MARY WANLESS BHSI BSc
MARY’S CV… ALIAS HOW I GOT FROM THERE TO HERE!
I spent the ages between 4 and 14 begging my parents for riding lessons, all to no avail. My chance arrived when a school friend moved to the country (I grew up on the outskirts of London), started riding, and invited me to stay for the weekend and join her weekly ride. Even my parents could not refuse this request, and then they decided that I had to have a hard hat. Once I had this, I was on my way!
For the next four years, I spent Saturdays as a helper in a small riding school. It was little more than a string of ponies and a muddy field, but we had an enthusiastic teacher, who I think rode quite well. I lived for my riding lessons, and longed to spend more time there. (No chance!) I soon became chief helper, and mucked out, swept, shoveled, groomed, tacked up, and taught little kids on the leading rein. I knew, however, that I was not a talented rider. I was sometimes anxious, and my best attempts to get my body organized right did not seem to work that well. My best attempts, in fact, were pretty pathetic, because every time my teacher asked me to do something that felt funny, I decided that the change could not possibly be right, and went back to the place that felt familiar. I was avidly saving up those ten shilling notes for my lessons, whilst throwing away my chances of learning anything new…
Each summer yielded a riding holiday in Yorkshire, where I fell in love with a Fell pony called Prince, and with the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales.
Meanwhile, I worked hard at a very academic school, and just about made Bs. My teens became overshadowed by my mother becoming ill, and I dealt with the situation by burying myself in schoolwork and horses. She died of cancer when I was 16, and then my father died during my first term at university when I was 18. Whilst their illnesses cast a shadow over my life that did not lift for many years, their deaths also freed me to make decisions in my own right, and to follow a path that would probably have set them rolling in their graves.
I was accepted to read Physics at Bristol University, which was graced with a good riding club. This gave me my first introduction to indoor riding arenas, clipped horses, and a generally far more ‘upmarket’ approach to riding than I had known so far. At the end of our first year, a friend and I took over running it, and with the help of Mrs. Ling BHSI (now Mrs. Fergie-Woods) at Rockhampton School of Equitation, we set about making it even better. My summer vacation was about to become a nightmare, for I had no home to go to, but a friend came to my rescue by suggesting that I took a working pupil position with Bridget Rodgers at Long Close Stables, Eton Wick, Berks. Left to myself, I would never have imagined that I could be good enough to do it. I hated being the lowliest person on the totem pole, but I passed my BHSAI after 10 weeks there. When an exam. cancellation became available, my teacher looked at me and said, ‘Well if you wait, you won’t get any better will you?’. After I passed, my teacher in Bristol said ‘Well done dear, but don’t try to take any more exams.’
Horses then became my lifeline, and every vacation when my friends went home, I went somewhere to ride and teach. I had Easter and summer jobs running trekking centres and children’s riding holidays, and some freelance clients in Bristol. I developed a wonderful friendship with Capt. Jon Trouton, who ran North Wheddon Farm in Wheddon Cross, on Exmoor. He was a very strict horseman who taught me a lot about stable management, fitness, feeding, and the care of what were effectively endurance horses. Taking out rides on Exmoor became a passion, and I still think that Exmoor yields the most wonderful riding in the UK, and some of its most captivating countryside.
The closer I came to my final Physics exams, the less I did Physics, and the more I rode horses. I was still working very hard – which I had to do to keep up, for once you stopped understanding, you had ‘lost it’ for the rest of the course. But I had run out of enthusiasm for turning myself into an advanced case of intellectual masochism! However, I do think that my degree helped me and played a role in my later work. It taught me to sit comfortably with paradox, and with not understanding (yet). It taught me not to give up, but to keep thinking about a problem from various different angles, until I did understand. Before my finals, I decided apply for a Post Graduate Teaching Diploma, but to take a year out and work with horses, in the hope that I might ‘get it out of my system’. How naive I was!
University riding gave me a lot, including the chance to complete in both in our local area university riding competitions, and in international student competitions in the UK, Germany and Holland. I was always the weakest member of the team, but I hung in there, dealt with my nerves, and gained so much experience from the challenges of riding dressage tests and jumping rounds on horses I did not know.
After graduating, I worked for ten months as head girl at the Yorkshire Riding Centre for Jane and Chris Bartle, teaching students and running the yard. I was really not experienced enough for the job, but I had known Chris Bartle at Bristol, and I think the family must have opted for the devil they knew instead of one they did not! I shudder to think about my lack of riding skills, but I could string words together well and come up with a good lesson. My over-riding memory of the time is of Mrs. Bartle senior screaming at me in a lesson ‘Can’t you control your body?’ Immediately it went through my head ‘Of course I can’t, if I could I wouldn’t be here.’ As I went away to cry quietly behind the muck heap it began to dawn on me that nobody else was ever going to be able to control my body for me. It was solely my task.
After I left there I did a quick stint as a fill-in groom for show jumpers when someone was taken ill. This took me to the Dublin horse show with the British Young Riders Team. (My plaiting improved in a hurry!) I then worked for two months running a small riding school in Northern Ireland.
As promised, I returned to Bristol University and began a Post Graduate Teaching Certificate, but gave it up half way through the first term. I had a blinding flash of light walking along the road one day, when I suddenly realized that I did not give a damn whether or not kids understood Newton’s Laws! I lived the rest of the year doing freelance teaching and youth work. A friend and I bought a coloured cob between us, and took turns riding and completing him. Our hope was to BHS event, but we never made it beyond Riding Club level. At the end of the academic year, she bought my share, and I bought a 3/4 thoroughbred 5 year old mare called Cat Weazel.
For most of the next year I ran the Red House riding school in Hindon, Wilts for Elizabeth Clowes. I passed BHSII whilst I was there, although it took me 4 goes and became something of a career. Firstly I failed both riding sections. Then I passed the flatwork and failed the jumping, and then I passed the jumping and failed the flatwork… It was on the forth go that I finally passed everything! I also BHS evented Weazel and two other horses. I was scared witless before the cross country but actually rode it well. Show jumping was my bigger problem, and I found endless ways to goof up the approach to a fence, even though I knew better than to make those same mistakes in front of solid fence that might kill me! I had dressage lessons from Pat Manning FBHS and jumping lessons from Pat Burgess. They both helped me significantly, but show jumping remained my Achilles heel.
That same year I spent 4 months as a working pupil with Mrs. Sturrock FBHS, training for the BHSI. I am not sure that this time helped me so much, although I certainly learnt the theory I needed to pass the examination. Weazel had breasted a big combination fence and done something to her back. Neither of us were as bold as we had been, and I was a bad case of exam-desperation. I was doing approximations of having a horse on the bit and of riding the school movements, that now make me cringe, and I suspect that I was pretty close to unteachable!
Next came my lucky break. After responding to an advertisement in Horse and Hound, I was offered a job by Dan Aharoni BHSI, an Israeli rider who had trained extensively with Egon Von Neindorff and Colonel Handler. He had hoped to ride in the Munich Olympics, but his horse went lame – and given the attack on the Israeli athletes, that may have saved his life. I ran his riding centre at Stantons House, Kingsclere, Berks, and became his prodigy. It was not unknown for him to lunge me on 3 horses one after the other, and since he worked as a high-powered accountant in the City, these sessions began around 8pm. Often they kept going until midnight! By the time I had swept the yard and got to bed, I got up the next morning for a very bleary-eyed 7am start. Meanwhile, I looked after 7 horses single handed, taught 5 hours a day, rode my horse on the 6th, and gradually became a shadow of my former self!
However, I did pass my BHSI, with only two attempts at the riding, and one at everything else. I also spent hours watching this man work horses, and realized how profound his skills were. (Realize that there were virtually no Continentally trained riders in the UK at that time. The British in general thought that anyone who chose to ride round and round in circles instead of going hunting must be nuts!) He was able to change ugly ducklings into swans in a way I had not witnessed before, and he imbued me with a philosophy of classical riding that I hold to this day. But whilst he taught me how to recognize ‘throughness’ and in some small part to teach it, the improvements in my own riding were not as significant as either of us had hoped for. I felt just as plagued as ever by my lack of talent, and in effect, Dan had raised my sights and given me a new brick wall to bash my head against. Eventually he gave up teaching me (he had already spent months saying the same things over and over again), and soon after he gave up with me, I gave up with myself. I was physically burnt out, and emotionally exhausted.
It was now the autumn of 1979. In despair and frustration I gave up riding and sold Cat Weazel, which broke my heart. Happily she went on to become a member of the British Young Riders Dressage Team, and to partner several promising young dressage riders under the tutelage of John Lassetter. (Years later at a book signing I met Tammy Gordon who had bought her, and heard the story of how she died at the ripe old age of 24. As we both cried our eyes out over the horse we had loved, a few people looked strangely at me, before sidling away. I think I signed 4 books!)
But back then in 1979, I had no idea at all of what was to come. I vowed never to ride or teach again, and moved to London, knowing that I needed to go into psychotherapy. The end of my dream of becoming a good rider had left me weary and depressed, and I knew that I needed to find far more strength within myself than I currently possessed. The truth is that both University and my life with horses had offered me the ‘sheltered accommodation’ that I needed to feel reasonably OK. It was time to lay some ghosts, and learn how to function in the world of grown-ups.
I settled in North London, near Hampstead Heath, and for want of something better to do, I began selling fire extinguishers. Pretty soon after my arrival I was walking on Hampstead Heath when I met a teenager riding a pony. We got into conversation, and when she discovered that I had my BHSI she invited me to Kentish Town City Farm. I went, and ended up on the payroll, working as a part time consultant for the InterAction Trust who ran it. I oversaw development of the program at the farm, and the building of a new arena. In truth, I spent most of my time tidying the office, as I could not think straight surrounded by the chaos that was its native state!
Some of Dan’s old pupils who lived on the London fringes began asking me for lessons, feeling that I could make his approach to riding more accessible than he could. I kept saying ‘no’, until one day, when I felt uninspired by the fire extinguishers and desperately broke. So I said ‘yes’. Some friends of theirs followed, as did the staff and some of the most experienced kids at the City Farm. I was in the horse business again.
I date my most important breakthrough to this time; but a few years ago I met a friend who had followed me from Bristol University to Dan’s, and she is sure that it dates from my last few months there. But somewhere in 1979 or early 1980, I starting riding a horse for someone that jogged a lot. Sometimes I could stop it jogging, just in a moment, but I did not know what I had done. At other times, I would pull on the reins, it would pull on the reins and it just kept jogging. I set about trying to work out what I was doing, and it took some time for me to realize that my abdominal muscles were the key. This seemed very strange, but when I taught it to other people, it worked for them too. I had heard ‘Use your back’ (not that that had ever been explained to my satisfaction); but I had never heard ‘Use your front’!
For many years, my Physicist’s brain had been telling me that there must be a science that underlay the art of riding. If Dan could do it and I could not, there must be a reason. If it worked on Wednesday but not on Thursday there must be a reason. I had read every book I could find, trying to work out what my riding teachers were not telling me, and trying to find that reason, all to no avail. When I latched onto this use of my abdominal muscles, I knew I was onto part of that reason, and I set about finding out more. 25 years later, I am still finding out more. Back in those first few months I formulated a rule: whatever you have been trying to do for the last 10 years that has not been working, do the opposite. So I did not grow tall, did not stretch my legs down, did not push my heels down, and did not try to relax. More insights followed, and I went back to Dan for some lessons. ‘This is much better’, he said, ‘Why didn’t you do this whilst I was teaching you?’. I shrugged my shoulders, and did not dare to tell him that I was doing the opposite of everything he had ever told me! It was clearly working, but despite this, I was going through a crisis that left me feeling like the child in the story of the Emperor’s new clothes.
At the end of 1980 I accompanied my University friend Helen Poynor on a three month dance and movement training at the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, led by Anna Halprin. Dance had always been my other passion, and this was the trip of a lifetime. I actually had a really difficult time there; but I came across books about the visualization techniques that have helped and at times healed people with cancer. I was attracted to these because of my family history. I also read some of the early books on the fledgling science of sport psychology, and was particularly fascinated by Timothy Gallwey’s work on ‘The Inner Game’. California was on the cutting edge of these things, and the teachers at the dancer’s workshop were also on the cutting edge of teaching physical skills. I did Awareness Through Movement classes in the Feldenkrais Method, and drew my body image. I danced my way through some of my unhealed angst, and I realized that I was not just an eccentric riding teacher. I was on to something massively important. I was in no doubt that the things I was finding out needed to be known by the horse world, and I vowed to write a book. I still have the ‘mind map’ that I drew expressing everything that I knew in 1980. There is not much knowledge regarding the biomechanical issues, but philosophically, and in its understanding of the mental and emotional issues of riding, it is spot on.
I began with attempts to get some articles published, and the next seven years were dedicated to learning to ride, learning to write, and learning to present my ideas reasonably coherently to anyone who would listen. My clientele were people who were desperate, and for whom everything else had failed. They were a really good group for me to cut my teeth on! I took them up a large number of blind alleys, but between us we worked it out. I reached the stage of being able to teach alignment, bearing down and breathing, plugging in, rising trot mechanism, and walk/halt transitions. This may not sound like much, but it was enough to create a small revolution for myself and those people. Horses who had never worked ‘on the bit’ began to do so, and riders who had never thought they would be able to do it found themselves surpassing their expectations. Then, we all had no choice but to travel the scenic route; now, with the benefit of 25 years of experience, I can take people down the motorway. But the people who know this work best joined up at that time, and learnt both what to do and what not to do. There is more value in this than you might imagine.
Meanwhile, I sought feedback on my own riding from some of the best riders in the world. I spent 2 weeks in Portugal with Nuno Oliveira, and then heard of Luis Valenca Rodrigues, a pupil of his who ran a place where there was less pressure, more fun, and where I felt I could learn better. In the mid 1980s I must have spent over 3 months total riding in Portugal. I also rode regularly with Desi Laurent, who lived in Devon, and was an aristocratic Belgian gentleman who had ridden extensively with Nuno Oliveira. He was a real stickler of a teacher, and set me on some right tracks that took time to bear fruit, but were really significant in my learning. At one stage I did not go back to him for several years, after he had shouted at me about my asymmetry to such a terrifying degree that it was just not worth the torture. (He had walked out of lessons, I had walked out of lessons, he had screamed at me, I had screamed at him, I had burst into tears and he had hit me with the lunge whip… after exhausting all of these possibilities we really had no where else to go!) But when I thought I had fixed the problem I returned, only to hear him say ‘Viola, Mary, I zee zat you ’ave understood. Now zee next problem eees theees’….
I was also a regular visitor to France and Marietta Almasay-Roudier, who was in the French Team squad. I joined her staff (I swear that none of those horses ever had the inside of their hind legs brushed between my visits), and about every hour and a half, she would come up to me and say ‘You want ride another horse?’. Over two consecutive Christmas/New Year holidays I joined the staff in Ferdi Eilberg’s yard, and had lessons from him in return for yardwork. In the later 1980s I went right to my roots, and spent 2 weeks with Her Egon Von Neindorff at the Reit Institut in Karlsruhe, Germany. I also spent 2 weeks with Hans Heinrich Meyer Zu Strohen near Verden in Germany. I had dipped my toes into the main riding cultures of Europe, finding where I fitted in, and finding out what these people said about the missing pieces in my riding. Each time, they could tell me what was wrong, but not really how to fix it. For that I had to go back to the drawing board.
Even though I could not afford my own horse, I often rode client’s horses in their lessons, and between this, the City Farm, and my trips abroad, there was no shortage of horses for me to ride and attempt to work it out on. I still felt that I could get my pupils riding better than I could do it myself, and it took some time for me to move beyond this.
There was one really cold winter in the early 1980s, and though I became very inventive at teaching lessons on somewhat frozen arenas, I vowed that I needed a guaranteed source of income to see me through the next winter. This lead to the idea of teaching a series of 6 dismounted evening workshops. Having arranged and advertised them, I had to become inventive about the content, and I am eternally grateful that I gave myself that challenge. It was the beginning of the dismounted strand of this work, and I gained enormously from teaching mental rehearsal, learning skills, relaxation, focus and centring. I also made up some specific exercises that mirrored the physical demands of riding. This process of invention has continued over the intervening years, and is, I think, one of the great strengths of my work. When you can learn and understand a difficult skill in an easier context, it is then possible to transfer that learning to your riding. The workshops also create an environment in which each person realizes that she is not the only person struggling to organize her brain and body – people typically do not realize how much everyone else also feels inept. Also (and for me this is the best bit) the bottom line of ‘learning how to learn’ is life-changing for many people.
In devising the content of the workshops I drew extensively on learnings I was making through various classes I was attending at the time. London in the early 80s was buzzing with martial arts classes, biofeedback classes, dance, movement and bodywork classes. These included the Feldenkrais Method and the Alexander Technique, as well as lesser-known approaches. Whenever I came across an exercise that I could adapt to help my riders, I filched it. Concurrently, I began to teach myself anatomy, using anatomy books to work out what I might be doing when I felt my muscles working differently whilst riding. I taught myself to tense and relax these various muscles independently, and found ways to teach my students to do the same. This proved invaluable for all of us as riders.
So was the learning that came from training in ‘Touch for Health’ and ‘Educational Kinesiology’. The former explained how various muscles can get ‘switched off’, and therefore not ‘fire’ when the rider wants them too. It also gave ways of switching them back on again, and was the introduction to the highly complex field of kinesiology, which I still hold in great regard. Educational kinesiology gave me great insight into many of the difficulties I had had in learning, both of the academic and bodily kinds. Its founder, Paul Dennison, is himself dyslexic, and his own struggles led him to some profound insights. (Unless you have a particular interest in this topic you might want to skip the next 3 paragraphs. but I consider this knowledge so important, and potentially so life-changing for so many people, that I am going to ramble on about it.)
Many of my problems, for instance, are based on being left hand, left eye, left ear, left foot, and left brain dominant. Under stress people switch of their non-dominant hemisphere, in my case the right. But there is a cross-over between the brain and body, so that all of the sensory input from my dominant left side goes into my right brain. With this switched off, I am left stranded, with my dominant (left) hemisphere having no sensory input, and my non dominant hemisphere switched off. My pattern is known as ‘blocked dominance’, and is not that common.
As a child in school, I became stressed enough to switch off my non-dominant hemisphere much of the time, and was left in a speechless non-processing daze with my mouth open. My days in primary school were sheer hell – although maths provided some respite from the torture of learning to read and write. Later in riding lessons I would often hear sounds that seemed to be gobbledygook, and after a short delay I would realize that I had indeed heard words I understood. This was the effect of being ‘reversed for ears’.
If I had been born into a family where failure was an option, I suspect that I might have ended up in the ‘educationally subnormal’ classes of the time. But actually, sheer hard work and dogged persistence got me through the pattern to a point where it now works for me extremely well. The key lies in not becoming so stressed that the nondominant hemisphere switches off. Then, this has the advantage of receiving sensory input from the dominant hand, eye and hear. Meanwhile the dominant hemisphere has the advantage of being dominant, and when they talk to each other, there is great cross-fertilization. My ability to put words on feelings comes, I think, from this, and thus it has been the cornerstone of my work. Einstein is now thought to have been the other way round to me, with his entire right side dominant. But he too got through the pattern, so his propensity for switching off his left brain and day dreaming in class eventually led him to dream up the theory of relativity in such a way that his left brain could clarify the mathematics. People do well in school when they are right hand, right eye, eight ear, right foot, and left brain dominant i.e. their sensory input goes into their dominant hemisphere. But this pattern does not tend to be the most creative – that comes from the ‘blips’. (For help and information on this, do read anything by Paul Dennison, especially ‘Brain Gym’, and also ‘Brain Dominance Profiles’ by Carla Hanniford).
During the latter half of the 80s I also began training in Neuro Linguistic Programming (often defined as ‘the study of the structure of subjective experience’), and this yielded some great new insights and exercises that helped people to run their own brains. This began after I had picked up a book one day whilst browsing through a bookshop, and read a sentence that basically said ‘If you want to know how to do something, do not go and ask someone who does it well, ask someone who has struggled.’ I immediately knew that this field of knowledge was for me! My learnings in NLP fed enormously into my understanding of how people ‘tick’, and of how we keep ourselves stuck in patterns that do not work well. I became a Master Practitioner of NLP, assisted on both Practitioner and Master Practitioner trainings, and taught practice sessions for the UK Training Centre. I fact, I seeped myself in NLP for about five years, learning from all of its founders and major innovators. I still attend workshops on topics that have particular interest for me, and count NLP as one of the most life enhancing trainings I have ever taken.
As all of this learning was giving me better ways to tackle the physical, mental and emotional challenges of learning to ride well, my basic workshop course evolved to the point of also offering an advanced course. Within these sessions we laughed a lot and learnt a lot, largely through simple meditation exercises, learning about how the brain works and learns, learning mental rehearsal, rolling about on my floor, doing simple martial arts exercises, and treating large floor cushions (and later gymnastic balls) like horses.
Part of the reason that Ride With Your Mind took seven years to write was that I had to evolve into the person who could stand behind it. Historically, it had taken only a small puff of wind to send me reeling, and I now realize that I am one of the 15% of people who are unusually sensitive. In my youth this was a curse; but through an enormous amount of hard work it has since become a blessing. In the old days, I also found it hard to stay ‘in my body’, and now reckon that I spent at least the first 25 years of my life effectively in shock. My introduction to psychotherapy in the early ’80s had begun to help with both of these, and had got me so fascinated that I had began training as a therapist, not so much with the intention of working in the field, but more for what I would gain personally. I gained a lot of strength through this, and for the first time ever, I really felt part of a group, and joined whole-heartedly in the general thrills, spills and hilarity of the occasion. But despite this, the training was basically a ‘school of hard knocks’, even though some of the people I trained with became and have remained my closest friends.
The change to studying NLP in the later 80s was a break-away move that was not easy to make, even though I had completed my psychotherapy training. It made my trainers question my integrity, and it moved me into a much more expensive, up-market training environment. But NLP gave me the most fantastic back-up as I was finding out more and more surprising things about riding. (In fact, I consider my work as one of the most pervasive – and certainly one of the longest – modeling projects ever done within the field of NLP. Twenty five years later, it is still in process!) This field prides itself on the techniques it has for ‘modeling’, or making any skill explicit, learnable, and therefore reproducible. My original psychotherapy training seemed to delight in the mystique of good therapists, much as good riders delight in their mystique, but this rang too many bells for me. Our trainer would demonstrate working with someone and then expect us to be able to do it. Some of my peers from that time now think that I was the only one of us to realize that I had not a hope in hell. The others were happily kidding themselves!
NLP also appealed to me because it had evolved from a study of some of the world’s best therapists, and had worked out what they were actually doing that worked so well. Interestingly, the key factors were not what they thought they were doing, and within three schools of therapy that appeared very different, it turned out that there was underlying, hidden common ground. This too made me think of riding, and the parallels between the fields of riding and therapy continue to fascinate and haunt me. NLP also helped me learn ways of working with ‘difficult’ people, and I developed strategies that could get all sorts of folk (who lay somewhere on the scale of incredulous to down-right disbelieving) to give it their best shot in a riding lesson or a workshop. I was becoming a powerful communicator, and although I was still struggling to pay my mortgage and deal with the vagaries of every day life, I was also starting to discover the blessings that can come when you build your passion into your life’s work. I was also just beginning to reap the rewards of being eclectic in my study, of ‘thinking outside the box’, learning on the job, and ‘walking my talk’.
‘Ride With Your Mind’ was finally published in 1987, and much to my amazement, this metaphorical way of sticking my head on the chopping block did not lead to anyone hacking it off. (What was said behind my back may be another story; but I have never been ridiculed to my face.) I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Ann Mansbridge, my editor at Methuen, who believed in me and my book, and effectively taught me how to write it. She was also behind me in writing ‘Masterclass’, ‘For the Good of the Horse’ and ‘For the Good of the Rider’. I began those books from a very different place, however: by the time I started ‘Masterclass’ I had found my voice, and words began to flow. But rather like the dismounted classes, the act of writing forced me to think, and much of what I now consider obvious was worked out and sweated over through the need to produce clarity on paper. I would not have one tenth of the knowledge I have without the demands of teaching (both mounted and dismounted) and also of writing.
Through the 1980s when I was developing this work and myself in London, I graduated from a bicycle to a motorbike, and then to a car, and from a rented room to my own flat. Most of my friends in the dance, therapy and bodywork worlds were also living on small incomes whilst training. Many of them have since done very well, and the others are content to live modest lives whilst they do the work they love. But in the early days of riding round London on my bicycle, I often wondered quite how I was going to join mainstream society. My chance came when I had the opportunity to sell the building I had inherited from my father. He was a shopkeeper, with two sports shops, one of which he owned. His will looked very biased in favour of my older brother, who inherited the house that we lived in. But whilst he cashed in his money at once, mine sat invested in the shop for over ten years, yielding a very small income in rent. This had seen me through university, and given me the courage to both work with horses, and then to throw that in and go to London with nothing. When the business closed and I no longer had a sitting tenant, I sold the shop and bought my first flat. It was a right of passage that terrified me, but I am eternally grateful that I plucked up my courage and made it happen, and that some good professionals held my hand. I am also eternally grateful for my father’s foresight. If my money had spent ten years invested in the bank, it would have had nowhere near the buying power it finally had.
London was a training ground that served me unbelievably well. But for the last few years I was only staying for what I could learn there. My desire to get into the country was becoming unignorable, and I started searching for ways to find a base I could work from. Much of my work was now clinics rather than individual lessons (a huge and highly significant change for any freelance teacher). I also organized holiday courses in several countryside venues, and this evolution in my work made the change of base seem possible. But it was beyond my means to buy the kind of property I would need. So I put adverts in ‘Horse and Hound’ stating that I was looking for a business opportunity, and I told everyone I knew. The answer came from a surprising quarter – and advert that one of my clinic organizers put in a local tackshop, that was seen by a friend of a friend of a man named Peter Collins, who was building a new and magnificent riding and competition centre in Wiltshire.
Febuary of 1990 saw me moving from London to a hamlet near Melksham, in order to hold my courses at West Wilts Equestrian Centre. I bought a wonderful house that had proved unsalable in the property crash of that time, and that needed a lot of work. It was a bargain, but my new massive mortgage was also the biggest financial risk I have ever taken (even bigger than the move to Overdale on 2000), and in truth I made myself ill for the next few years paying it. But as interest rates dropped, and my income became more secure, I was able to improve the house and make it the home of my dreams. My partner, who I had met on my psychotherapy training, had his own flat in London, and he lived the next few years between both places before moving entirely to the country.
I had always known that there would one day be a phone call that would change my life. It came in the summer of 1990, and a very deep slow voice told me ‘I am Brent Hicks from the California Dressage Society. We would like you to be the speaker at our Annual Meeting…’ I accepted the invitation on the condition that they would also set up a couple of clinics, which they duly did. I had been invited in 1989 to teach in Bermuda, and this turned out to be a very badly organized trip that taught me a lot about the parameters of working abroad. I had also been invited to Australia in 1990, and had laid out the ground rules much more clearly. Both trips whetted my appetite for international travel, and this has since become one of the cornerstones of my life. In fact, I think I shall always be plagued by the fact that if I am away seeing the world, I cannot be at home riding my horses, and if I am at home riding my horses I cannot be out seeing the world. I can only see this dilemma becoming more acute as I grow older and have less time left for both.
My life has been enormously enriched by travelling, both from the time spent in riding arenas learning with and from my pupils, and also from the extra-curricula time that has taken me to some fabulous places. I have seen more of America than most Americans, and have also been to both sides of Canada. I have taught in five different parts of Australia, and would love to see more of the country, and also to visit New Zealand. (This is a hint, if anyone from there would like to get in touch with me!) I have been to several parts of South Africa, and have the Africa bug. I have taken holidays in Central and South America, and have that bug too. I have passed through Hong Kong and Bangkok, staying a few days in each on my way home from Australia, but the Far East does not draw me so strongly. I keep thinking that one day I would like to teach my way around the world, and also that once the novelty of long haul flights has worn off, I shall take the time to explore Europe. But right now, Europe – with all of its heritage and beauty – has to stay on the back burner.
From that small beginning, my work abroad has contracted to the point that I now only teach in America and Canada (essentially through the need to maximize my earnings), and expanded to the point where I now spend three months of the year there. I make two long trips in the winter, and think I would really struggle if I had to spend from November to March in the UK. Those short, dreary, wet, blowey days would get to me. I also make a short trip abroad in May (originally scheduled to save my bacon in the year we had Foot and Mouth disease), and leaving England then is way harder than leaving it in November of January! The place where I now live and work is stunningly beautiful in summer, but the winter storms are taxing.
The work abroad has been highly significant in my learning. The people who have tracked me down and invited me out there have, by definition, been exceptional, and they have become some of my greatest friends and collaborators. I was fortunate to meet Sandy Howard, ex of the US Olympic Dressage Team on that first visit. I interviewed her as part of my research, wearing my sport psychologist’s hat, and surprised her by appearing to have more idea about what was going on in her brain than she did! She then watched me teach some of her ‘difficult’ pupils, and realized that I had many tools in my toolkit for catalyzing learning. Her riding centre in Watsonville California has become one of my home-from-homes in America, and her pupils (some of whom appear on the second set of videotapes which were shot there in 1996), have been tremendous to work with. With and through her I have learnt so much.
It has been a privilege to work with some of the best up and coming riders in the US, and to influence not only their riding, but also their thinking and their teaching. Joni Bolton began working with me on that first trip in 1991, and in 2000 she made the short list for the Sydney Olympics. I do not think she could have done it without my input. Heather Blitz from Louisiana and John Zopatti from Florida are both doing fantastically well, and as I write in the summer of 2005 Heather’s mare Arabella is lying in first place for Grand Prix Horse of the year, with an average score of 72.4%. I am so thrilled to have been involved in her and John’s development.
Heather could well be in contention for a place on the American team, and I have promised to go with her to Beijing if she is selected. Every time she rides with me in a clinic, I say a prayer that I will still have insights and observations that can help her, and it is always the case. Small changes in her body have the most profound effects on her horse – just as profound, it seems as in her first lesson when I taught her not to grow up tall. It is magical to utilize the principles I know so well to influence the lazy hind leg in passage, or the piaffe/passage transitions, or the half passes, or to get the horse more out in front of her. When these changes surpass those can be made by even the best trainers in the world utilizing conventional ways of thinking, I know that it is only a matter of time before this approach really proves itself to the world.
There are also many other good riders and trainers in the US with little pockets of pupils in their areas who are learning really well – at whatever level. My association with them has upped my profile in America, whilst in the UK I undoubtedly suffer from the fact that no man is a prophet in his own land. There are some young riders here, however, who are primarily pupils of coaches in my network, who are already beginning to win accolades and turn heads. It is with these next two generations of riders and coaches that the future of my work really lies; but in the meanwhile, I shall keep doing everything possible to empower both them and myself, and to take our message out to the world at large.
But I have jumped ahead of myself here, for a tremendous amount of personal learning and change has happened in the 14 years since I first went to America. What I did not know when I bought the house in Wiltshire was that I would be able to rent a field and stable right behind it, and that a wonderful network of bridlepaths began just across the road! The nearest arena was a ride of several miles, but once there I could ride on farmland too. That ride eventually became such a drag that my trailer stayed hitched to my car most of the time (and I did most of my shopping at the local garage, where parking was no hassle!). And then that became such a drag that I bought a horsebox, which served me well for several years, but – like all horseboxes – it proved and expensive way of getting from A to B.
On one of the early courses at West Wilts I was offered a horse to borrow, who was ridiculously uptight, but who really appealed to me. She was for sale, but I was too overwhelmed by my new mortgage to even think of buying her, even though she was cheap. I went away to America, and returned to hear a friend telling me that ‘Luby’s for sale again.’ I was soon to go abroad so I contrived not to notice; but when I returned and heard that she was still for sale, a little voice in my head immediately said, ‘That’s it, I’m having her this time.’. It took three goes for me to listen to my gut and my intuition, and I have to say that during the first few years I often doubted my wisdom.
When I bought her, Luby was practically a basket case. She buckled at the knees when you got on her, ground her teeth, and raced along with her head way up in the air and tilted drastically to one side. She needed, and she got, good bodywork. She had fervour, exceptional movement and a magnificent spirit – which was what attracted me to her in the first place. The bottom line was that no rider had ever been able to match her level of sensitivity and her power, and suffice it to say that ‘she took me’ especially in canter, until I learnt how to match it too! She regularly ran away with riders in extended trot, and the head tilt was part of some interesting asymmetries that took me years to get to the bottom of (or let’s say, nearly to the bottom of. And of course the bottom line was that they were largely my asymmetries all along.) Luby’s school of riding provided a very thorough education, and I owe her a tremendous amount.
She was nine when I bought her, and she died a year ago at twenty, from the knock-on effects of Cushing’s disease. If anything I have discovered about riding deserves a place in history, so too does she, for so much of it was discovered on and through her. I wish it had not taken me so many years to get her truly ‘through’, and wish that I could start again with her, armed with the knowledge and skills I have now – knowledge that she both gave and demanded. But I think that riders who keep themselves on a learning curve almost always think that about their favourite horses.
Luby is the covergirl on the Essentials book, and she is featured in two of the ‘1 to 1’ articles that appeared originally in ‘Horse and Rider’ magazine, and which are also here on the website. But I think my fondest memory of her is not of riding. For I have never ever been greeted by anyone (two or four legged) like she greeted me one time on my return from America. When I climbed onto the fence behind my garden and called her name, she came galloping across the field, issuing a whinny that went on and on for several strides and sounded like a siren. (I have never heard one like it before or since.) I expected her to walk up to me; but no, she proceeded to lunge herself around me on both reins, making perfect circles in her most spiffy trot and canter. Then she walked up to me, put her nose in my hands, and walked with me over to the stable.
In 1998 she was joined by Ellie, a 14.1 Welsh Palomino pony who has since become my mascot. I was running low on horses I could borrow for my courses, and heard of her through a friend. Again, she had proved unsalable, but again, she was a good pony who had not had been well ridden. But whilst Luby had good paces and lots of talent underneath her craziness, Ellie does not. She is short, fat and hairy, with a diabolical trot and an even worse canter. (We say that she is ‘canter challenged’.) But I still love her, and am grateful for all that she too has taught me. Whenever I do not have enough horses to ride, I bring her into work. It took her ages to get the plot (read the article ‘Dressage Riding: What is the Game?’ for my version of what the plot is), and she could not think any good reason for going round and round in circles. We used to call her ‘the concrete pony’, but once her defenses softened and she did get the plot, she became a great teacher. If she does have a talent, it is for lateral work, and I and others have benefited enormously from this. I can ride shoulder in and half pass on her until the cows come home, and not worry that I am going to ruin her.
Whilst the eighties had seen me going abroad for lessons whenever I could, the 90s were largely a time of riding quietly at home and working it out. But I did make a number of trips to the Swedish National Stud at Flyinge. This was home to Kyra Kyrklund and Richard White. I had known Richard since he was a teenager, and before I moved to Wiltshire I used to hold clinics at his parent’s farm. He understood (and I hope benefited from) my need to get to the bottom to how riding really works. He met Kyra on a trip to Europe in which he visited some of the most famous schools and trainers. They hit it off… and the rest is history. But for them to invite me to Flyinge, and for me to be able to ride some of Kyra’s horses as well as the school horses, has proved a great blessing. It is enormously enriching to be able to discuss the issues of learning, teaching and training with them and other colleagues, and to hear their perspective on the horse world.
Looking back on the1990s, I realize what a tremendous work load I took on. I wrote ‘Masterclass’ in 1991, and ‘For the Good of the Horse’ and ‘For the Good of the Rider’, between 1994 and 1998. Concurrently, I did a BSc. Honours degree in Applied Sports Coaching, hosted by De Montfort University and the National Coaching Foundation (now Sport England). This took six years to complete, and I graduated in 2001, having learnt and gained a lot, especially from contact with some of my tutors. The top people who teach in the Sports Science departments the British universities are a very skilled and impressive bunch. I also gained a huge amount from some of the written projects, and whilst I struggled to find relevance in some of the modules, the module on ‘Reflective Practice’ saw me in my element. (I think I must be one of the most self-reflective sports coaches on the planet, and since my work was graded as a ‘first’ it pulled my whole degree up to an Upper Second). I also gained enormously from writing my dissertation, which appears on the website as ‘Dressage Riding: What is the Game?’.
1993 and 1996 saw me making videos, the first set at West Wilts, and the second in California at Sandy Howard’s barn. Both shooting these and putting them together were incredibly intense experiences (on both occasions we all nearly fried in unexpected heat waves, and I have never been so hot in my life). I owe a tremendous amount to Sandra and William Papke who produced the tapes, and who have remained great friends. They had previously shot equestrian tapes with Baron Von Blixen-Flinecke, and they took a great risk in putting the production costs up front, especially with me as a relative unknown.
In 1999 I went one stage further than responding to the invitations I regularly receive to hold lecture-demonstrations, and found someone to arrange a spring tour of demonstrations around the UK. These run in a ‘Masterclass’ format, and aim to show both the audience and the riders how they can maximize their learning, and make their riding more biomechanically correct. They are great fun to do, and working in front of an audience with riders I have never seen before really makes me ‘think on my feet’. I have become better over the years at illuminating some of the quirks of the horse world, and making the audience chuckle as they reflect on their experiences of learning. I also present the basics of correct biomechanics, and (hopefully) show them in action. Many people find the evening fascinating enough to want to follow it up in their riding. This is of course my aim, and the demonstrations are probably the best possible format through which I can take my message out to the world.
In 2000 I moved to Nether Westcote, a village on the Gloucestershire/Oxfordshire borders in the Cotswold hills, to develop my own Overdale Equestrian Centre. The dramas of selling my house in Wiltshire, and buying both the equestrian centre and a house in the village, do not bear repeating. It was a nail-biting, by-the-skin-of-my-teeth deal. Add to that the dramas of planning and building a large covered arena and a complex containing tackrooms and a teaching room, and you are left with a rather older, wiser Mary. But I have no regrets, and all of my UK teaching now happens on the courses that are held here between April and October each year. Concurrently, Mr. Sam Twyman runs a locally based livery, lessons and training business from the same premises. This gives me the chance to have my cake and eat it too i.e. to have my own base and my own horses, but to be able to leave it and them when I need to.
I have since moved house within the village, through what I consider to be the greatest good fortune that life has bought my way. I began to rent a field and barn for my own horses that was owned by an old man who hardly ever spoke to anyone. Persuading him to rent them to me was a long drawn out process, that required all of my communication skills, but through it I got to know and like him. I began to look after him a little through the winter of 2002-03, and visited him when he had two short spells in hospital. When he died suddenly at home, it was me who became worried and who raised the alarm. This led me to meet the old friend of his who was the executor of his will, and Terry offered me the property at a very reasonable price. I am eternally grateful to him for his integrity in the deal; he stuck by his word despite being bullied by solicitors and estate agents, and being offered more money by richer people than I. Pulling off this deal made the previous one look easy. At the last minute I lost a buyer for my old house. Then the new buyer then added yet more last minute obstacles – but meanwhile since the new house had no deeds it was unsellable anyway, and it took a minor miracle for me to get them reinstated. So by March 2004 when I finally moved in, I had become an even older, wiser and grayer Mary, and had called on all of my skills and reserves. But again, it has all been worth it. For as well as the riding centre I now have another 9 acres, a barn, a fabulous view, and a house that has not been touched since it was built in 1971. It will be a long term project, but one day it will be fabulous.
This means that my horses have access to both the barn (which is not subdivided into stables, but half of which is bedded down) and to grazing, and with good New Zealand rugs in winter they are as happy as clams. This arrangement is, I think, the most ethical way to keep horses, and I can come and go, leaving them under the care of the staff at Overdale, and knowing that they are having the best life possible.
At this stage in my work, I am no longer a one man band. There are about 30 coaches who are accredited (at various levels) through this system. Teacher training has long been my favourite facet of the work I do, and probably the most important as only this will ensure its continuity. It also has provided me with a very supportive group of friends and colleagues, many of whom are extremely skilled in their own right. It is no longer just me who comes up with new insights about riding, turning those ‘aha’ moments into new ways of understanding its biomechanics, and new ways explaining them. In the UK as well as the USA, groups of us bounce ideas off each other.
As for the future: I have one new horse to ride, an 8 year old Lusitano gelding, who I have owned for 8 months but ridden for much less as I have been away so much. He is proving quite a challenge, with a level of sensitivity, precision and opinionatedness that I have rarely encountered! He has also been very badly ridden, and spent the first few months trying to convince me that I had been reading all the wrong books! (I then had to explain to him that I wrote them!) However, this is probably just the sort of challenge I need in order to increase my skills, and he has already demanded a lot of learning that an easier horse might have allowed me to bypass.
For instance, he has required me to find a yet more effective fix for my asymmetry, and this centres around the inside edge of the diaphragm, on the right hand side. No wondour it took a while to discover – and I am curious to find what might lie on the next levels as I gradually delve deeper into this ‘onion’ of riding! (I am no longer naive enough to imagine that once I have ingrained this next fix, I must surely have arrived at the middle!) It makes a huge difference to my horse when I fix this; and believe it or not, I have been able to teach the same fix to Heather – with great effect on her tempi changes (including the one times) on the right hind leg in passage, and on her half pass right. Of course there are not many people I can teach this to; but the group is growing, and it astounds me that even this is a teachable and learnable skill – at the right time. What’s more, the differences made by a fix like this seem just as profound as the differences made by the fixes like bearing down and sitting light that usually initiate someone’s introduction to this work.
I hope to buy myself another horse next year, as it works well for me to have two quality horses as well as a school horse. I don’t yet know if I shall ride them competitively – doing this and fulfilling my other commitments really needs two lifetimes. So competing may only be on the agenda if and when I decide to change my priorities. For me, the most important aspect of riding is my learning – finding the fixes for my own and other people’s problems, along with the ways to feel it, see it, and say it that work for riders from club to international level. So I am a new breed of rider, that I call a ‘research rider’, and what I have learnt turns me into a new breed of coach called a ‘biomechanics coach’. Of course, I hope to get this approach – with its emphasis on the ‘how’ of riding – more widely known, and also understood and recognized for the paradigm shift that it is. Twenty five years of dripping water on the rock has made a small dent that shows every sign of becoming bigger, with much more interest from the upper echelons of the sport.
I also hope to start work on my house next year, and possibly on another book. I also have plans for a DVD on teaching and learning. There will be courses, trips to America, and lecture-demonstrations… and so the years go around, following a routine that I don’t expect to break in the next few years – not a long as I’m fit and healthy, having fun, and learning on the job from my horses, my pupils and my colleagues.
To everyone who has played their part in this saga and helped me along my way, my thanks are due. It has been a fabulous journey. Now, from this perspective, I would not even swap the thrills, spills, delights and skills it has bought my way for being born as a talented rider!
Yes, I really did go eventing!