By Lizzie Hopkinson
When I was young, I kept my ponies on the farm up the road. It was a traditional working farm with tractors, livestock, dogs, landrovers, trailers. The stables were in an old building, past which the farmer would trundle as he went around his day. I was allowed to ride around the farm, past the plough, the bailer, the harrows. My jumps were made of items I had been given, oil drums, old feed sacks. I rode with friends on their bikes, sharing the ponies and the bikes between us. My ponies were bombproof. Nothing we met out and about was any different to what we encountered in our everyday life.
Looking back, I realise that without realising it, I was bombproofing those ponies, exposing them to the very things that they could be scared of, so that they learnt that they were normal and unthreatening. A case of unconscious competence. Later on, I kept my horses in purpose built yards, with access to a clear school, those horses were not bombproof. Those horses would react to tractors and trailers if confronted with them. Gradually I learnt that what I had done as a child was correct, but now I had to learn to do it from first principles, I had to do it consciously, and learn conscious competence.
Once I had realised what I had lost as I had grown-up, moved up, I had to go out of my way to re-create the conditions that had once been on my doorstep. So that I purposely began to school my horses in the fields, around the tractor, leave random items spread across the field, rugs, old feed sacks pinned down with stones, until I realised that the field I schooled my horses in, was effectively a re-creation of the farm of my childhood. But these horses were bombproof. Used to being asked for shoulder-in, or a half-pass around an old pile of timber, or a strategically placed trailer, they were unfazed when meeting the same hazards out hacking.
I fear today that these farms, such as the ones from my childhood are vanishing, lost to commercialisation. The conditions that I took for granted, no longer exist, and with them the opportunities they presented. But we need our horses to be around the very things that we will meet. So, we must re-create these old farmyards, full of clattering and clanking, full of sights, sounds and smells, so that our horses are unfazed. A crisp packet in a hedge is no threat if your stable is covered with old plastic sacks, the tractor approaching you down the lane, is not a source of worry if you see it passing back and forth all day. Rather than worrying that you could meet out hacking, and avoiding it, actively seek out obstacles, so that your horse becomes confident in the presence of the unexpected and you can enjoy your time together.
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