People always talk about ‘their journey’, it is an overused phrase these days but like a lot of horse owners, I have been on a lifelong journey of discovery.
My love of horses started as a child, where, like most of us, I was taught to ‘kick’ and use my little crop, ‘shorten those reins’ and ‘give them a big pat’ to say thank you. The ‘show the horse who’s boss’ attitude dominated the riding school circuit and I didn’t think to question it. As I got older, although still riding at riding schools in the traditional way, at least it started to get kinder, but I still just did as I was told without questioning it.
When I moved to Spain and became a horse owner for the first time, and being lucky enough to have the horses at the bottom of my garden, I soon started to question those traditional methods. I had accepted that horses were often kept in individual stables, without contact with other horses while churning out lessons by the hour. Tacking up tended to be rushed, with the horses tied to a stable wall with no hay to pass the time or settle their stomach before the ride. Thinking back, horses were often treated as no better than machines to be used for our enjoyment.
Once I was able to observe horse behaviour on a daily basis, I soon realised what sensitive, complex animals they are, and how living together in a herd kept them happy and healthy. Taking on the many rescues over the years opened my eyes to the effects of harsh horse management , even bullying and it has been a joy to watch shut down horses blossom with love and kindness and also to observe the difference between how they behave compared to my horses who were born here and have never known anything but kindness, never had a bit in their mouth, a whip used on them or shoes on their feet.
Keeping horses naturally
To some people, our horses may look scruffy, in the winter they are left unrugged and develop thick coats to keep them warm, meaning they are not the shiny examples you often see with stable kept horses. They are also allowed to interact with each other as horses should do, which does result in the occasional small cuts and loss of hair through play. Their feet are as hard as nails and cope amazingly with the stony terrain on our riding trails but again, they won’t always look glamorous. We are occasionally judged in a negative way, with the way our horses are kept being compared to living conditions in other countries . In the majority of Southern Spain, grass hardly grows, so traditionally horses are kept, if they are lucky, in tiny paddocks, usually on their own, but most commonly around our area, horses are tied up on long ropes in fields in the summer, without being able to touch another horse, with no shelter from the sun or water and in the winter, you are left wondering where they are, as you just don’t see them – they are mostly shut away in tiny stables, barely seeing the light of day.
My horses have enough turn out to be able to run around, play, graze on their hay, roll and do everything a horse needs to do, with shelter if they want to use it. It is not the acres of grass that is considered necessary in other parts of Europe, but then again, our horses do not have the problem with laminitis that is becoming so common in the Uk.
Training methods change over the years
Along with the journey to being bitless and barefoot which is described in the horses stories, I have also discovered new training methods over the years, which has evolved into positive reinforcement, using a clicker to train with kindness. This has been such a bonus with the scared, shut down rescue horses and I have had complete success . On this journey though, I have also come to worry about what we have to do in order to be able to afford to feed and care for the horses – namely, take people out on riding trails. Most horse owners have the luxury of being the only people to ride their horses, and anything they do to train them is reinforced every time they ride them.
I have to accept that I need to put different riders on my horses on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, and over the years it has made me realise how absolutely accepting and giving a horse is, to put up with all the different riding styles. Why should they even allow us on their back, we should take it as a privilege and treat the horse with the respect it deserves. If I witness a riding client being less than kind to my horse, kicking, pulling, slapping on the neck, (I accept that this is a common way of saying thank you and I don’t hold it against people when it is what they have been taught) I of course explain why we choose not to do this and they usually accept my explanation and have their eyes opened to the fact that there are other ways of riding, but sometimes a rider can’t be changed, and I was starting to get upset on a regular basis, watching my kind horses, some of them having recovered from sad past lives, having to tolerate things they didn’t understand.
I realised that if I could choose, I wouldn’t allow anyone else to ride my horses, but needs must and at the end of the day we have a business to run. One of the biggest problems I faced on rides was the constant call of ‘when can we have another trot’, or ‘when can we canter’ even when the horses were already sweating on a hot summer morning. It really upset me that people couldn’t see that the horses were living creatures and that they weren’t happy to just enjoy the stunning scenery and the bond with their horse, it was all about speed and rider satisfaction. I had to have eyes in the back of my head to prevent over enthusiastic children sneakily kicking their horses to try to make them trot all the time, unaware that it could be at a place where they would often canter and could lead to a dangerous situation, with all the horses taking off. (not to mention the fact that the poor horse had to put up with being kicked in the ribs at every stride).
Making things better for the horses
I started to think of how I could make things better for the horses, especially as they are all starting to get older, and realised that if I removed the cantering from the rides, and people knew there would not be any cantering, then it would totally change the type of client we had and mean that we only have clients who really care about the horse. I am not saying that cantering a horse means you don’t care, I love cantering as much as the next person, but when it is all you want to do, when you treat the horse like a machine, you are not the type of client we want.
I have also realised over the years that a lot of people who think they can ride , and say they can ride, are not actually balanced riders and it started to occur to me that an unbalanced rider bouncing around on my horses back in trot and canter was not kind to my horse or it’s back! In short, I was allowing things to happen that I wouldn’t allow if I was a one horse owner, with the luxury of being that horse’s only rider.
Work/ life balance
There has to be a bit of a compromise, with 14 horses to care for, some of them do have to earn their keep, especially as half of them are retired or semi retired and will all live out their days with us.
By changing the riding business to offer ethical riding, at walking pace, enjoying the scenery and the bond with your horse, we not only make life better for our horses but we offer something a bit different for our guests too – there are a lot of people who are maybe nervous, or older and lacking the confidence they used to have, or are complete beginners, or just horse owners who enjoy happy hacking, who really welcome the type of holiday we offer and it is a great compromise all round, with happy horses and riders.
We are now meeting so many lovely, genuine horse lovers, and with the addition of our varied riding courses, some non ridden, and often beneficial for the horses, for example equine massage or other therapies, we are finding a way forward , as our horses (and we!) get older.