A little over a year ago I walked into Bent Branderup’s riding arena for the first time. Once a month, Bent presents his horses and his training method during public evening work. I remember him standing in front of the arena with a cup of tea when I arrived. I introduced myself to him and shook his hand. He looked at me with surprise and I just hoped that he didn’t think I was nuts. I was just one of about fourty people that had come to the riding master’s place Lindegaard in Denmark and none of the others introduced themselves personally.
In awe, I entered the tastefully decorated arena that I already knew from Bent’s online education videos. It looked smaller that I had imagined it, with historic pictures of different riding masters all around the walls. When the program began, Bent explained his method in great detail and commented on the groundwork and lunging that was performed by other riders. He also rode himself. Until then, I had neither seen so highly educated horses so close up, nor had I been able to watch such a skilled rider. It looked like Bent was dancing with his horses, piaffe, passage, canter pirouettes, levade. I noticed his calm manner and light hands and a slight smile on his face. I already liked his videos about the academic riding, but now I was sold. I wanted this for me and Nazir!
About a week earlier I had applied for an intership at Bent’s. He had posted on his facebook that the new interns for 2015 would be chosen soon. I did not have any hope that they would take me, beginner in the academic riding that I was, but I had send the application anyway. I checked the date and saw that a week from then Bent would have the next public evening, so I decided to drive over there and say hello. It was just a 12 hour trip after all…
Well, they didn’t take me then. However, at the end of February I was asked if I was still up for the job. An intern’s horse had just passed away and so a position had opened. I hopped up and down the kitchen, screaming, and immediately said yes. I had just a few weeks to prepare myself and Nazir!
You cannot imagine how proudly I walked Nazir through Bent’s arena after our 14 hour long trip. It was the end of March and there I was again, with my horse, lots of work ahead of me and, most of all, lessons with Bent himself to look forward to. I was a bit afraid of the latter I have to admit, since me and Nazir couldn’t really do much yet. To be able to learn the basics from Bent himself was a thrilling thought though.
How to sum up ten weeks of the most intense (horse-related) learning experience I’ve ever had?
It would have been easier to write regular posts during my time there, but I was too tired in the evenings and the internet reliably didn’t work when I did have the time and energy to write something. My work day began at 5:45am and quite often I finished work after 8pm. In return, I had three lessons with Bent per week (15-30 min each), got stabling and food for my horse and a room. I had to pay for and cook my own food.
At first I had to learn basic communication with Nazir. In the academic art of riding, the horse learns all the basic aids through groundwork and lunging. We taught Nazir how to stretch forward-down and how to have the correct stelling and bending in standing. He learned to step under with the inner hint leg when I pointed the whip at the place where my leg would be later. The whip is an important tool, it is like the extension of the riders arm and can point to different body parts of the horse and thus help him to find his balance. The whip on the inside of the neck teaches the horse the right response to the neck reign aid and moves his shoulder outwards. The whip over the neck takes the outside shoulder in. The whip pointing over the back animates the outer hint leg to step under the point of weight. In this manner the horse learns shoulder-in and haunches-in, first on the circle and then a straight line. Furthermore, the whip can ask the horse to slow down or stop when held vertically in front of his chest, and can ask for more engagement of the hint legs when tapping the different joints of the hint legs and for more collection when tapping the tail. The horse learns to follow the human and to read his body language. The human learns to see his horse, his movements, where he needs help. Once in the saddle, the same whip aids can be used from up, which makes it a lot easier to teach the different exercises.
What can I say, it didn’t go so well in the beginning. For the first three weeks it seemed as if me and Nazir couldn’t communicate. He ran into me, I got upset and pushed back, he got more upset and so on. It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t know him like this. I have to say that Nazir had a hard time settling in. He missed his friends and neighed every time someone passed by his paddock, he paced up and down frantically, was impossible to handle (tried to run me over when I opened his stall). It took him almost two weeks to calm down enough to be able to concentrate on work. I felt really bad for taking him away from his home.
I also wasn’t able to help him. Tired from work I had little patience for his rude behaviour and reacted a lot stronger than I did back home. One day I passed by his paddock and called him. When I saw him turn away with sad eyes, I realized that I had not only taken him away from his friends but also could he not rely on me anymore. There and then, I promised to myself and him that I would drop my ambitions and first of all take care of my dear friend again. We went for walks and spend more time together, even if it wasn’t as much as at home. Things improved, we slowly learned to communicate better in our lessons. Results were less important to me now than our relationship. Maybe that was the most important thing I learned in Denmark. It was easy to get intimidated by the amazing skills of Bent and his week students, so that I had to learn again to be the same calm and patient me that Nazir knew, despite the constant presence of such a skilled audience.
After five weeks we started with riding, which, to my relief, went a lot better. Although I had not ridden Nazir for nearly one year due to his knee injury, he really gave his best. Nazir is not build that well and has quite a few physical problems. He is too heavy on the shoulder and quite stiff in the neck, his front legs reach too far under his body when he moves, and his hint legs push backwards-out instead of stepping under the point of weight. More and more, I learned to feel him. Are his shoulders stiff? Does his chest rotate correctly? Is his jaw loose and his neck bent properly?
Bent said that first of all, the rider has to learn to feel, to gather information from the horse. Does the half halt go through the whole horse, does the inner hip come forward? Which legs carry more weight? Do the hint legs/shoulders fall out? Where do my aids get stuck? On the horse, you need to learn to feel with your seat (I was riding on a bareback pad). Does the inner hint leg swing forward under the point of weight? Do I sit down his outer shoulder with my outer seat? Does his outer shoulder get more free? Most of my lessons where seat lessons. For Bent, the seat is the most important aid because it is the only one you cannot stop using. Thus, the development of a good seat has absolute priority.
We mostly worked on the circle, learning to move the shoulders between the reigns, the hint legs between the leg aids, sitting in balance and somewhere in between finding the straight and balance on all four legs. After a while, we did the same in trot. As Bent says, “The horse should in all exercises be in front of the seat, in the front of the leg, in between the legs, in between the reins, towards the hand.” Sounds so easy…
It was important for Bent that I understood why I should give a certain aid or why I felt in my seat and hands what I felt. Why the horse reacted like this or like that and how I can help him. Again and again, Bent repeated the anatomic and biomechanic basics and gave whole lectures about the seat, hand, whip, the different exercises. Also about any other topic if you asked him (and sometimes when you didn’t…). I’ve never met such a knowledgeable horseman who is also so eager to pass on his knowledge. Bent says that we don’t have to make his mistakes again.
First, I was overwhelmed by so much information. Concentrating on my horse, at the same time trying to absorb everything…I also saw Bent ride every day. I couldn’t really tell what he was doing, which aids he was giving, hell, even what he was working on with this particular horse. How to judge a high mountain from a hill…Later, however, when my own riding improved, I began to see more and more and also to understand how the different aids and exercises related to each other. I started to see how Bent used his hands and legs, his seat. But whatever the horse did under him, Bent always looked like sailing on calm water.
I also began to understand the lessons with the weeks students much better. I started taking notes and learned so much from observing them and their different horses. What I really like about Bent’s method is that he is able to improve every horse, not just the young and talented ones but also horses with a difficult exterieur and even injuries. The harmony between some of the week students and their horses was so beautiful to see. Every one of these riders had educated their horses themselves. Bent wants people to be able to start young horses (and re-educate older ones) instead of buying a ready horse. I also really enjoyed having a glass of wine with the week students in the evening and listening to their stories. Or going over to Bent’s with the others for a glass of port wine.
Unfortunately, I got quite a few physical problems, e.g. a Carpal tunnel in the right wrist, and had to leave four weeks earlier. My body could not handle going from little physical activity to 12 hours stable work a day (without machines…all done by hand) and no day off to recover. Inga, my diligent co-worker, took over a lot of the work I wasn’t able to do anymore. The place would have looked a mess without her.
I also really didn’t like that I had too little time for Nazir compared to what I was used to. We trained twice a day for half an hour and I fed him, but that was usually it, although we practically lived door to door. That’s something I actually miss now, to be able to walk to the paddock anytime and say hello. What’s more, his paddock was much too small for a horse his size. Most of the ten weeks he was also alone in his paddock. I think this was hard for him. Before we went to Denmark he hardly ever neighed or appeared to miss his friends when we went out riding alone. Now that we’re back he even calls them when they are out of sight for a minute or so. He was so happy to be back home, you should have seen that. He looked around and looked and looked, and took deep breaths and neighed. The things we do to our horses in order to satisfy our own needs…but then if I always stayed home I probably wouldn’t learn as much.
My head is so full of knowledge that I feel like I will need months and years for my body to catch up and develop all these abilities. Bent says, “Riding is only easy as long as you have no knowledge about it.” I feel like there is a long road ahead of us, and the goal is to advance further and further and never arrive at perfection. So many lovely horse people are travelling this same road, yet all their experiences are different from mine and they can only inspire me to find my own way. Being an intern at Bent’s brought me one step closer to that.
I’m driving out to stable stable every day now to train Nazir and Weto. On the one hand, I enjoy the peace and quiet, on the other hand I miss the direct feedback and that there were always people around that I could ask questions. I’ll let you know how it goes and I want to write about some topics in more detail. Until then I wish you a great time with your horses!