Since early childhood, I was convinced that all animals have feelings and want to be happy, just like us. It has always filled me with great sadness to see how easily they are mistreated in our society. As a kid, I helped snails cross the street, visited the frogs at the pond in the forest, and fed chestnuts to the deer in the park. I loved to assist my mum who did voluntary work for the local animal rescue and always brought home a lot of cats.
Since my first encounter with horses, I was fascinated by their complex nature. Their great strength and speed, their subtle communication and herd dynamics, their fierce emotions and quiet presence. I was fortunate to meet two skilled horse people in my youth who taught me great respect for the horse and helped my understanding of them: the old woman in the forest and my friend Harald.
Together with a herd of 8 ponies, the old woman lived at the edge of a vast forest. To reach her place I had to bike about 45min through the forest, which I did as often I my school schedule permitted it. There were no stalls for the horses – they just lived in a big enclosed forest area. These ponies were the most quiet and reliable ponies I had seen in my short life so far and were very different from the riding school horses who waited for customers the whole day, with saddles on their backs, in their boxes. These riding school ponies knew all the tricks: how to get rid of a child with the help of a tree, how to stomp on feet, how to bite when saddled, how to run home. At ten years of age it was clear as a spring morning to me that they hated their jobs. Not the horses of the old woman: They enjoyed to be brushed by us and to roam the fields together. We had to take a lot of time before each lesson to brush the horses and to build up a connection to them. Showing up five minutes before a lesson was not allowed.
We rode without saddles and often even without bridles. The woman would lead on foot (she was too big for the ponies) and the horses would naturally follow her lead. She took great care that we treated her ponies with kindness. If someone pushed or pulled a horse, she told them to stop, and if it happened again, the child had to get off and walk. As a result, all the ponies reacted to fine signals. I wish I could remember more of what the old woman told us about the seat and riding aids, but I guess my mind mostly wandered off and I enjoyed the soft fur and steady rhythm.
The second influence on my horsemanship was my teacher and friend Harald, whom I met when I was 16. He ran a little therapy stable in a neighbouring village to where my boyfriend lived. I spend several school holidays at his place and worked in return for lessons. Harald was influenced by Claus Penquitt, who founded a school called academic riding for leisure riders based on old-Californian and old-Iberian riding, as well as by Linda Tellington-Jones and Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling. Most of our lessons took place in the forest. We practiced standing still, circles, figures and transitions. During the fly season, we sat on the horses at six in the morning and enjoyed the cool forest air. Often, we would not speak at all. Then he would ask me questions about the seat, about giving aids and educating horses. He never just “told” me things but first let me have a guess or find the answer myself. And he worked the horses in much the same way. Despite my age, he gave me responsibilities. I was given a project horse, a Fjord horse with trust issues and a hard mouth, whom I helped to become a safe riding horse again. Harald also let me take care of his entire stable once when he and his wife were on holidays. I was very proud that someone put so much trust in me and fulfilled my tasks with great care. Sometimes, Harald let me teach some of the kids that came for lessons. Harald’s lessons were very different from the regular riding lessons one could get. He explained everything in detail and never lost his patience. He, too, emphasised soft aids and respect for the horse.
During this time, Harald became interested in Buddhism and because of him, I met my Buddhist teacher and took refuge at the age of 18. According to Buddhist philosophy, all beings want to avoid suffering and want to experience happiness. We just often don’t know how to do it. Furthermore, all beings have the Buddha nature, the potential to develop all the inherent qualities of the mind. In this regard, animals are no different than people. Harming others, also animals, creates bad impressions in our mind which become our future reality. If we want to sow the seeds for happiness, we have help others and be kind. It was this feeling of coming home, of recognising the values I already knew since childhood, that attracted me to Buddhism.
On the other hand, it brought me away from my horse training. As I went to college and had to leave Harald and his little stable behind, I tried to find other places to ride, but all around me people were being quite brutal to horses. So, having no money to buy my own horse, I just could not bear the brutality anymore and quit riding for some years.
During a holiday semester, I met the fourth great influence on my horse training philosophy – the beautiful Irish landscape around the village of Grange, Sligo. I had taken a term off at collage and had enough of papers and classrooms. I needed fresh air and some horse spirit. So I went to work at a horse operation called Horse Holiday Farm in Sligo, Ireland, for a few months. Riding through the moor and along the endless beaches, I had one of the greatest times of my life. The horses were carrying me as fast as their feet would go, and my mind would be at peace. For me, these were the ingredients of happiness: the ocean, the fields, the wind, and the steady companionship of the horses. During the long rides, my mind would forget all the tomorrows and yesterdays. There was only the present moment, and the horses snorted approvingly. Then there was no separation between my thoughts and the horse’s thought, between my body and his body. We moved as one and the intense Irish landscape was just as much a part of it as human and horse.
It still took a while until, through another Buddhist friend, I met my horse Nazir and because of him, the Academic Art of Riding by Bent Branderup. Suddenly, I had found a method which agreed with my great respect for animals and my love for studying and books! I will continue to write about it in another article, for it is quite a huge topic on its on. Here are just some parts of its philosophy that I absolutely love:
I believe that there are many horse lovers just like me, who have an inherent respect for all forms of life and do not wish to purposefully hurt others in order to reach their goals. Being with and training horses should be fun for both! Equal partners can perform the most beautiful of dances. Horse training is a continuous communication and a never-ending learning process. If we are willing to listen, we can learn. Someone who is always talking is only hearing what he already knows.
To me, horse training is a hermeneutic circle. We always come back to the beginning and with each round, we gain a deeper understanding. There is no final destination, no perfection – only refinement constant improvement.