As I get ready to make the now familiar journey to Northamptonshire to continue my training with French classical dressage master Philippe Karl, I can’t help but feel a certain amount of pressure to demonstrate clear progress in Buffy’s training. I’m not quite sure if that pressure is real (as in does Monsieur expect the same amount of improvement as I do?) or if it’s a bit in my head, but either way, it’s there in my mind. Are we ready? Have we done our homework enough? Have we done our homework too much and overcooked some exercises? But, most importantly, is she sound enough?
I took Buffy on at the beginning of last year, knowing that she has kissing spine. My gamble really was that with appropriate training and management, her condition could be managed and even improved. Surgery is always a back-stop option for us but it’s something I see as a last resort. Why did I go and buy a horse despite knowing she has kissing spine? Well, as ever, my heart over-ruled my head. That and she is very pretty.
When I bought Buffy, I was very clear in my mind that she was to be treated as a re-hab project and that my riding and work with her would have to be in keeping with what gives her back the best chance of soundness. You wouldn’t have ever said she was “lame” as such, but for sure her hind end movement wasn’t all it should be and her canter was more of a job to sit to than a pleasure. But, and this is actually one of the biggest reasons I still bought Buffy, she is a horse that I felt wanted to try.
Fortunately, Monsieur Karl’s work lends itself very heavily towards re-hab work. What I think has really massively helped me work with Buffy to increase her lateral flexibility, but without ever worrying her or getting into trouble with her, is his method of in-hand bridle-work. Being able to train all lateral moves from the ground, and increase Buffy’s lateral flexibility, before asking her to do that work under saddle, has no doubt helped our case.
But – have we progressed enough? At the December PK clinic, Monsieur seemed happy that our walk and trot had improved but the canter was still very much an issue. Since that clinic we have been working on finding some cadence in walk and trot, to improve those paces, to then help us find a better canter. We have also been experimenting with different head positions in canter, to see how she can best carry herself in the canter. This is, of course, alongside other general hacking work and also jumping, as I’m not a believer in having the horse spend all his time trotting round in circles in the school.
I do very much feel that Buffy has improved. She has got stronger, fitter and more flexible laterally. She was rising 6 when she came to me, so of course one would anyway hope that as she gets older her training would continue to develop these things. But in my heart of hearts, I still have my doubts about the quality of her canter. It has improved, but has it improved enough?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I imagine that Monsieur will set me straight by the end of next week, for better or for worse, and I may need to reconcile myself to getting an answer I don’t like. This is a very difficult prospect for me – I’m a worker and I like to think I always put in the effort required to get things done – but sometimes that still isn’t enough and there are physical limitations that one must (however begrudgingly) accept.
However, come what may, the one guiding principle that I must keep in my mind, and in my heart, is that, as aforementioned, I must make sure the work I do with Buffy is in keeping with giving her back the best chance of soundness. To push her too quickly to fulfil my own aims is simply not good horsemanship and what’s more it offends that little girl inside me that still sees her horses as an object of love. I won’t do it – and to be fair, I don’t think anyone on the course would ask me to, least of all PK – it is only the pressure I put on myself that I must struggle with. So there is this vaguely schizophrenic thought process within my own mind that on the one hand I want to do well and progress through the course and on the other I want to do what’s right by my horse.
However, being business-like about it for a minute, at the end of the day, the point of being on the course is to ultimately demonstrate that you can bring your horse to a standard suitable to pass a ridden exam, showing certain moves with sufficient quality. More than that, for me, ultimately I want to then be progressing on to the high school movements under Monsieur’s tutelage. So I need an equine partner to be able to achieve that goal.
It’s not all bad. Even if Buffy turns out not to be the horse to continue on the course with, there are still many other things that I plan for us to do together, and there is no question that she will stay with me, and hopefully over a longer time-frame she can continue to improve further. I am also fortunate to have another younger horse coming up as a reserve horse.
For me, the key to good horsemanship is to make sure that the over-arching consideration is to do what’s right by my horse. If I end up crying into my (large) glass of red wine one evening because PK has told me that Buffy will not be up to getting to the level I want us both to get to, then I’m sure my course-mates will remind me of this fact, even though it may at that point be of cold comfort. But I’ll know I’ll have done the right thing by my horse. As will Buffy. That’s a lesson more important for us all to learn than the High School movements.