Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Many, many years ago, (and no one really needs to know at this point HOW many,) I made the trip to England to attend The Northern School of Equitation in Ormskirk. I was quite young, but never hesitated or felt nervous about going. I had known ‘forever” that I wanted to teach riding to people, not just riding, but the whole gamut of instruction, i.e. empathy for the horse, stable management, training, etc. At that time, attending a Horsemaster school in England and obtaining my B.H.S.A.I. first, and then my B.H.S.I. Certificate (British Horse Society Assistant and Instructor’s Certificate), seemed the obvious answer.
I first found out about this option from two sources-a book published in England entitled CAREERS WITH HORSES, and a Walt Disney movie, THE HORSEMASTERS. Annette Funicello (remember, she was a Mouseketeer? Boy, am I dating myself!) played an American who attends Porlock Vale Riding Academy in England. Of course she meets her true love, Danny, and overcomes her fear of jumping by riding a horse named Corky. Obviously I have not lost all of my long term memory for trivia yet.
I still remember how she overcame that fear. Her riding instructor, who was tough but of course really had a heart of gold and was beautiful and fell in love with one of the students, told Annette to “throw her heart over the fence and her horse would follow.” It worked and of course the whole movie ended quite happily with everyone passing and two marriages in the works. Unfortunately, since then I tried that on a nappy horse and not only my heart but my whole body minus the horse went over the fence.
I applied to Porlock Vale and was accepted, but then decided to attend Northern when I discovered that the owner was one of the few people who had Fellowship of the Horse credentials. This would be the equivalent of a PHD. in Everything Equine.
So off I went, eighteen years old. I had been accepted as a Working Student as my finances were severely limited. I booked steerage passage on the Queen Elizabeth (yes THE Queen Elizabeth) and sailed off. Seven days later I was met by my digs mate Jenny and her parents. “Digs” were your lodging. Like many words, “lift” for elevator and “bonnet” for car trunk, it was one of the new words I was learning.
We stopped on the way to the stable for some of the items that were requirements to bring. I already had my black riding coat. I also needed a white string tie, white blouse, V necked sweater ( so your tie would show) a tweed riding coat, a heavy lambs oil sweater, a hot water bottle and a heavy shiny black duster (rain coat) that reached all the way to the floor with a huge black hat like you see fishermen wear in old movies. Muck boots (Wellies) were last on the list, along with a hot water bottle “cozy”. This was a knitted sleeve to go over your hot water bottle.
Thus properly prepared, we proceeded to our “digs. We would share a house with a family who lived a block away from the stable. In exchange for our rent we would get 3 meals a day, and the right to pay two shillings to heat up bath water twice a week (!) This was September, mind you, and we would be there through an English winter. There was no central heating. The only source of heat was in the “family room”, where we would gather round an hour in the evening and watch the telly and defrost our feet. Now I understood why I was required to buy a hot water bottle. It was for my feet at bedtime. By December we were going to bed fully clothed, with coats, scarves and socks. Warm comforters were not included in the rent.

Well, it was immediately clear that I had joined the British calvary and was at Boot Camp. I was the only American and was promptly named the “colonist”. Even though I am of English descent, they have not forgotten the American Revolution. As a working student, I was one of a group of slaves-no other word for it.
I was given four horses, and human royalty could not be better treated. We first fed…the regimen…WATER-HAY-OATS. Water buckets were scrubbed twice daily, hay shook out and put in hay nets (which we later were required to learn to make) and weighed. Each horse has a separate feed chart, and each horse received an EXACT amount of hay. Then came the OATS regimen, which was much more than that. The horses received boiled linseed oil, maize, (corn) horse nuts, and rolled oats. Some received bran mashes, brewer’s yeast, and a mash made partly from ingredients from a local beer brewery. These were carefully measured, and often were plentiful enough to fill a large bucket.
We met Ann, the HEAD GIRL. She was the Drill Sargeant. She looked like your average football linebacker, and had a disposition to match. The first thing she did was to randomly weigh some of the hay nets. One girls was a bit off…not quite heavy enough. We got our first example of a true tongue lashing.
We then mucked out. They bedded with straw and it was plentiful. The horses were all in big box stalls-at least 14’ by 14’. We learned how to bank the stalls for the daytime. This meant putting a lot of straw alongside the walls so the horse could not be hurt if he rolled. We were taught how to get down on our knees and braid the straw that was by the edge of the door. This was so that when you led the horse out he would not dislodge the straw into the aisle. This was all done in riding jodhpurs, white shirt, white narrow string tie, V necked sweater and Wellies. We wore hair nets and were allowed to wear a scarf if it was cold.
As mentioned earlier, straw was plentiful because the local mushroom growers would come with a huge truck and cart the manure pile (the midden) away and bring many, many bales of straw to the stable in return. They would only do this, however, maybe every 3 weeks or so, and as the stalls were kept so scrupulously clean it soon became as tall as the stable roof. It actually was not unpleasant as there was so much straw in the straw-manure ratio that it had the fragrance of a hay field.
But it had to be NEAT! So the job of the working students was to make it
pleasing to the eye in a geometric way….this process was called “squaring the midden”. We would pitch the straw toward the top of the heap, and then climb to the top gradually, shaping it into a square. This was done on a daily basis. Woe to us if it was not done correctly.
The penalties for not performing a given task well enough varied. Every night most of the horses feet were thoroughly picked out, scrubbed, and then filled with a clay mixture so that their soles stayed healthy. Most of the school horses had limited turn out. One evening after night chores the Head Girl Ann checked out my horse’s feet and felt that they were not properly done. My punishment was to redo all of the horse’s feet in the stable. I got home at 11 that night.
Of course I did not make the best first impression anyway. My second day there I was told to bring Linesman to the riding school all ready for a lesson that was being taught by one of the staff. Postman, who was a bay horse and was owned by a boarder and was known as a very hot, hard to handle animal, was stabled right next to the calm, wonderful Linesman who was also a bay. They did not have their names on their stalls. So I, of course, brought the wrong horse to the lesson. Thank goodness I did not have the student mount before the instructor appeared.
So now I was known as the scatter-brained colonist, and I think they decided it was just as well that England was shed of taking care of that American Wilderness filled with misfits. My second transgression, (and I am NOT kidding) happened in December. It was very cold and damp, and I was wisping one of my horses. The daily grooming of each horse was very systematic and involved hay wisps, stable rubbers, water brushes, body brushes and sponges, besides your regular grooming utensils. It was very involved and rightly so.
A wisp was hand made of straw and twisted into a shape slightly bigger than your hand. (I almost failed wisp braiding). Almost at the end of the grooming process it was dampened and used vigorously on the horse’s muscles to promote circulation and to massage the horse. You use your whole body when wisping-it is quite strenuous. The Head Girl looked in at me when I was wisping Swagman, one of my charges. (You can see how they named their horses…they had great names).It was cold out and I had my sweater on. (V-necked of course). She really yelled at me. Apparently if I was really doing a good job I would be so warm that I would have had to take my sweater off. My punishment was to sweep the two acre concrete yard (well…sight exaggeration but it felt that big) by myself.
Forget all of the books you have read about how to teach someone how to canter. They will talk about the value of lungeing; in Centered Riding we teach people how to move their bodies in balance and how to absorb the movement of the horse. Poppycock! (you really do not want to know what that means.) All you need is ten working pupil slaves to lead the horses at a canter with the students on them! It makes things much easier. You can teach 10 people to canter all at the same time.
Here again I was not a star student. I was, of course, given the biggest horse because I am 6 feet tall. For some reason they thought that made me competent to be able to run with a horse. I am probably more fit now than I was then, being a lazy American teenager. Once I was leading Ragman (who was 17.1 h.h.) at his collected canter, which meant I was flat out running. I tripped over his leg and fell flat. All of the other led horses avoided trampling me to death as the student went careening around the ring screaming at the top of her lungs. Everyone survived, but guess who squared the midden all by herself later that day.
The final disgrace was again leading Lineman, who was only 16.3. I was exhausted and did not know if I could keep it up when the instructor suddenly had everyone halt. Something was wrong with one of the horses! One of them had strangely developed a bad case of roaring or the heaves overnight! What a terrible gasping sound filled the arena! Then, of course, suddenly everyone focused on me, bent over double, sounding as if I would die any minute. Since it was only a Working Student and not a horse, we soon continued.
Those are only a few of my wonderful experiences as a student for the BHS exams in England. One might wonder why we put up with some of that treatment…why we stayed. We stayed because we were subjected to some of the best knowledge ever in how to keep a horse healthy and happy. We learned everything- saddle fit, stable management, what types of bricks should be used for horse flooring (Dutch, Blue Stafford, and Adamantine Clinkers). I memorized that and it was on the written test. How many of you Americans know that!
We learned how to care for tack. It was cleaned every time it was used. We learned how to deal with a sick horse. And you learned to ride! Some of the most difficult cross country courses I have ridden I rode over there. Most of all, you learned the correct, meticulous care of a horse. If he needed extra care, you stayed with him until he was well, foregoing your own comfort and welfare. That was stamped into each of us. And the most important to me, in spite of the funny stories, is that I learned the methodology of teaching someone to ride, and imparting to them the wonderful world of horses.
Mitzi Summers