Finding a New Approach

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By Suzanne Alexander, MD

When I was 45 years old, with my sons almost old enough to leave the nest, my husband said the most amazing thing, “Why don’t you buy yourself a horse?”

I’d recently made friends with a woman who had a Friesian horse, and my husband had noticed that whenever I returned from spending time with her and her horse, I was very happy. He wasn’t the first family member to notice my love for horses. My mother claimed I was born loving horses and growing up I talked about horses constantly. At age ten, I wrote a letter to the mayor of our city asking if he’d make an exception and allow me to keep a horse at our home—I promised to put a stall in the garage and provide turnout in our fenced backyard and to keep everything very clean. (The mayor never wrote back.) When I was fifteen, we finally moved to a farm and bought a buckskin Morgan gelding, rescued a chestnut Saddlebred mare, and somehow landed a spicy Shetland pony named Peaches. My siblings and I rode the horses on the trails around the nearby fields and wooded areas. Oh, the joy! But three short years later I had to sell my horses to pay for college. It was a difficult decision, although not an uncommon one, and the only way to cope, it seemed, was to completely push horses out of my mind. After college I went to medical school, got married, had a career as a physician, and raised a family. Horses were a thing of the past.

So, when my husband suggested that I buy myself a horse, I was completely taken aback. First, I hadn’t imagined such a thing. Second, what husband says that? Nonetheless, I wasted no time—what if he changed his mind? I hopped on my computer and within ten minutes I’d found the horse of my suddenly reawakened dreams. Only problem was, the horse was in Denmark and I was in Wisconsin. Now I know what you’re thinking, that buying a horse online from a broker might not the best approach, especially for someone as green as I was then. Many people warned or scolded me before, during, and after the purchase—I hear that behind my back one of my friends still describes me as the crazy one who bought a horse sight unseen. But I don’t care, it worked out beautifully. Within a month of passing his vet check and being gelded, this purebred Friesian named Isak was on his way to us. Yes, before buying Isak I did speak to his trainer at length, asking particular questions about Isak’s personality and experience, but I still consider it a small miracle that we were such a great match.

Isak, who proved to be exactly as described—brave, kind, well-trained and a wee bit lazy—was perfect, anyone could ride him, but six years after arriving he died suddenly and unexpectedly of gastric rupture. I was devastated but determined to waste no time being away from horses. Two weeks later, I found another horse online, this one a Friesian Cross, but this time my prospect was only four hours away so I got to meet and ride him before signing the purchase contract. A few years later, my husband and I bought our own farm and expanded our herd to include an Andalusian mare, another Friesian Cross gelding, and three rescue donkeys.

Throughout this time, I studied various disciplines—natural horsemanship, dressage, liberty, tricks, and working equitation. I love combining it all. I’ve done a couple dressage schooling shows and muddled through one recognized show (it wasn’t pretty, but nobody died…). What I enjoy most is to ride in or audit clinics to learn with friends, to read the classic books by the masters, to watch training videos online, and to take private lessons from the best instructors I can find.  

Now, 13 years since my husband suggested I buy a horse, he still takes great pleasure in my love for the equids. This year, for my 58th birthday, he bought me a half-day training session with the Bethany Tuskey, a dressage and trick trainer. Bethany’s home barn is Dover Stables in Waterford, WI, about a 90-minute drive from Madison. Dover Stables is a boarding facility and hosts frequent clinics with a variety of emphasis, from garrocha pole to liberty work to classical dressage and more. Bethany also offers private lessons on your own horse or, if trailering isn’t an option, you can lesson on one of her several schoolmasters. I’ve done both—I’ve trailered my own horse to Dover and I’ve also lessoned on her most advanced school master, Ilustre. But on this beautiful fall day, Bethany made the drive to our farm and spent four hours with me and our donkeys and horses.

Bethany’s unique teaching style incorporates all she’s learned in a lifetime of study of the art of horsemanship—including classical dressage, liberty work, work in hand, long reining, and trick training. Rooted in Christian faith, Bethany explains, keeps her deeply respectful of horse and human individuality. She emphasizes love for the horse expressed in harmonious communication and healthy biomechanics, leading to a rich and mutually rewarding partnership between horse and rider—a partnership that is enjoyable both to participate in and to observe.

Bethany has been heavily influenced by the French or Iberian tradition, which approaches dressage as an art form rather than an exercise or dance routine, although it can also be those things as long as the art comes first. When you listen carefully to Bethany, you begin to see that, for her, the art is the culmination of thousands of moments of respectful interaction aimed at helping the horse be calm and move in balance and harmony. The relationship must be based on mutual trust and respect. The enjoyment the horse and rider experience is noticeable—even compelling—to anyone watching.

To that end, Bethany prioritizes relationship over robotic precision, and balanced movement over big movement. She teaches the horse to be obedient while allowing it to develop and express its personality, to ask questions and process information, to be lively and unique in its interaction with the rider and the work.

All this theory boiled down to some amazing discoveries and accomplishments for me and my equids. We learned new things and polished old things. We practiced some tricks and dressage, with an emphasis on balance and keeping things fair yet challenging and playful. Cool things happened including Elsa, our miniature donkey, pulling the cart for the first time, my Andalusian mare completing her bow and doing Spanish Walk under saddle, and my Friesian Cross brothers engaging more from behind and staying steady in contact while making crisp transitions up and down, and halting squarely. This may be small stuff, but the small stuff adds up to some fun and beautiful moments.

When working with our horses, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, to have only one image of success in our mind that we repeatedly and miserably measure ourselves against. Fortunately, we have access to instructors from varied backgrounds. We are invited and encouraged to explore and expand our definition of successful horsemanship. If you’re an ardent follower of German Dressage, for example, maybe give French Dressage a try, and vice versa. If you only do dressage, consider trying liberty or trick training to enhance your groundwork skills. Branch out. You might find new approaches that invigorate your relationship with your horse, and you’re likely make new friends and have fun along the way.

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