea how to improve this issue for him, he was obviously very claustrophobic but I also knew that drugging him wasn’t the answer. So I started to look at the Parelli educational material and in particular trailer loading. At the time I couldn’t afford the DVDs so mostly looked at old video clips. I got the idea that I needed to make the trailer a comfortable and safe place for him, so I spent time with Mac just hanging out by the trailer (which we parked in the field), I sat on the ramp and he grazed next to it. Then had his food on the ramp. Then started to walk over the ramp, from side to side and not into the trailer. Then gradually built this up to him walking through the trailer. Then eating his food in the trailer with all the doors open, then eventually we could close the doors. It took a few weeks of working on it, not every day but it was enough to change his mind about the trailer. I’d love to say that at this point he was ‘cured’ but no, just because he was no longer terrified and not able to go in a trailer didn’t mean that he always wanted to go in a trailer. That took a lot more education, leadership and some really fundamental changes in our relationship.
I started to have Parelli lessons, when I could afford them, my nearest instructor was Elaine Coxon, who was a 1Star instructor at the time. She helped me with groundwork and showed me how to help Mac find more emotional balance and connection. He was still an out of control mess at this point, and would do ‘crazy’ things like rear-up on the lunge, spin away, pulling the rope out of my hands, gallop off then scare himself with the long rope and jump out over five-bar gates – and on one notable occasion over some sheep wire into a Shetland pony’s zero-grass paddock. How he managed to live through some of his escapades I’m still not sure.
It was the summer of 2011 and I had been messing about with Parelli for about a year when I decided to save up my pennies to go and spend a week at the James Roberts Foundation Station. I had no idea what to expect but this was the beginning of my real education.
James was something else! The first morning I sat in the gallery of the Indoor School watching James ‘Start Colts’ this was each young horse’s first week and it was amazing to watch. I’d never heard of ‘Colt-starting’, we’d ‘backed’ and ‘broken’ youngsters but that took months. James worked each from his mare and once the basic yields were established then he’d just hop up on them bare back, stand there feet still, do a little lateral bending and hop off. Wow! Perhaps the biggest learning James shared with me was how Natural Horsemanship and competitive horsemanship came together and how to use the Parelli Foundation for competition horses. I learnt so much that week and decided that I wanted to continue my journey with Parelli aiming for ‘Fast-Track’, which was part of the Parelli Professional program.
In 2013, I’d saved up again (there’s a theme here, education costs a lot of money – who’d have thought it?) and went to the Parelli UK Campus at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire. My determination to go on Fast-Track was driven by the death of James in November 2012, I had intended to go back to JRFS and study more with James, but time, money and life got in the way and it is still one of my biggest regrets. One of the last things I remember saying to James was that I would go and do a Fast-Track, I think he just smiled in a kind of dismissive way and said ‘Good for you’. I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have remembered my name and thought I was just another dreamer. But he still remains one of my biggest influences in my horsemanship journey and I won’t forget that.
Fast-Track was – interesting… I thought I was a level 4 student, I had this difficult and unpredictable ex-racehorse that I could do some cool stuff with. I was on top of my game, I was braver, stronger and a better rider. Oh dear! If Fast-track taught me anything it was perhaps a lesson in humility. I don’t think that I ever tried to declare how great I thought I was, I just assumed everyone would notice. Fast-track was amazing, Sam Caporn was an excellent teacher. Sarah Brady and Sharon Crab remain my friends. It was a hard experience, they say it will test you and I was prepared for the horsemanship test but I wasn’t prepared for the personal, life changing test of my mental and emotional balance. Growth, particularly that much in such a relatively short space of time, is hard.
When I left Fast-Track I moved yards and arrived at Felicity Harpers’ yard in August 2013. With the support of my husband and Felicity’s lovely group of amazing people I did realised the difference the process had made to both my horse and to me. I had left my Fast-Track without a good enough score to become a Parelli Professional and had almost quit the program entirely. However, I continued my horsemanship journey and continued to use the techniques I’d learnt to help horses. Felicity found me some ‘projects’ to play with and I got the chance to play with some interesting ‘problem’ horses, horses with issues, like trailer loading and thoroughbred yearlings. I was such fun and I really loved being part of such a lovely group of people.
Time and reflection made me realise that I did still want to pursue a very high level of Natural Horsemanship education and so I moved to JRFS in May 2014. It was a strange place to be without James there, but Josh Steer and Becca Holloway were still flying the flag for Natural Horsemanship, with Josh starting colts and Becca teaching clinics and experience weeks. When the Parelli course dates were announced in September I think I was the first to book on to the 10-Week Horsemanship Intensive in Colorado.
This time I went with a more open-mind, I had no preconceived ideas and no specific expectations. Or at least I tried. The difficulty was that I had started another path in my journey, I just had not yet realised how much this had influenced me.
Colorado was spectacular, it’s just the most beautiful place. Maurice Thibault and Susan Nelson led the course, which was a superb syllabus and gave me such great insight into what Natural Horsemanship is, the history of the movement and why Pat Parelli has developed his program. I refined my knowledge but I didn’t learn anything new, which didn’t surprise me because I already been learning the Parelli Program for 5 years.
Again this experience wasn’t quite the experience I had planned. And due to some unfortunate circumstances of my horse getting injured and being lame then having to swap horses halfway through the course, I ended up missing the Instructor Qualification by 0.5 of a mark. Yes, I was disappointed and bit sore about the way it turned out but actually I am now glad, because it made the next part of my journey much clearer.
I started Straightness Training in January 2014 after Mac had a kick injury to the hock which had to be operated on and had left him with some muscle atrophy from not using the leg correctly, he become back-sore after starting back into normal work. By the time I went to Colorado I was a bit torn, Parelli had given my horse some mental and emotional balance, yet Straightness Training was addressing his physical balance as well as mental and emotional. Initially I saw Straightness Training as a means to getting my horse well and as some of the missing links to achieving a higher level in Natural Horsemanship, the fluid concept in the Parelli world of ‘What’s after Level 4? – Level 5’.
Now Straightness Training has given me short foundation in Classical Dressage. Parelli has given me a wonderful springboard and without my Natural Horsemanship background I know I would not be teaching and a developing people and horses the way I do. My journey moves on from Parelli and away from Straightness Training, I don’t regret the time spent nor the money invested. It has made me the horseman I am today.