Dressage Magazine article (March 2003)

It’s unusual to go to the yard of a successful dressage rider and see the demonstration horse picked out of a herd, brushed over, tacked up and ridden (unshod of course) into the school, where he proceeds to execute some highly commendable movements with consummate ease.

This is normal if you visit Lucinda McAlpine’s Brackenhill Stud in Oxfordshire, where these days the numerous stable blocks stand empty. The experience of watching Sandhills – the Irish ex-hunter – performing ‘au naturel’ was quite delightful (although for the benefit of Juliet Felton’s cam-era, a set of white bandages were added!) and the overall effect was as harmonious as if the horse had been prepared in the conventional way.

Lucinda has her critics, partly because she insists that her horses live out in groups, wear neither shoes or rugs, nor get clippers over their winter coats. Instead of horses with all the accessories, here they live their equine lives in a manner nearer to their natural herd state; well, certainly nearer than the way the average ridden horse is normally allowed to do. That includes her current dressage stars, What a Boy, and Panduc.

We’re all pretty conventional in our methods of husbandry with regard to horses; demanding that they fall in completely with our requirements, which has been largely without concession to their natural, sociable lifestyle. For expedience we developed single stabling for horses, rugs, shoes and regulated exercise to fit in with our lives. Does it however, mean that this is the only successful way of keeping them?

How successful that has been is debatable, at least from the horse’s perspective. There is, for example, the emotional cost, which manifests itself in weaving, rug-biting and all those other signs of sensory deprivation which we class as personality defects.

Their movement is greatly restricted; stabled horses cannot even do the equine equivalent of running up stairs, (whatever that may be – perhaps trotting to the water trough!). A human athlete constantly exerts herself beyond her training regime. After all, keeping the heart muscle primed is a vital part of being fit overall.

Then there are the perennial types of unsoundness, in particular, navicular. It would be of interest to know how prevalent this is in wild horses. As a flight animal a horse’s physiology is designed for constant movement whether it’s via grazing, or jostling with the herd or galloping from predators. Their hoofs did not evolve to stand the year-round on concrete or the like.

There are of course owners and trainers who do allow their horses above-average time outside, grazing and moving about as nature intended. Event riders are particularly keen on this type of management. However, the instances of horses being competed from the fields, particularly in the higher levels of dressage, seem to be less frequent. Doubtless there are many reasons for this; short-age of grazing perhaps being one.

There’ll be other arguments put forward for keeping a horse predominantly stabled, bandaging or booting it up whenever it’s led out, never letting it gallop with companions and generally pre-venting it from socialising with its own kind. However, they’d have to be pretty convincing to persuade Lucinda.

She is convinced that her horses are healthier both in mind and body by living in a herd environment, which consists of a mare, a three year-old colt (the bottom of the pecking order) and geldings. Her idea is to ‘look at what the horse really wants… I want to do for them what they want and I believe that they will want to do things for you in return. I believe in them being very genuine animals. I would prefer to do it that way; with their acceptance.’

Twasn’t ever thus. Lucinda was a big shot in the showing world -which doesn’t leave much to chance either – with winners such as Pringle St. John and First Glance. She also comes from a line of racehorse breeders. Her grandfather’s stud at Brackenhill bred horses such as Welsh Abbot, Tremblant and Birdbrook.

It was while sitting under the stud’s fence rails at the age of four that Lucinda first recognised her deep attachment for horses. ‘There was something about a horse that was special to me. The relationship between horse and human; there was something very special’.

Ever since she has been looking for ways to improve how she communicates and manages them. This has taken her down other conventional routes. After her showing career she took up dressage, going to Germany to train with Jurgen Kosehel and General Steken, where she saw the good and less good aspects of the Germanic way of keeping and competing horses. ‘They did want to toughen me up, and I made the decision that I didn’t want to be tough at the expense of sensitivity. If there’s a quality that’s a real bonus when you’re dealing with horses, it’s that sensitivity. You have to really feel – feel what it’s all about.”

It was her experiences in Ger-many which finally pushed her towards the natural, kinder side of dealing with horses. It was here she bought Panduc, her Grand Prix horse, who came with a reputedly difficult nature, and a history of unsoundness. But for Lucinda there was an instant bond between them and she felt, ‘It was a science to try and get him right everything was wrong,’ she explains.

One of his biggest problems, she concluded, was tension. ‘Tension’, she believes, ‘is the root of all problems’. The horse was trained to Grand Prix level, ready to compete, but she wasn’t happy. ‘He wasn’t lame, but you could-see it about to happen… I’d done everything right; I had the horse in the beautiful stables, and the beautiful rugs, and I lavished attention on him… but I still wasn’t happy with it: the horse was too tense… It was the whole way of life, something was wrong, he wasn’t happy, and he wasn’t right.

I knew there was more to it…’She’d reached the same conclusion with the other horse she was competing on in Europe, Ombra, whom she won many rosettes with. “Everyone was saying, isn’t it marvellous, and it was truly ghastly. I used to need oxygen when after I came out of a test with him… I said if this is Grand Prix, I really do not want to know. I rode Grand Prix horses in Germany, and I thought I don’t believe this, because it’s not the sport I want to be doing.

‘It shouldn’t get, as you go higher up the scale, that it becomes harder work to get the horse to do it; it should be easier and easier; it should go off lighter aids. That’s what I’m trying to produce as a Grand Prix horse… I want the horse to dance, and I want him to dance because he wants to dance; I want him to Passage out of joy.”
At this point four or five years ago, when she was beginning to question how things were done, that she was introduced to the alternative therapist, Trudi Hills, whose techniques include physiotherapy, cranio-sacral therapy and focusing. Lucinda explains that Trudi showed her what could be achieved by treating her horses in a more natural way,

She also introduced her to work with a dog, where the horse and dog play and work loose together. ‘In those days we had shoes and boots, and I always rugged them, all sorts of non-sense. So it was a bit alarming that I was taking them out in the field… to be supposedly chased about by a dog.” The belief is that the dog identifies where a horse’s tension lies, and makes the horse aware of them. The dog doesn’t chase the horse; the dog may initiate movement, but the horse actually follows the dog most of the time.

The outcome of this strange alliance is, Lucinda explains, that the horses begin to relax. ‘We started doing quite a bit of work, working them free. At the end of the day, if a horse can’t work free, it can’t move on its own. That’s the whole basis of what I’m doing. You can get the paces right from the ground by relaxing the areas of tension.

‘Every horse has the ability to move well; it’s only various problems along the way that stop it. Basically, we’re showing the horse how easy it is for him to move with extravagance and athleticism; by leaving him outside, they get to do this 24 hours. A horse at liberty, there’s nothing more beautiful – stunning.

As all the horses are turned out together, it’s impractical to have them shod, even if Lucinda approved of this practice, which she doesn’t. ‘That came from Panduc, because he had feet that could no longer take shoes… I tried everything, but they kept getting worse, so I took the shoes off.

The hooves are now tough, and road work isn’t a problem. “I do a lot of it, it’s a lot safer. The frog’s an anti-slipping device; it’s also a built-in shock absorber”. She explains the stud is surrounded by hills, both on and off the road, and they were lethal to ride with shod horses. “Now its just bliss going down hills, and they really open their shoulders.”

Owners who prefer their horses shod and rugged-up, have mostly removed their horses from Brackenhill. ‘I got to the stage when I had half of the people doing it the other way, then some of us… mainly me… doing it my way. After I’d done three quarters of a winter, I couldn’t do it… I said to one lady, ‘I’m not happy with the way your horse looks’. She said to me ‘He never does well in the winter’. Now, that’s okay for her .. it’s not good enough for me … I’d want to do my damnedest to make sure he does do well in winter.”

Lucinda defines her methods as ‘encouraging the self-healing ability of the horse”. In relation to competitive riding, she comments, “It’s allowing the horse to do what we require of it for itself, and making it easy. We go round all the time thinking how hard dressage is, making it difficult by creating tension. We’ve got to allow them to do the movements; doing it as a way of life. Not restricting it by clamping great lumps of metal on its foot…” She continues, ‘If you sit and watch your horses in the field, and you know that’s where they’re happiest you don’t deprive them of that, just because you to want to ‘Barbie doll’ them a bit.”

It’s an unusual approach, and while change for change’s sake is senseless, if someone is in a position to experiment with alternatives to a system, as Lucinda is, and to do it with the horse’s best interest in mind, it’s worth assessing for oneself rather than pre-judging the idea.

There is certainly room for improvement in current regimes, when considering the mortality rate from colic, and instances of foot and psychological problems among ridden horses. Her vision is to keep horses in a style nearer to a natural state, and still be able to compete successfully at top levels of performance.

She is certainly convinced. ‘I’ve done it the other way, and I’ve done it this way, and I would not go back – nothing would make me go back to keeping horses in stables 24 hours. Never, never, never’

Footnote: Horses usually require a period of acclimatisation before they can be subjected the year-round to the vagaries of British weather, and being ridden unshod.

© HILARY LEGARD. This article is reproduced with kind permission from HILARY LEGARD.

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