Okay, so this is a big, important, personal one. I guess it's a 'get to know me' story...
At the time, I was training for my British Horse Society Stage 3 exams. For those of you who don't know, in order to take the exams, you have to get 'signed-off' by a coach who holds a higher qualification than the one you are working towards. In my case, that would have been at least a BHS Stage 4 Coach (BHSII in old money). As I was horse-less at the time, I had no option but to go down the riding school route. There are surprisingly few centres that can accommodate this. You don't realise how many riding schools are run by BHSAIs/Stage 3 Coaches until you try to take the Stage 3 exam yourself and suddenly find that nowhere can sign you off for the exam!
I essentially had one place semi-locally that could help me. It was a fairly ordinary, stereotypical riding school, but better-than-average. To start with, I really enjoyed riding there. If I'm honest, before riding at this particular training centre, I used to ride in a way that I am not proud of. I didn't know any better, I did what my coach did, and I didn't have anyone to show me a better way. I did the best I could with lack of knowledge, skillset, and support I had at the time, as almost everyone does. But. because I'd ridden in the way that I had, I was quite okay with how I was being taught to ride at this training centre. I should add, I was aware of classical training at this point. I was slowly taking some time to learn a little more about it, but didn't really have any kind of firm opinions on it, for or against. I was just "aware" of it. As time went on, I was being coached to "get the horse rounder", all the time. Everything felt like a battle. The horses felt tense and upset, and I was increasingly not enjoying my lessons. I was learning more about classical training, but still hadn't given it a huge amount of thought - just enough to confuse the situation, which made everything that little bit harder to process. I was getting off horses, at the training centre, feeling miserable, but I wasn't really sure why. In reality, I was using strength, and a "kick, pull, and shove" approach to "get them rounder". I was even praised for sawing the poor horse in the mouth at one point. That was the breaking point. The horse I had been riding had felt resistent, heavy and unhappy, I'd been encouraged to saw him in the mouth, and yes, he became lighter, but he didn't feel 'good'. I won't pretend to know what a horse thinks or feels emotionally; I'm a coach, not an equine spiritual healer. But, I think he felt sad, betrayed, and disappointed - or maybe that was just how I felt. I suddenly understood why I had been feeling out-of-sorts in my riding. I got in my car to drive home, an hour drive. and I was on the brink of tears for the whole journey.
I decided that I wouldn't be part of that again. I wouldn't do that to a horse again. I wouldn't do that to myself again. I decided that my morality was more important than passing BHS exams, more important than riding at all. I said to my dad "If I can't find somewhere that trains in a better way, I won't ride until do - or until I get a horse that I can train in a way that I can get behind and agree with". I meant it too, every word. I was genuinely ready to throw in the towel, and give up riding for as long as it took to find the right place.
Thankfully, it didn't take long. A quick google later, and I found the place. I went for my first lesson, and it was a breath of fresh air. I didn't really use my reins for anything - not for steering, stopping, flexing, bending. I just held them. The horse was happy, I was over-the-moon. It was really hard to start with, a completely different way of riding. I had some doubts about whether I could stick with it. Every lesson, however, I got off feeling better. My instructor was (is) amazing, and re-introduced every aspect of riding really gradually. After a month or two of lessons, I actually started to use my reins again, albeit in a very different way than I had before.
I went to a job interview a few months later, and had a lesson with their yard manager, who is a very successful event rider. I hated it. It was all shoving and pushing. It was then that I realised I absolutely wouldn't go back to the 'old way' of riding. Due to a new instructor joining the team there, I gave the training centre one last try, because I still wanted to get my BHS exams. It was even worse than before. I was crying before I'd even gotten off the horse. Heartbroken didn't even cut it.
So now, I put my morals and the horses first. If I have to sacrafice personal career goals, or competition success, or whatever else, that sits okay with me. My whole life changed through finding classical riding. It has limited my job options, as a lot of riding schools don't teach people to ride in that way. It has changed my personal goals with horses. But it's also opened my eyes to so many more opportunities, around the world at that. I've found my tribe, and I'm happy, as are the horses I ride. I really got my love for horses, and my passion back. It's driven me to be there for the 'mini-me's, to help stop them from falling down the rabbit hole - been there, done that, it's awful. I want to help the riders, riding school clients and horse-owners alike, who currently feel how I felt; out-of-sorts, disappointed, guilty, unworthy, like they are betraying their horse, or are unable to 'get behind' how they are being taught. I want to help them feel a bit better about their riding, their partnership with horses, and have more confidence that they are doing right by their horse.
I am a dressage trainer and general equestrian coach in Surrey, Sussex, and Berkshire. I teach dressage lessons, and hold a range of riding and equestrian clinics around the UK, and use my blog to share horse training tips, advice, and resources.