Helen Triggs’ article (November 2001)

Some time ago in this column, I was bemoaning my horse’s increased age and rather consigning him to the scrap heap. I received a very encouraging fax from Lucinda McAlpine, telling me to pull myself together and outlining her very interesting philosophy of ‘stress reduced’ training and management. I had several interesting telephone conversations and a visit to her Stud near Henley to meet her horses and talk some more.

I was fascinated to read Hilary Legard’s article in the June issue of Dressage, so decided to take the Not so Fat as he Was Pony up to Brackenhill for a session with Lucinda to see what she thought of him. As a bit of background, my horse, Tolya, is a 15 year old, 16.2 Hanoverian chestnut by Aristokrat who can move a bit when it suits him, and is trained to medium level with me, and a bit more with someone who can really ride. He has a reasonably nice life – not too much exertion, as much turn out as is feasible in a livery situation and plenty of hacking in between the schooling.

Lucinda’s methods can seem radical to some but actually are based on commonsense and a desire to allow the horse’s instincts and basic paces to contribute to its work – naturalness and non-interference are the keys. So this was the first training session I have ever had which began with the horse being allowed to run free around the indoor school. Since my conversations with Lulu, I have started to do this myself sometimes before I ride, as it seems a less stressful way of warming the horse up and I’ve found he loses any stable stiffness very quickly.

Lucinda picked up very quickly that Tolya doesn’t actually breathe properly – he takes short shallow breaths, particularly when he’s tense, which he often is when schooling. This makes it hard for him to work easily and makes him tight in the jaw, throat and pretty much the whole front half of him. I’d noticed his breathing myself and even asked a vet, who just put it down to unfitness, when in fact it makes much more sense that the unfitness is due to the hyperventilation!

By massaging the tight muscles, and actually just acknowledging to the horse that the tight areas had been recognised, it was noticeable how quickly he began to react. His trot particularly suddenly began to come up off the floor in front. Further work to try and sensitive his muscles helped him begin to come alive and start working through his body. I’ve noticed recently how he can ‘shut down’- not only in his brain, but also in his body. It’s like he is on automatic pilot and he is trying to please, but by keeping out of trouble and doing the minimum so he doesn’t make a mistake.

Some of Lulu’s in-hand work is simple to watch – using a tickly whip to get the horse to kickback or to the side to release tight muscles – but very effective. If you can encourage a horse to stretch its neck round for itself, this is much more beneficial than pulling it around from on top. We weren’t quite so successful getting Tolya to yawn but he was doing a lot of chewing and licking in true natural horsemanship style.

Because Tolya has shoes on we couldn’t work with George, Lucinda’s dog who helps her with training her own horses. However, George, like most trainers, couldn’t resist having his two penny worth and sneaked into the school while we weren’t looking. Within seconds he had Tolya (who hates dogs and especially funny pink big ones) striking out with one front foot after the other in perfect Spanish Walk. And really freeing the shoulder in the process!

The latter part of the session was taken up with Lucinda riding the horse and assessing him for herself. Feeling a bit challenged, as he always does with someone new, the tension and poor breathing was really noticeable until he settled. She asked him to stretch and flex and still stay balanced and not rush off in panic. When I got on, it was really noticeable how soft and supple he felt and ‘up’ through his back. I felt that the session had given both of us food for thought and some basic ground rules to work on to get the horse to progress a bit further, without having to resort to whips and assorted ironmongery to keep him ‘together’.

One ‘coincidence’ (or is it?) is that I don’t breathe properly either – having constantly to remind myself to take deep breaths, particularly under stress (which seems to be most of the time in today’s rat race). Bad breathing leads to tired muscles, inadequate elimination of toxins and general malaise. So it’s lots of big breaths for both of us – maybe we should both go on that yoga course?

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