It is a word I hear a lot.
People look at my horse at a distance and think he is a normal chestnut flaxen draft horse, until they get a bit closer, look at the lines of his anatomy, the length of his hair, his movement, his character and suddenly it is clear; this is not a normal draft horse. Their brow furrows, head tilts.
‘Strange.’ They say.
I take my saddle, a custom treeless/flexible saddle that I am constantly altering, changing and adapting. Put it on my horse and ride out without too much drama.
‘Strange.’ They say.
I start to move in the saddle. My body is flexible and moves with detail and finesse after 25 years in dance. But my legs also turn out in the saddle, because of dance. My spine is hypermobile, and my balance can change quickly and with plasticity. I rarely fix myself into forced positions because ‘Somebody told me so’. I was trained as a rider with a unique movement technique my mentors called ‘Harmonious Seat’, but what it really means is that I rarely get out of balance, if I do (and it happens) I feel it right away and correct it. I don’t bang onto my horses back, but I also don’t brace to my stirrups like an amateur endurance rider. I even had a well known and respected trainer of rider biomechanics ask to film me in the saddle because I have never seen someone move in the saddle that way. But this was not a compliment, this person had ulterior motives and turned out to be rather destructive for me personally and professionally. But I have ridden all types of horses from Gypsy cob stallions, to three year old warmbloods, to 29 year old Arabians, to 10 year old PRE’s, and the horses rarely struggle to carry all 74kg of me, no matter the riding conditions.
‘Strange.’ People say anyway.
People ask what I do with my horse. Am I Natural? Sport? Jumping? Dressage? Recreational? I don’t know how to answer them. Horses are a way of life to me. I don’t call myself or my horse purely Natural Horsemanship ‘trained’, but he wears a rope halter and yields his hindquarters from merely a glance. I don’t call myself or my work sporty, but yesterday I rode 3 hour loop through the forrest, 1 hour 45 minutes of that at a trot, canter or gallop, across rough roads and terrain and I didn’t get tired, and my horse did not feel heavy or sluggish, nor over excited or fractious. I don’t call myself a jumper, and would not ask my horse to jump in the arena, but we never hesitate over a fallen log. I do not call myself a dressage enthusiast, but Sanson can make elastic slow sitting trot on a contact and head carriage, and on good days both haunches in and shoulder in, and we start a bit of Spanish Walk since the fall. So people ask me to define myself into one box and I say, that I am both All Of It and None Of It, at the same time.
‘Strange.’ They say and walk away head shaking.
I braid Sanson’s heavy and thick mane, to protect it from breaking, and sometimes flop it to its non-natural side and braid it in place, to slowly correct the ligament damage its weight did to his topline. People watch and think I am a horse hairdresser, not a horseman, but I say without irony that I would rather cut it off. Some people might never speak to me again if I did! A critics perception has me defined as an egoist in regards to my horses looks. Though I like him to look good, I frankly find his mane a pain in the butt, and I know both of us would be happier if I hogged it and I am considering to do this for the summer. When I braid, I never do it the same way twice. You can find a mess of braids rarely seen in the Showing Braids Handbook. It’s ugly, but functional.
‘Strange.’ They say, smoking a cigarette and staring me down their nose as I struggle with silicone braid bands.
I have a pretty thick skin to critisism. Not thick like an Elephant’s is thick- born that way. It is thick like scar tissue. My skin is thick because, like many of us, I have had my fair share of bumps, bruises, pecks, cuts, bashings and smashings emotionally and socially. This has done nothing to make me desensitised, but just given me a strong protective barrier around my sensitive inner thoughts and feelings. These days it takes a lot to get me riled up. I am very comfortable being seen as strange. I made my bed and I happily lie in it, an Australian living in Poland is going to get looked at askance on the regular! There is a small but merry band of people who seem to cheer me on and accept me for who I am. An even smaller band of people who see that my uniqueness has something of value to them, and they try to learn from it occasionally.
I can no longer call myself a horse trainer. I will not call myself a horse trainer from now on. Why? I would call myself a Horseman. Horses are my life now. I do not micromanage their behaviour by repetitive practise of techniques, though I do that as well, but through time and activity with me the horses get better. The more time they spend around me, either doing nothing or doing something, the better they get at being themselves, and doing things for a human. I have a repertoire of techniques I go to, but I was taught that technique is what you go to when you are running out of inspiration.
Primarily, I am inspired by horses. I only go to a technique when I have to, it is not my first port of call. Most of the time the technique is irrelevant but the horses seem to understand me anyway. Watching back videos of my training sessions from my second-hand GoPro, I can see how little I am doing externally. Comparing this with what I FEEL in those same moments, what you see is just the tip of the iceberg, and I can understand why people feel confused when I can do something with a horse without much effort, and all the techniques and performance in the world on their part elicits a zero response from the horse. It is not what you do, but how you feel when you do it, I try to say. ‘Stange.’ They think. It cannot be that simple?
The horses I was trained on, if you were not honest, if you didn’t ride them from your energy or emotional openness, they would simply stand still. They were the perfect example of a non-mechanical horse, and they rejected mechanical riders. In the same day they rejected a mechanical rider, with a rider who had trained emotions and was energetically available to the horse, they could gallop from a standstill, and trot loose and slow without a bridle or reins.
Buck Brannaman is an inspiration to me. His daughter Reata is also phenomenal. They come from a practical heritage of Horseman who did a job all day, everyday with a horse, rather than riding them for an hour in a riding arena in spare time. I have never seen somebody ride so beautifully or get such movement poetry out of a horse under saddle before. He did this quickly and without emotional trouble from the horse. I hope to have enough money to see him in the UK again this summer, but that might be a hard call. He said something at that clinic years ago I will never forget.
“HORSES DON’T LIKE HORSE TRAINERS. IT IS DEMEANING TO THEM. TRY TO WORK WITH YOUR HORSE. TRY TO GET THEM WITH YOU. ASPIRE TO BE A HORSEMAN”
Until now I used the word trainer, not for my benefit, but because it enabled other people to catagorise me, so that can understand who I am in a simplistic way. I allowed them to make a definition of me that did not feel true to who I was. They then decided if I am valuable or not. I can now see this was my mistake! I mislabelled myself, so that others could use me or have a limited understanding of me. I should therefore not be surprised when I get USED or MISUNDERSTOOD. This is a pathology I brought with me from my previous career. I was a tool that other artists were able to use, and sometimes abuse, and define on their terms, not mine. I think I am healed of that now.
So if you want to go ahead and call me ‘Strange’, you are welcome to. Because I might be watching you carefully, and judging your approach as much as you’re judging mine… or not. Who knows.
Call me strange if you want. But maybe to your horse, my type of strange might not be a bad thing.