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Perry: The horse who started it all...


craig1Jo Clark writes:

 "You’re so lucky to have such an easy horse". "He’s the nicest horse in the stable I’ve ever met" and even "Wow, what an energetic, forward-thinking horse". These are just some of the comments I’ve heard about Perry recently. Yes, Perry my beautiful German-bred 17.1hh Hanoverian dream horse is now truly a pleasure to ride and a joy to be with - but it hasn’t always been that way!

Sold to me by a Grand Prix dressage rider who had bought him as a foal and given him a few years of basic dressage training, Perry had seemed a nice enough, docile, obedient dressage horse when I tried him out. In fact the reason I was told he was up for sale in the first place was that he just wasn’t quite forward enough for Grand Prix.

On the day he was delivered though, the horsebox appeared several hours late, its arrival announced by a fanfare of banging and crashing. Down came the ramp and out of it exploded a massive bundle of heaving muscle with bulging eyes, thrashing around on the end of a lead rope. "Put him straight in his box and he’ll soon settle down", I was told. "And you might need this", said his former owner, pressing a tube of sedative into my hand before driving away.

In those early days, Perry did pretty much everything you wouldn’t want a horse to do and not much you that you would want. When I went to his box to put on his head collar, he greeted me by furiously rearing up and presenting me with teeth and 2 shod front hooves above my head. He hated being groomed and would kick, bite or simply squash me hard against the wall each day. Although he was stabled at what I thought at the time was a fairly horse-friendly dressage yard, when turned out (alone) for his daily hour, he would just stand still in the paddock, looking miserable.

In the school, he refused to go forwards for anyone at anything much more than a shuffle, despite spurs and a stick. He frequently pulled his nose behind the bit until it was literally touching his chest and he mixed that with fast spins and spooks at absolutely nothing. After a short while he began refusing to canter at all, kicking out and literally smashing fence rails when asked. Out hacking he napped, spooked or bolted flat-out with no brakes or steering whatsoever. I seriously thought he was going to kill either me or someone else.

In a lifetime of riding and being with horses, I’d never met one like this before and despite being surrounded by people more experienced and more knowledgeable than me, nothing anyone could suggest did anything but make things worse. To be perfectly honest, after a few months of this I was terrified of him, terrified of my own dream pony! The remaining options were simple; I had to find a solution, or find a new horse.

Unwilling to give up on him, I kept looking for help and, much to all our good fortunes, I was introduced to Adam Goodfellow, a Recommended Associate of Kelly Marks’ and Monty Roberts’ Intelligent Horsemanship Association. I can still remember the sceptical look growing on Adam’s face as Perry stood in his box looking angelic while I explained our problems. Adam, though, was about to realise that Perry was going to turn out to be one of the toughest challenges he had ever worked with, as he was greeted by 17.1 hands of horse up on his hind legs with teeth and front feet everywhere on entering his box. "Ohhhhh, I see!", said Adam, calmly closing the door.

Adam recommended taking Perry to his yard for a week of intensive rehabilitation. The idea was to start by giving Perry a more natural lifestyle. As we turned him out with another horse for the first time in a long time, Perry was beside himself with joy. It was the first time in 10 months that I’d seen him look anything other than miserable or angry. After three days of life as a horse instead of a caged beast and with daily groundwork sessions the change in such a short time was incredible: Perry’s body had quite clearly let go of a huge tension and he was already much happier, although there was a long, long way to go yet with some of his behaviours.

A few days after we arrived he pulled off a front shoe while working in the round-pen. Not an unusual occurrence as, at that time, Perry was losing a shoe every 2 or 3 weeks. Adam’s farrier took one look at Perry’s feet and announced that he couldn’t possibly put the shoe back on, as there was nothing left to hold any nails. He showed me what a poor state his hooves were in by pulling away pieces of hoof wall with his thumbnail. I was devastated. At that time I was completely clueless about hooves and had trusted my regular farrier who had never even mentioned a problem. So, off came all of his shoes and I was left with a very sore horse with severe thrush and white line disease, who could barely walk on anything harder than grass.

They say that every cloud has a silver lining and his foot problems proved to be just the push I needed to abandon any thoughts of us returning to the livery yard. To be honest, though, I already knew that I couldn’t possibly take him back to his old lifestyle where he had been so unhappy. Unfortunately, Perry’s feet did not progress as quickly as was hoped for and after we’d exhausted the ideas suggested by the farrier, I decided to embark on a search for more information.

As that ’one-week stay’ at Adam’s yard gradually lengthened, I immersed myself in study on the internet and eventually discovered the emerging field of Applied Equine Podiatry, developed by champion farrier KC La Pierre. He had also been struggling to find ways of helping horses with severe foot problems and had recently begun teaching his pioneering and humane methods of hoof rehabilitation in the UK.

So, having finally found a way to get Perry’s feet back into strong, healthy condition, I continued the enormous amount of work needed to resolve Perry’s behavioural problems and tried everything Adam, his partner Nicole Golding and I could think of to improve the issues that still remained when he was ridden. Despite a fantastic new Kay Humphries saddle, a more comfortable bit and many treatments from an equine dental technician, chiropractor, equine sports masseuse and even a healer and animal communicator, after several more months his ridden work hadn’t really improved much at all. Perry was still not forwards, still smashing school fences when asked to canter and was still liable to bolt when out hacking.

That’s when I first heard about the US classical master Craig Stevens, who had recently begun teaching riding clinics in the UK. After attending my first clinic as a spectator I went from knowing nothing about French classical riding and training to realising it was by far the most logical and horse-friendly method I’d ever come across. Thanks to the hard and patient work we’d done on his behavioural issues, I was able to take Perry along to Craig’s next clinic without him losing his mind.

I asked Craig to ride Perry on the first day of that next clinic. After working him for about 15 minutes in front of a hushed and expectant audience - in what to my eyes looked just like a Grand Prix outline - Craig announced quietly and sadly, "This horse has been tortured!". He then went on to explain that this was an all too frequent result of modern-day, coercive training methods and that he thought it could probably be remedied, so long as I was prepared to learn a completely different way of riding and training and put in enough hours of work. At the time, I was just hugely relieved that here at last was someone who understood what the problem was and who also knew what to do about it.

Craig then took me right back to riding basics - but very different basics from any that I’d come across before. The early work was all done all at walk on just one rein and with a big emphasis on getting Perry’s head up as high as possible for much of the time! He was never allowed to put his nose behind the vertical, even if that meant flat-out walk with the reins on the buckle. To my complete astonishment, we had a willing shoulder-in after just a couple of lessons, a movement which I’d struggled with for years. I was astounded to discover it could actually be ridden using just one rein without any need of extra (often confusing) aids from the seat or legs. Within a very short time we’d got the hang of very pure turns on the forehand, turns on the haunches and even renvers on a small circle. We were soon working in trot as well as the walk.

After 4 clinics, Perry was cantering willingly in the school for the first time in 18 months. Craig also showed me how to sit Perry right down on his haunches if ever he tried to bolt - something that fixed that particular problem straight away. He became progressively happier, calmer and more relaxed the more time passed, turning into the super, kind and gentle horse he should have been all along. One by one his remaining bad habits and scary behaviours have ’just’ disappeared.

As I write this in mid 2009 we’re now working on improving his piaffe and flying changes and preparing for canter pirouettes. Yes, Perry is now truly a pleasure to ride and a joy to be with. I do feel so lucky to have such an easy horse!


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