It was my last day in Wales and I was awoken by a strange scratching sound followed by a loud crash as the curtains, separating the conservatory from the living room, fell down. I leaped out of bed in shock! Furious squealing sounds emanated from a large lump underneath the curtains and I breathed a sigh of relief as I realised it was Arnold and not a murderer.
“Arnold you big idiot!” I laughed, as I rescued him from suffocation under the swathes of material. “I don’t think your mother is going to be impressed with that!”
“What’s happened?! What’s happened?!” yelled Marjorie flying into the living room, wringing her hands. “Oh dear! Are you ok?”
“Yes! It’s just Arnold!” I grinned
“Arnold! What are you doing? Oh dear are you hurt?” Marjorie checked Arnold all over and luckily he was fine. “Come along and have breakfast and we’ll sort the curtains out later.”
I noticed that Marjorie looked like she was wearing the curtains. In fact, on closer inspection (when she had her back to me of course) it was clear that this particular pair of dungarees were indeed made of the same floral material as the curtains and they had at least six pockets.
Breakfast was amazing! Homemade bread (from the oven, not a bread-maker) with homemade goat’s cheese and homemade strawberry jam. It sounds like a weird combination but it was delicious beyond description.
“So today is your last day and we shall be teaching you all about the bitless bridle!” said Marjorie enthusiastically. “You run along and get ready and Julie will probably be here by the time you’re back.”
I dashed off to the bathroom which was in such a tiny room you had to sort of bend over to move around in it as the ceiling was so low - and I am by no means tall - hastily dressed and then dashed back to the kitchen to find Julie having a cup of spicy tea.
“Morning!” she greeted “Let’s get cracking!”
We went into a large glorified shed, which was decked out like a classroom with a desk and some chairs. On the desk were some examples of really extreme bits that Julie had found in various foreign countries. They were nasty and sharp and it was horrible to imagine the pain those horses must have suffered whilst wearing them.
“Now before I start talking about the Dr. Cook humane bitless bridle, I’d like you to put this in your mouth” said Julie handing me a desert spoon. She asked me to put the handle, width ways, into my mouth. It was very peculiar!
Julie then launched into a speech about bits but I couldn’t really focus on what she was saying because the spoon felt so weird and I couldn’t stop salivating! I had to keep swallowing and wiping my chin with the back of my hand which was really grim.
“…and that’s why we personally prefer to use a bitless bridle.” said Julie as she concluded her speech and signalled for me to take the spoon out of my mouth. “Any questions?”
“Er well actually I couldn’t really follow most of that!” I said. “I couldn’t think about anything except the spoon and my mouth just kept filling up with saliva!”
“Exactly! Now you know how hard it is for a horse to listen when it’s got a piece of metal in its’ mouth! Having anything in the mouth, triggers the digestive system to get ready for the arrival of some food because the salivary glands are being constantly stimulated. It’s much easier for a horse to concentrate without the distraction of the bit.”
“I’d never thought about that before.” I replied, deep in thought about what I had just experienced. “I just noticed that Poppy hated opening her mouth for it, that’s why I thought I would try her bitless. It really makes sense though.”
We went outside and Marjorie collected a small, black horse to demonstrate the fitting of the Dr. Cook bitless bridle. She showed me how to test that it was all in the right place on the horse’s face and then demonstrated how it worked.
It was so simple yet so effective. Two straps crossed from the side of the face to underneath the face which exerted a pushing pressure when the reins were pulled. So if you pulled the right rein you effectively pushed on the left side of the head and the horse would turn to the right and vice versa. The pressure was in a large area so it didn’t cause pain, it literally just pushed the head round.
Pulling back on both reins put pressure on the whole head and brought the head down for slowing and stopping.
“Ok get your hat on and let’s do some riding!” said Julie and we went into the indoor arena.
Flora, the horse, was a lovely black cob, my favourite type of ride, and I felt very safe and ‘familiar’ once on board. Like a lot of little cobs, she was in no hurry to go anywhere and it was rather comical to experience such a sluggish horse after having ridden super-speedy Poppy for the past couple of months.
I did everything I could to get her going but all she did was amble along for a few steps and then she stopped to give her leg a bit of a scratch.
“She’s so slow! I’d forgotten how it feels to ride a horse like this!” I wailed in a slightly pathetic manner.
“Over to you Julie!” grinned Marjorie. She sat down on the mounting block and fished around in one of her many pockets for a biscuit.
“Riding a lazy horse can be a bit irritating can’t it?” Julie smiled.
“Yes very!” I replied, feeling more than a little frustrated.
“And when we feel that irritation,” continued Julie, in her lovely non-judgemental, relaxed manner, “our body generally tenses up and we begin to feel like a big heavy clamp from the horse’s point of view. This is basically telling the horse to stop moving.”
Julie came over and pointed out the tension in my arms and legs.
“Oh blimey!” I said “I’d never realised!”
“Also, what we tend to do when we feel this irritation is to inadvertently look down at the horse’s neck as if we are having a conversation with it! We look at the back of their neck or head and say ‘Come on get moving!’ completely forgetting that horses use body language more than spoken words, and in that moment, our body language is rooting them to the spot.”
“Because we’re looking down?” I asked, as I slowly awoke to a different way of understanding things.
“Yes exactly! We are looking down and focussing all our attention there so that’s where the horse stays. And even if you look ahead, but feel irritated, you will find that the tension in your body is in a downward motion which will also keep the horse either standing or moving very slowly as it desperately tries to interpret your mixed messages. We rarely notice how much our horses try for us.”
“Oh my God! I didn’t realise any of this but it’s so obvious now!” I was stunned.
“Let’s take a deep breath and relax your body,” said Julie and she did a basic visualisation to help me let go of tension.
“So, sitting as quietly as you can, keep your legs relaxed and still, I’d like you to look over to the other end of the school and feel that you need to go there! Really focus on that spot and imagine that it’s very important to get there! Visualise yourself walking very fast over to that wall!”
I looked over to where Julie had suggested and conjured up a desire to go there. Flora lifted her head and started walking.
“Great now without using any leg aids feel as if you need to get there faster! Quick! Your life depends on it!” called Julie.
I visualised myself walking really fast. Flora picked up the pace.
“Excellent! Now keeping your hands nice and still turn your head to look over to your right and focus on walking towards the cone over there in that corner!” said Julie, gesturing to a cone in the corner of the arena.
Keeping my hands and legs relaxed, I looked over to the cone and really focused on it. Amazingly, without even using the reins or my legs, Flora turned and walked to the cone!
“You see, horses are basically doing Tai Chi all the time! She’s feeling your energy and she’s going to where you are sending your energy.”
It really was the most fantastic experience. Flora walked where I asked her to walk but I didn’t use my voice or my hands or my legs, I just used my intention. Wow! For a scatty person such as myself, it was a revelation. I am rarely focussed. My mind is usually in several locations all at the same time but Julie taught me how to keep my mind on just one thing. It was very grounding. For the first time in a long time, I felt present.
“Ok now I want you to come down the centre of the school and halt. Just visualise halting.” said Julie.
Incredibly, it worked! She halted!
“Wow!” I said. “I don’t know what else to say except wow!”
“It’s great isn’t it?” laughed Julie. “If you lived nearby we’d be able to build up to riding with no tack and even jumping with no tack but at least you’ve got the basics to take home with you.”
“Yes! With Poppy it will be the opposite though, I’ll have to imagine her walking very slowly!”
“A good way to do that is by counting 1,2,3,4 very slowly over and over in your mind and eventually you’ll notice her feet fall in time. Let me know how you get on!” smiled Julie.
I untacked Flora and gave her a big kiss and then all three of us walked her back to her beautiful meadow. It was the most perfect place for a horse to live with the most indescribably stunning views of mountains in the distance.
My eyes drank in the scenery and I stood quietly for a while, with no thoughts in my mind, simply being with nature.
I watched the Alpacas wandering about, grazing; the goats lying in the sun and there was the peacock treating me to another display of his fabulous feathers.
After a tearful goodbye, it was time to load up the car with Poppy’s new bridle, a lovely green rope halter and a few lunge ropes of different lengths. Arnold gave me lots of lovely kisses and Marjorie gave me a home-made wicker basket full of wonderful food for my journey home. She really was the best cook ever!
I drove away feeling like a very different person….