It really is quite odd, I know, that I keep turning up in Germany. The reason is that my horse is there; and the reason for THAT … well, it’s at least a four year story.
Probably the story really started 10 years ago when I bought A’bientot in Jordan – a whim of a purchase, encouraged by the trainer at the stable at which I’d started riding again after a break of around 30 or so years and where I had been introduced by my friend, Grace Todino Gonguet.
I wasn’t at all in the market for a horse, but when all the discussion started flying around at the stables I became curious. This paragon of a horse was for sale in Jordan at the stables of HM King Abdullah; it was the property of HM’s trainer – who was the cousin of our trainer, Anwar. It was the ride of the cousin’s son who was looking, with Olympic ambition, at a new horse. He was 10 years old – a fact that horrified Tony, my husband at the time, who had never heard (he said) of anyone buying a horse that old. But I was looking for a schoolmaster (not that I was looking!!! I was just looking!!) so that hadn’t put me off.
A quick trip to Jordan was in order with Anwar and my friend Bettina, a Danish girl who worked for us later in Ocean Blue. Bettina and I had a great few days sightseeing Amman, and visiting these fabulous stables. A big lesson in life though when we arrived at Amman Airport – Bettina and I got through immediately, but Anwar – an Iraqi – was held and grilled for nearly three hours. And he had a visa, and a sponsor … I can’t imagine what it would be like to travel as an Iraqi otherwise.
Anyway; obviously I fell in love at first sight and had to have the horse. What vet check? I was being recommended by my trainer, whom I trusted totally, and his cousin who had this big Royal job – what could go wrong?
Let’s get it straight from the beginning; actually. A’bientot (now the Sheikh) is an amazing horse. Personality, sports ability, courage – he has them all. What he also had (and which I didn’t know at the time) was a shoulder injury; coupled with a pair of front hooves that needed intelligent farrier care.
Which we had, in the beginning, in the shape of Salman, one of the farriers at the Royal Stables. When the other, incompetent moron, Suleiman, cut his right foot so short that he was limping, it was Salman who took over, fitted him with aluminium shoes and looked after him for the next three years or so, during which time he did extremely well. The only hint that I had that something was wrong was that he started to refuse in competition – and mainly on jumps that took off to the left.
Anwar over rode all my concerns. It was the fault of my riding; not of the horse. I believed him. Of course it was my fault. I tried harder and harder, and he became harder and harder to ride. It got to the point where he would refuse to start on the left in canter; moving only in counter canter, and before taking off on the right would kick out in temper before obeying. I started to feel sorry for anyone (like Chandra Lee Souchek!) who had to share a lesson with us! Of course I also ended up with back and hip issues (it’s not surprising to me any more to hear that back problems in a horse are very often mirrored in the rider!) and this led me to both study Pilates under Chandra and find Dr Hakim the Yemeni Finnish osteopath who was to work with us both later on and make a huge contribution.
One day I was so frustrated and in so much pain myself I just got off and said to Anwar, OK; you ride him then and show me how to do it. I’m so glad I video’d this though it breaks my heart now to watch it (and you can here too). Here is a horse in obvious pain; and eventually he rears and nearly throws Anwar … I’m happy to say that I never let him ride the horse again.
Obviously things had been brewing for a while. Salman had done some damage to his back and the ghastly Suleiman had returned as our only option as farrier. At Christmastime he had put a shoe that was a size small onto his left front. When we asked him about it he said that was all he’d had …
That left had always been a bit smaller than the right and the right was the one with the thin sole. Now, the left was stacked centimeters taller than the right and was much smaller. I was sure that this wasn’t right – d’oh – but no one around me could tell me any different. I started to read and research online, and called in our friends, Andy and Basha, who both worked for HM – Andy as the head of Veterinary Services for the Royal Stables and Basha at the Palace Zoo – but both of them ‘horse people’, Basha as a competitive jumper.
They came in and immediately diagnosed back pain. My research on the net had shown me that the ‘high low’ front hooves had been caused by an old injury to the left shoulder (I’m guessing the reason he was up for sale!) which caused him to stand with more weight on the right, causing the deformities in both hooves.
In May 2012 I decided that the only way forward was to take his shoes off; and bought hoof boots online. Andy had given him steroid injections in his back and told me to exercise him to build up his muscles while he was pain free, but how on those feet?
I came across a British woman who was a horse physio therapist who was riding out of the Army Stables and she came in to give him treatment. The muscles on the left side of his neck had atrophied and the right was far over built.
She also claimed to be a barefoot trimmer and I allowed her to take his shoes off and give him his first ‘trim’. The feet were rotten – like soft cheese – and stinky. So taking the shoes off was the best thing we could do.
However, she cut so much into his right sole that when I came back to see him in the afternoon, he could barely stand. I was horrified and called Andy, who came immediately. His right sole was bleeding from the pressure of standing. Andy – who later told me that he thought the horse would need to be destroyed if he didn’t die of infection – packed and bandaged the hoof; administered antibiotics and good old ‘bute’ and told me to ice the legs every two hours around the clock.
I had purchased a whole lot of those cold bags that you can use for ice boxes – the soft ones. They are brilliant for use on legs, as you can tie them on with polo bandages and they stay in place. Tawfiq, his groom, worked with me round the clock, icing and medicating. Of course, no food, only hay. His antibiotics and the bute went in on cut up carrots and apples, and finally we were out of danger.
He developed an abscess, however, and this one burst through the coronary band, leaving a flaw that Rene has only managed to fix this year. Through all this we finally got him back on his feet and with our first pair of hoof boots, we went into a long slow process of recovery.
The vets had said ‘No circles! Ride straight!’ so every day we went down to the beach, long walks and trots in the water and the sand, and up and down the dunes to develop the muscles in his back.
I also needed to find someone to help me with his feet, and came across a barefoot trimmer in the UK – Julie Bailey – who, bless her little cotton socks, agreed to help me online. I would take photos of his feet, she would draw on them where I should trim, and so it would go. I’m eternally grateful to her, she would never allow me to pay her, but if you are reading this and you are in the UK look her up and use her services. She’s awesome.
She also helped me in an incredibly significant way. I had already, through my online research, come across a vet called Kerry Ridgeway; who had written extensively on ‘high – low syndrome’ – the issue of unequal hoof height that we had. It was Julie, however, who asked if I had read the work of a Klaus Shoenich – who was a close associate, as it turned out, of Kerry Ridgeway. I said no, but ordered the book.
“I’ve never seen anyone get a horse’s back up so fast’, she said to me. “Straightness is your issue and this is the man for that. Maybe you can get to a clinic?”
This was the summary and promise of the book – how could I resist?
Straightening the Crooked Horse: Correct Imbalance, Relieve Strain, and Encourage Free Movement with an Innovative System of Straightness TrainingPaperback – October 1, 2013
It is well known that the horse naturally carries more weight on his forehand than on his hindquarters. This forward center of gravity, combined with an often unrecognized, inborn crookedness from poll to tail, can greatly inhibit training and ultimately affect the horse’s physical soundness and willingness to perform. In fact, Gabriele Rachen-Schoneich and Klaus Schoneich attribute 95 percent of all locomotive problems, in both sport and leisure horses, to this inherent crookedness. For over 25 years, Rachen-Schoneich and Schoneich—along with expert riders, trainers, veterinarians, and other specialists—have concentrated specifically on this theory at their international training center in Germany. There they have worked with—and successfully “cured” through appropriate gymnastic training—more than 4,000 horses with straightness problems related to: incorrect or insufficient training; bad riding; veterinary misdiagnosis; poorly fit tack and equipment, and other causes. Now, the couple describe their techniques, not only for addressing the symptoms of crookedness in an already schooled horse, but also for dealing with the “innate problem” in unbroken youngsters. Readers learn how using groundwork with green horses can “straighten” them and increase their “carrying power” before they are backed. You’ll see how, with sufficient attention to gymnastic training on the longe and in hand, the eventual transition to work under saddle can be handled smoothly, easily, and without ever sacrificing correct locomotion.
I emailed Dr Ridgeway – by this time (May 2014) I was chatting with his wife, Christine Heraud-Ridgeway and she was totally enthusiastic and helpful. Yes, somehow you need to get to ARR and the Shoenichs, she said.
Our situation was far from ideal. I had moved him from Anwar’s stables to Qurum Equestrian down the road, and that would have been a living nightmare if I hadn’t had Tawfiq as our own groom. Far from really improving, Abi had started on ‘hop’ on his left front shoulder, a movement that puzzled me completely and when I wrote about it to Kerry he also was stymied. I tried to video tape it but wasn’t really successful as obviously I needed to be riding him at the time and it wasn’t an action that I could reliably forecast he was going to make, it was pretty random. (Klaus and Gaby later identified it as when he puts all his weight on his forehand he compensates through this ‘limp’. He will sometimes do it even today, if I don’t help him to lift his right shoulder sufficiently in a corner.) He also wouldn’t get up to canter on the left, often even in free canter around the arena. I didn’t seem to be able to take him past a certain stage and then he would go lame again. Andy came in and diagnosed navicular syndrome. I was really depressed.
I approached my osteopath, Dr Hakim. Would he be interested in experimenting with helping me with my horse? To his great credit he agreed.
On looking at the difference in height in the feet (and by this time they were MUCH improved with the left having increased in size and the right diminished somewhat, and the height difference reduced to less than a centimeter) and the way that he was dragging his right front foot, Hakim suggested we put him in a single boot – on the right – for some time to see if this made a difference. As he said, if he’d been a human patient, this is what they would have done, increased the sole height of a shoe to take the pressure off the shoulders and the rest of the skeleton by having the whole system out of whack.
Crazy as it sounded, and it required a lot of care – hoof cleaning, bandaging to make sure there were no points of rubbing, etc – it did seem to help. He gained more millimeters of height in that hoof, and it helped us reduce the left even more. He was a long long way from being symmetrical but he was a damn sight better than he had been before. Hakim even tried some acupuncture on him! I thought it worked, but Hakim became dispirited at the fact that he couldn’t get any feedback from the horse as he could from his human patients and finally decided he couldn’t spare any more time, which was a shame as I thought he’d made a real difference.
But Abi still wasn’t sound. I could ride him for a while – a week, a few days – and then he would start limping or refuse to go forward at all.
Summer was coming and I had discovered that the Shoenichs were based in Goch – relatively close to Maastricht, where Qais was at University. I would be visiting him and could perhaps also visit them? I had seen on their website that they offered ‘shoulder look’ days where you could arrange to visit ARR to watch and learn about the processes that they used. This would be better than a Clinic! I arranged to go for three or four days.
To say that this visit just blew my mind is probably putting it mildly. The thing that struck me most of all was how the entire process was – truly – geared to putting the horse first. The horses that came to them, from all walks of life and truly all breeds, all had issues and the whole purpose of ARR was to resolve those issues.
When they say that they deal with a team – vets, dentists, farriers, homeopaths, saddlers – they mean it. Whatever piece of the puzzle is required to firstly diagnose the horses’ issues and then resolve them is available and is used. Obviously coming from Oman where poor Dr Petar had to borrow the electric file from Andy and come in and do Abi’s teeth (and he was the only horse in the stable at that time having its teeth done!) and where we had to beg borrow and steal to get a halfway decent farrier, this was like being a kid in a candy store. Not only did I meet and get to talk to Christophe Hubertus the master saddler but also Rabea the dentist who was just horrified at the notion of holding the horses’ tongue to look at its teeth! I felt like the ultimate hick from the sticks, the most ignorant and undeserving horse owner on the planet. The only thing that made me feel better was that I knew a whole bunch of other people who weren’t even looking over the edge of the pit we were all in!
I was also incredibly fortunate that at this exact time two ladies who were to make a huge impact just happened to be at ARR at that time – Cornelia Heimgartner, whose stallion White Talisman happened to star in the You Tube videos that I had watched with great interest to learn about the longeing technique; and Marion Voss who has now nearly completed her ARR accreditation. Both were starting their new horses and both have become friends and mentors, I believe, in these ensuing years.
Of course I was also incredibly depressed. I knew that we were still stuck in Oman, without a farrier (though we were not doing to badly with his feet ourselves to be fair), without any access to any of the ancillary services. I purchased an ARR cavesson and determined to start longing him at home, but without the rest of the package I was pretty sure we weren’t going to get very far. Apart from anything, when I had shown them the photos of how his feet had been at the beginning of this whole exercise, the collective intake of breath could be heard outside the room.
And to be fair, we didn’t. The longeing technique is not rocket science but it needs understanding of a horse’s movement and training and mentoring and fine tuning – which is what you get in a clinic, for example – and we didn’t have any of that. We would jury rig a round pen daily using tape; and we had the right cavesson but that was about it. We weren’t really moving forward but I had seen where I wanted to be and that gave me a goal, which as we know is a very powerful thing.
Things were winding up for us in Oman business wise, and Marcel was adamant that we get the horse out of the country. I knew exactly where I wanted him to go, and in June 2016 he flew out of Abu Dhabi destination Amsterdam and ARR in Goch.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the horse that got onto the plane in Abu Dhabi could barely walk. We had moved stables yet again (after a brief experiment with having him live at home which was nice for us but I think he was lonely) to Hamoud’s, a competition jumping stable with a great group of people but which was 100k from our house.
After a brief renaissance there, he had slipped even further backwards. He wouldn’t even walk with me on his back, and had begun to balk at even being hand walked outside the gate. Basha thought there might be a problem with his saddle, but none of us were sure how to recognise or solve that. (As it turned out, that was a MASSIVE problem and the Bates saddle that I had so proudly bought for him just before things all went to shit – which should have been a big red flag but I was too ignorant to see it – was actually a huge part of his ongoing issues, with the weight in entirely the wrong place it must have caused him a great deal of pain!) . But as you can see in this video; he could barely walk and was dragging that right front from the shoulder. There was no way I could ride him in that state and it seemed like everyone’s advice to simply retire him was perhaps exactly what I should do.
Additionally he obviously had something wrong with his teeth – he had often put his tongue out between his front teeth, something he did practically all the time now, but he was also showing a problem with his back teeth – carrots would get stuck in there and he’d end up spitting them out, not chewing them properly.
A notice went around the riding groups, a British dentist who was going to be in Dubai would come to Oman and do horses in all the stables – who was interested? I jumped at it. Unfortunately the guy managed to arrive so late – having been held up at the border – that I was the only one in our stables who’d waited around. He immediately tried to put the speculum into Abi’s mouth and Abi reared. I was stunned.
“Goodness, have you had problems with him before like this?”
“No, never, but aren’t you going to sedate him?”
“Oh God no! we shouldn’t have to do that!!!! He must have had a bad experience with a speculum before; we’ll try again shall we?”
Again, such a severe reaction.
“OK, look, we’ll take him into the arena and try again there. If it doesn’t work maybe I’ll have to come back tomorrow and sedate him, we don’t have time now tonight I have ten other horses to see ….”
Well, long story short apparently they managed it. I couldn’t watch. I stayed in the stables waiting for them to come and tell me that either my horse was dead or he’d managed to kill someone. The guy came back to me afterwards and said, “OK; several issues with this horse and I will write you a proper report. Firstly, he’s hanging his tongue out of his mouth because ‘someone’ has ground back his front teeth and so the tongue is hanging out between the teeth. This will only get worse as his teeth will never come together again. Secondly, he has a bunch of broken teeth on the right hand side of his jaw, towards the back. I will have to remove them, but when I get back as it will be quite an operation. I’ve filed his teeth and he should be much better. But I’m going to email you a full report. ”
I never heard from him again.
Thank God I didn’t need to because a month later Abi was confirmed on his flight out.
Knowing that he had several issues (and not sure if they could be resolved at all!) I had booked him in to ARR for six months. Apart from anything else, we didn’t know where we’d be living – France or St Pierre – or even Langkawi or Sri Lanka – so buying time was the best thing I figured I could do.
As soon as he arrived in Goch at ARR I had a message from Gaby Shoenich. “Why does he stick his tongue out?”
“Hmm,” I replied. “Basically he does it when he’s not happy. But I don’t really know, this dentist said it was because his front teeth were too short and he can’t keep his tongue in …”
We’ve talked about this subsequently of course! And it’s true that the tongue was always an indicator of his mood; though naturally enough if he was in pain he’d be grumpy too … and also to be fair to us this particular disease kind of waxes and wanes so sometimes it doesn’t hurt and other times it does, so you can be forgiven for not noticing for quite a while that there is a problem. But this dentist should have seen that the horse was in pain! Even if he didn’t recognise the symptoms of the disease! Which he clearly didn’t – or certainly paid no attention.
Within a day or so of his arrival he was in the round pen for the first time, and by the time I got there myself a week or so later he was well settled in!
He had already seen Rabea the dentist and Rene the farrier. Rabea had determined – with one look – that he had a degenerative gum disease that was common in ponies but uncommon in horses – pretty much only warmblood horses develop it – and that basically this meant that he was in so much pain in the front of his mouth that he was putting his tongue there to protect his teeth. The teeth had to come out, it was a pretty major operation but at least we knew what his problem was. I was just shaking with anger though at the insensitivity and lack of knowledge of this ‘star’ dentist who had just lunged straight at him with the speculum causing god know what pain to the poor animal just a month before. No wonder he had reared and fought!!!! What a testament to his good nature that he allowed them to prevail without anaesthetic.
Rene and I had a good discussion about his feet. We could see that in the two weeks he had been there able to go out into the paddock every day that his feet had already improved; and so I argued that we should wait longer and see what else his feet could do on their own before we shod him again. As it turned out, we only put shoes on him again in February 2017 because after the full winter on hard ground his feet were too short and he was obviously uncomfortable. With Rene he has never looked back; trimming or shoeing, and his feet are remarkably recovered. Even the persistent crack that would not resolve itself that had stemmed from the abscess that had burst through on the coronary band back in 2014 has now finally gone as I write in mid 2018.
But of course the most significant change in him was in his body – if you discount the effect on his mind! Dr Fernandez, the chiropractor and acupuncturist, had treated him for three or four major blockages within two weeks of his arrival; and the longeing process was well under way. These are his first sessions; they will give an idea of how unbalanced and how unable to hold himself he was …
I know I haven’t really focussed on what the process is, but it’s enough to say that the Schoenich method is based around the biomechanics of the horse and the concept of straightness (of the horse) as a necessity for proper (classical) riding. This is a good article on the issue if you’re interested http://www.eurodressage.com/2015/05/09/classical-training-are-you-straight.
Without gymnastic training – utilising the ARR cavesson in the round pen – to assist straightness, it’s very difficult for a horse, longer term, to successfully carry a rider AND REMAIN SOUND. So it is basically this lack of gymnastic training to straightness in horses that we are beginning to see expressed in breakdowns such as Abi’s, often far more subtle but equally disabling for horse and rider.
Taking it that every animal is either right or left handed, it is not surprising that horses are not born ‘ambidextrous’, as people are not either. Almost all living creatures, you and me included, need training to develop their less dominant side. With horses, which are quadruped flight animals, the introduction of a rider makes this training indispensible. Now that’s a major oversimplification, for a real understanding of the technique you need to at least look at Klaus and Gabriele’s book, and the gymnastic training itself just sits as part of the holistic approach to the horse’s wellbeing, but in general terms I think that sums it up.
And if you have any doubts, just take a pen and write your name on a piece of paper with your dominant hand. Then do the same thing with your other hand. If there isn’t a visible difference, you’re one of the truly rare ambidextrous beings on this planet, and you know it.
Of course the one thing that I can’t express sufficiently is the factor of their incredible breadth and depth of EXPERIENCE with so so so many horses .. and over so many years, that they bring to bear with their approach to each new individual horse. They estimate that so far they have worked with over 7000 horses and of course are still counting. And of course the team that they have managed to surround themselves with are just phenomenal.
Well, for A’bientot – who was renamed The Sheikh as soon as he stepped out of the horse transport back in June 2016 – it transformed him literally back into the horse that I first rode in Amman back in 2007. I had never thought that I would experience the power; the spring in the step and the life and vitality that he had regained within around four months at ARR. At 20 and 21 no one could believe that he wasn’t 10 years old in the arena. Yes, he has no front teeth and his tongue often hangs out, so he looks kind of funny, but when he is working in the round pen or in the arena his tongue is in, he’s playing with the bit and you would have no clue that he is not like any other of the amazing horses there.
The thing is; this isn’t a miracle that they worked with my horse alone. I’ve now been there often enough to watch many different horses go through – and sometimes return – and I’ve seen that the training works for every single kind of horse on the planet – dressage horses and showjumpers; ponies; Icelandic horses; Norwegian horses; Tinkers – stallions, mares, geldings – the issue that all of them face in common is the biomechanical one of straightness – combined with the weight and influence of the rider.
Therefore it’s easy to see that the missing piece of the puzzle in my riding now of course is me. I have no idea what Gaby might have thought the first time she saw me in the saddle, but it was soon apparent TO ME when I did my first seat lesson that obviously I could not ride. I mean, I had been riding, and even competing for years but I had no seat, no balance, and no idea of what, really, I was doing. I was dragging on the reins, trying to steer .. you name it, I pretty much did it – if it was wrong.
As events conspired and we moved to St Pierre, Sheikh and I have drawn the jackpot in that Gaby – appalled, I think, at the prospect of his journey to the frozen wastes of the north – suggested that perhaps I would consider leaving him permanently at ARR and coming to visit him regularly. It was a crazy idea but those are the best after all, so I jumped at the opportunity. So what that means is that I get to avail myself of the best riding training for me while my horse gets the benefit of living his senior years in one of the best managed stables in the world, in the field every day and under the care of the very best professionals in their fields in this part of the planet … so now I’m focussing on getting myself straight; training and using my Pilates under the tutelage of the wonderful Robin Hearne Kockler in Washington, and becoming a rider worthy of my Sheikhy. I’ve got a long long long long long way to go, but at least I know we’re on the right path. And that is a LONG way from retirement!