From 8-24th of August I helped out as a working student at Bent Branderup’s place in Denmark. And I fell in love with a pony.
On a holiday in Denmark, me and my husband took the opportunity to attend Bent’s public evening on August 3rd, which was also the start of this years summer academy. It was the first time that my husband saw Bent and how he is riding his horses. Needless to say that he liked it very much! It was also a great occasion to meet some of the trainers and riders that I had already gotten to know in the past year. Such a fun group of people.
A few days before we took off to Lolland, one of Denmark’s main islands, I had read on facebook that a short-time working student place would be available at Bent’s in August. I wrote a message and packed a bag with working clothes in case they would take me up on my offer to come and help out. As you can see, I ended up going! They even found a horse for me so I could have my lessons. A local breeder agreed to lend me Jette, a New Forest pony. So off to another, rather spontaneous adventure I was!
Lindegaard, the academic bubble
Bent’s stable Lindegaard is like a place in a different dimension where nothing else really matters except the art of riding. Like an amalga-mation of the past and present. The old masters seem to speak to you from their portraits on the walls of the riding arena, their philosophy and skill tangible in the riders that try to revive their spirit.
All activities of the day nestle around the lessons in the morning and Bent’s training. In the afternoons, the working students and week students practice what they have learned, and everyone constantly exchanges ideas and experiences, also about other important topics such as equine nutrition or hoof care. It has something of a retreat from the world outside.
Many of us riders “out in the normal world” have to see doubtful training techniques on a daily basis, such as horses being ridden with draw reins and lunged with their heads nearly touching their chests. It is a relief to be only surrounded by people who share the same ideals about horse training, a fact that I was painfully aware of when I returned to the stable in which I keep Nazir. This would be my most important reason for having my own place, not having to brace myself against the brutality against horses that is so normal and unquestioned everywhere.
Jette’s first steps in the academic art of riding
In my lessons, I started Jette with academic groundwork. On the one hand, I realised how much work I had already put into Nazir and Weto’s education. On the other hand, it was also great fun to work with a new horse, to figure out how to improve her movements and to teach the basic aids.
Jette is a very smart and lovable pony and was always very focused. Within a few days we taught her the basic groundwork aids: following when I walk backwards in front of her, stopping, backing up, bending around an inside leg (whip towards the girth area), responding to the whip on the inside neck as an inside rein, understanding the raised whip over the shoulder as an outside rein. Teaching her the right reaction to the outside leg aid (whip raised and pointing towards the outside girth area/ outside hind leg) was a little more challenging as she always pushed in with her inside shoulder when bringing in her hind quarter, a habit that she might have from being driven. However, towards the end of my stay there was already a right reaction on one hand and it was much better on the other. We were very happy with how the little mare understood these aids and I even inquired if she was for sale. Such a great character you don’t find in a horse every day! Probably it was a good thing that she wasn’t, because I would have seriously thought about how I can afford another horse…
It was very interesting to hear Bent’s opinion about horse breeding. He said that most of us mainly need a horse with a good character that is willing and easy to work with, with three O.K. gaits and a normal, sound body. Only about ten percent of riders (he said, “nerds like me”) actually need a horse with more spectacular gaits and that extra bit of potential. I could not agree more. Unfortunately, the horse breeding industry focuses on the exact opposite – horses with spectacular gaits that win points with the judges and are not necessarily selected for character. So one of Bent’s projects is to start breeding an academic horse that has the physical AND mental abilities for the academic art of riding.
With her charming personality, Jette made me fall in love with her after the first day. Although she was in a new environment she bonded easily with me and was not scared of anything. When I showed her the indoor arena on the first day, she carefully looked at everything and wanted to examine every corner and every picture. After that, she just focused on the work and was able to listen and to learn. If you have ever been to a new place with your horse you know how precious that is!
Jette loves to be groomed, so I often stopped by her paddock and scratched her in her favourite places. She followed me around without lead rope and lay down next to me on the pasture. A pony like her is every little girls dream. I imagined the adventures one could have with her, riding along forest paths and racing across fields. Whenever I found the time we went for short walks around the stable, as I felt a bit too big for riding on her.
Focus on the academic seat
In these two weeks, it so happened that many of the lessons were focused on the academic seat, especially how to use the static seat for collection. In the academic, the seat is the primary aid, meaning that the horse is taught to follow the riders’s body movements and shifts of weight. The secondary aids (hand, rein, upper/lower leg, step in the stirrup, whip, voice) are used to explain the seat to the horse and are stopped once the horse reacts. In order to be able to guide the horse with the seat, the rider must be able to follow the horse’s movements and has to avoid any muscle tension, any gripping with the legs or knees, any pushing with the hips. So, the first task for an academic rider is to develop the physical seat: a relaxed hip, upper and lower leg, knees and ankles that can accompany the horse in all its movements and to not block the swinging of the horse’s spine and the rib cage rotation. This has to be learned for all gaits and all side movements.
Having an open, relaxed seat and an independent lower leg are the prerequisites to learning how to collect the horse with the static seat. The rider’s upper body must be aligned with the horse’s point of balance and is used to bring more weight to certain body parts, for example the haunches. The horse is taught to follow these shifts of weight into forward or collection. If you sit on a chair and put your hands under your seat bones, you can feel that even minimal shifts of your upper body to one side or to the front/back are a very strong aid. The direction of this half-halt depends on what you are riding: in shoulder-in forward, sit towards the wither with your upper body. In shoulder-in collection, sit towards the tail. For quarter-in forward sit towards the horse’s inside shoulder, for quarter-in collection towards the horse’s inside hip (these little movements are almost invisible for others). Play with your body, also with your head, and see if the horse follows you. Use the secondary aids in case the horse does not respond and to explain what you mean. You can practise while you are standing on the ground, too. Try to take your weight in the direction of your right toe, right heel, left toe, left heel, both toes, both heels, or find the perfect balance in the middle.
If you would like to collect the horse, give these half-halts with your body in the moment when the inside hind foot is in the air, in direction of the tail or inside hip. As a result, the horse should become more light in the front and lift the chest out of the hind quarter. If the horse got heavy in the hand, it fell on its shoulders. Half-halts can also be given on both hind legs or only on the stronger hind foot, which might be the outside one. With your lower leg, animate the hind legs to leave the ground a bit faster to shorten the backwards push (give the aid shortly before the hind leg leaves the ground).
In this way, you must divide your body: The part from the hip downwards belongs to the horse and must be in balance with him. The upper body does the half-halts and plays with the point of balance.
Important: Never sit to the outside as then you press down the outside shoulder of the horse and the outer front leg comes too much under the point of weight (where you would actually like to have the hind leg). Moreover, before you start playing with the point of weight it is essential to have a well forward stepping hind leg (meaning in the point of balance, not fast!).
Good team work
Working together with the other intern, Charline, was a really smooth and pleasant experience. Charline is a very easy going and happy person who mainly focused on getting things done. In a good team, the “we” is more important than the “I”. There are certain tasks that have to be done and whoever of us was around or had the energy just did it. Charline and Martine, the intern before, also had an effective work plan that I was happy to follow, too. We tried to get done as much as possible before the start of the lessons in the morning, including packing the hay and straw for this day, and divided tasks instead of both walking the same distances. This way, we ended up having a lot of time to watch Bent ride in the morning and to practice our homework in the afternoon, to have have a snooze or a chat with the week students. We also started the second mucking out in the evening half an hour earlier so that we would be done with all the work by 7pm. Then only one of us had to feed oats at 7:30 and close up the stable. This way the evening seemed a bit longer. However, I have to admit that 5:45 am is still not my favourite time to start work…
Thanks very much to Bent for the great lessons and your never-ending readiness to share your knowledge, to Kathrin for letting me come again, to Charline for being such a great company, to Ylvie, Istvan, Frida, Eric and Annett for the inspiring talks. And most of all, thank you so much Inger for lending me your precious Jette. I hope I can visit you one day! And I certainly hope to be back in Lindegaard one day soon.