Holistic horse-riding.

img063I’M STANDING IN A PADDOCK ATTEMPTING TO BOND WITH A HORSE. What i’m trying to do is push him sideways. Physically shoving him, that is. One hand on his neck, the other just behind his shoulder. It’s not a manoeuvre I’ve ever attempted before. By the look on the horse’s face, I’d say he hasn’t tried it very often either. “That’s it,” encourages my instructor. “Push him gently. You don’t want him to move forward. You want him to cross his hind legs over and move sideways. Think about what you want him to do.” I think of some kind of equine dance. The Gay Gordons perhaps. Only with more drastic results if my partner treads on my foot.

It’s not exactly how I’d envisaged my morning’s horse riding to begin. But then, this is no ordinary horse riding. This is holistic horse riding. Horse riding as a form of stress therapy. The way of Tonto, if you will, as opposed to the way of The Lone Ranger. It sounds intriguing. I’m just hoping that someone has sat down and explained the idea to the horse.

The fall guy

I’ve never had a great affinity with horses. In fact, the last two times I rode a horse, I fell off. The most recent occasion, on a hill in Wales, was an act of such calculated, predetermined malice on the part of the pony that I very nearly had the animal done for attempted murder.

Horses scare me. And, as everyone knows, horses are telepathic. They know I’m frightened. They know I’m inexperienced. And they quite possibly also know that I once ate steak tartare made of horsemeat in a restaurant in Paris in 1986. Oh yes, they’ve got my number all right.

So when the subject of horse riding was broached chez Stress, I was not first to volunteer. “But it’s something we can do together,” said Mrs Stress, clutching a copy of What Horse to her breast. “Out in the fresh air. A bit of exercise.” I pointed out that all these criteria could be met by her helping me clean the car. But she was not to be diverted. “And besides,” she added, “there’s a woman in here who teaches holistic horse -riding. As a kind of stress beater. “What could I do? Holistic horse-riding it was. I couldn’t say nay.

Taming the wild beast

At the stables in Kent, I am introduced to my mount, a chestnut gelding called Minstrel who, a stable girl assures me, is 16 hands high, a size also known as Big Enough To Kill You. My holistic horse-riding instructor, Belinda Murphy, arrives as Minstrel is led out of his stall. Belinda is a woman on first-name terms with some of the top nags in the racing and three-day eventing game. A trained cranio-sacral therapist, she has extended the theories of complementary therapy into horse-riding, working with both the horses and their human partners. She looks over Minstrel. “He’s got one eye higher than the other,” she says. “And he is very, very stiff. I don’t like the way he’s carrying that rear leg.” She lays her hand on the horse’s sacral bone in the centre of his haunches. “I’m going to do a little bit of cranio-sacral and some connective tissue work before we start” she announces, digging her fingers into Minstrel’s lower back. He does the horse equivalent of saying “ouch”. I am beginning to warm to him.

With Minstrel now seen to, it’s time for me to do what Belinda calls “establishing communication”. This consists of me pushing the animal about. Backwards. Sideways. Around in a circle. All executed with very gentle pressure, and a rub afterwards. For the horse, not me. “It just shows a form of compliance. By the lightest of touch, interaction and thought process, you can get a reaction. A horse is a herd animal,” says Belinda. “A lead horse controls his herd with very subtle body language. The blink of an eye, a nostril flaring. When you’re up on a horse, you are being lead horse.”

Now it’s time to mount. Hang on. Where’s the saddle? Belinda produces what looks like a piece of carpet underlay. She lets Minstrel smell it, then puts it on his back, fastening the girth. Erm… Belinda? “This lets you feel the horse much better,” she explains, “and with the least amount of tack, you haven’t got the power to bully him. He needs to know his responsibilities to you.” There are no stirrups. “I’ll give you a leg-up,” says Belinda, gamely. “Hold on to the reins. On three.” One. Two. Come on, Harvey! I’m up. Belinda tells me to take three deep breaths and blow them out. Minstrel pricks up his ears. Good: I already sound like Lead Horse. ¬†Minstrel and I start to walk around the paddock. “Feel both of your sitting bones,” Belinda says. “Try to embed them in his back.”

One man and his horse

Using gentle leg pressure, we work on steering without tugging on the reins. There’s more breathing exercises, and some visualisations. “Imagine a shaft of gold connecting your heart with the horse’s heart,” Belinda says. I try to visualise where the horse’s heart actually is. It must be somewhere down there. “Now imagine a brilliant white beam of light rising upwards from the horse’s head, and another from your head, meeting at a point above you.” The mental image I conjure up resembles the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I hope Minstrel isn’t getting any of it.

At the end of my session, I bring Minstrel to a stop. “Don’t pull him up,” says Belinda. “Just let all the energy go out of you and relax. He’ll stop.” I do, and he does. Dismounted, I’m surprised at how much more comfortable I feel around the horse. I hold his head. I stroke his nose. I may not have galloped across the range with a whoop. I may not have learned to trot, even. But I feel I’ve made what Belinda would call a connection. Me and a horse in a mutual and consensual act. I walk away from the stables feeling surprisingly good about myself and about horses in general. So good, in fact, that I may never eat one again.

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