Holistic riding

Horses aren’t born to carry people. It’s very kind that they do, but they shouldn’t be forced to

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve magazine October 2015

How do you move a 500kg horse? Carrot or stick. But there are other options as well. In a valley near Carrapateira on the Algarve’s west coast, the German Andreas Endries teaches a holistic way of being with horses. Bits are a no go and natural circumstances are being resembled in order to communicate with the horse in a more respectful manner. Mad about horses and keen to learn more about them, we give it a try.

Looking the part with a cowboy hat on his head, Andreas Endries (51) walks into the arena with a horse following on a lead. He isn’t pulling, the line is slack. He walks up to the middle of the paddock and suddenly stops. Without any signal or command, the horse stops as well, exactly at his right shoulder. As he unties the horse, it walks around in the arena, grazing peacefully at the hay that’s scattered all over the ground. A second and a third one follow, all in the same manner. They are soon rolling on the ground, enjoying the feeling of sand on their back. While the horses chill out in the paddock and are allowed to just be horses, we look at them.

 

Observing the horses is part of the natural way Andreas works. This means he is relating to them whenever possible and tries to imitate a natural environment. The hay lying in the paddock is just a small example. In nature, horses spend up to 22 hours a day eating. Walking and grazing pretty much takes up all their time. What would happen if a horse is kept in the stable all day long and fed at regular intervals? It’d get bored.

Although Andreas’ way of being with horses bears many resemblances to Monty Roberts’ natural horsemanship (don’t know what this is? Read ‘The man who listens to horses’ by Monty Roberts), it isn’t the same. “Monty did absolutely great things for horses,” Andreas says. “But now we have to go on, refine those methods further and learn more. What Monty did with his join-up, he was pretending to be a predator and first drove the horse away by making it afraid. I don’t want to work with fear to control a horse.” There’s certainly no agitation whatsoever to be seen in Andreas’ herd, which consists of six horses. Naturally curious and inquisitive animals, soon one comes over to have a look at photographer Kyle who’s crouched on the ground to get the best shots. After a few sniffs, it’s off again.

 

In all animals, also humans, women are stronger. They’ve always been further: with intuition, instinct and reproduction

As we continue to observe the horses without making contact, Andreas makes some comments that probably won’t go down well with half the world’s population. “With horses, the strongest mare is the leader of the group. That’s logical. In all animals, also humans, women are stronger. They’ve always been further: with intuition, instinct and reproduction. True, a strong stallion is needed as well, but he’s not the leader. The mares lead the herd to the food. Do women fight because they want more land or money? No, they don’t. They’d do everything to protect their kids, but they won’t set off on unnecessary wars. Mankind should learn from nature a bit more.”

Seeing as holistic riding isn’t just about getting on a horse and trotting off, we start off by making ourselves feel more balanced and getting rid of tension. Andreas takes us (photographer Marijke, who liked his comments about how women rule the world, has also joined in) through a series of exercises, which combine elements of yoga, tai chi and qigong. “It’s all about body awareness,” he explains. “If you’re more confident and comfortable with yourself, you’ll later also be more confident and comfortable with the horse.”

 

They come for a look and a sniff but aren’t that interested as all we do is stand and breathe

First up: breathing and awareness techniques. The aim is to draw deep breaths, all the way to your belly. Eyes closed, nearly meditating, we sharpen our senses. Horses, apparently, can sense a tsunami coming and flee land inwards before. Marijke does pretty well and is able to hear the sea from a few kilometres distance. I mostly hear horses walking and eating, and briefly wonder if they might mistake my blonde hair for straw. They don’t. They come for a look and a sniff but aren’t that interested as all we do is stand and breathe. The other exercises, swinging your arms in different directions and doing warrior poses, prove to be a bit more fascinating to them. Soon we have three horses watching us as we try and bend all the way backwards, a bit like Neo was dodging bullets in the Matrix movies. I wonder what they think.

 

As I approach her with the halter, the Lusitano-Berber mixed mare turns her head away

When Andreas hands me a halter and a rope, I go off guiding Aroa. Or, so I think. But as I approach her with the halter, the Lusitano-Berber mixed mare turns her head away. I can’t help laughing out loud and put on the halter. Now comes the hard part: walking her around the arena. Something I’ve done with dozens of horses before as I picked them up from the field before a riding lesson, but there’s one thing different this time: I’m not allowed to pull the lead. As I set off, I glance at Aroa, willing her to follow me. Not a chance. I walk a few steps and feel the leash go tight. Bugger, I must look like a complete idiot. Maybe in a different direction? Please, Aroa? Nope. The horse stays put.

Andreas isn’t surprised. “You’re not leading, you’re looking at her. Does the leading mare of the herd glances back at the other horses, seeing if they’ll follow her? Of course she doesn’t. She is confident. So stand up straight, square your shoulders, put your head up, look in the distance and walk off, knowing she’ll follow you.” I try and follow his instructions, remembering how at riding school the smallest children would often lead the biggest, moodiest horses from the field without any troubles. Just because it wouldn’t cross their minds that this animal, that’s hundreds of kilos heavier and way stronger, might not follow them. It works. I’m baffled; it does indeed all come down to body language. “The horse is a mirror,” Andreas says, telling us about the time that one of his calmest horses got into a near-panic state, only because its rider was panicking. “If you are afraid, the horse will be afraid. If you are confident, the horse will be so as well.”

 

People are still treating horses based on ways from the Middle Ages

When we’re at least half-able to lead the horses, Marijke and I move on to grooming and tacking up the Arab-Haflinger stallion Tatoari, who, as all Andreas’ horses, doesn’t wear iron shoes. Contrary to traditions in most other riding schools, Andreas doesn’t even use a saddle for this lesson, just a padded blanket held by a girth. The biggest difference though is the bridle: it’s bitless. “That’s the first thing that should change everywhere, from riding schools to Olympic competitions,” Andreas states. “There shouldn’t be any metal on the horse!” Bits date back to the time when people would ride horses into battle. As horses are flight animals, they’d never willingly ride towards a combat situation. The sharp piece of iron in the horses’ mouth was needed to control and dominate them enough in order to drive them to the fight. Now, seeing as wars aren’t fought on horseback anymore, there’s no need for the bit. Another strange thing: people are taught to always mount from the horse’s left side (even though the animal itself couldn’t care less what side you get up). Why? Again, because in combat soldiers carried their swords on one side and thus got up on the other. It’s bizarre that most things have evolved, but people are still treating horses based on ways from the Middle Ages.

This thoughtless way of dealing with horses is what Andreas wants to change, into a respectful approach of the animals. After all, they are sensitive creatures. And indeed, as Marijke leads me around sitting on Tatoari, the horse suddenly stops. Why? I didn’t do anything. “Yes you did: you moved forward a bit,” Andreas comments. He’s right. But that was just a tiny little bit?! Apparently horses sense literally everything and communication is thus best done by means of the smallest signals. It’s proven again as we go for a walk in the amazingly beautiful wild countryside near Carrapateira. While trotting, Tatoari stops after a while. I’m not sure why, but Andreas’ sharp eyes don’t miss a thing: “You’re clenching your thighs.” Again, he’s right; unused to riding without saddle, I’m tensing up in order to stay on.

 

Horses aren’t born to carry people. It’s very kind that they do, but they shouldn’t be forced to

The exercises we continue to do during the ride help with relaxing, and also ensure a more balanced posture. During the one-on-one tuition, Andreas regularly reminds us to keep breathing deeply, in order to connect with the horse. A slight push with your calves, an active posture and some pelvis movements should suffice to maintain a trot. Still, I struggle without being allowed to use the only signal I know for going faster, lightly kicking the horse in the sides. “So you really don’t kick them?” I ask Andreas to be sure. His answer: to prod me in the ribs with his finger. “Does that feel nice? No? Well, that’s how the horse would feel if we’d kick it. Not nice.”

Most riders have been brought up with this not-so-nice attitude. Andreas as well; he started riding when he was four years old and soon moved onto high level competitions. Somewhere along the way though, the fun and enjoyment he initially got from riding turned into stress and pressure. “I wasn’t happy anymore with the pushy way it was done. Horses give more when you ask less.” That realisation turned into the holistic method he has now been developing for over 20 years. A big part of this is spending time with the horses without riding them: Andreas walks his horses, the same way people would walk a well-trained dog, off the leash. In the winter he often lies down in a field, waiting for the horses to come and join him, like friends. “Horses aren’t born to carry people. It’s very kind that they do, but they shouldn’t be forced to. My horses have taught me to be patient and more understanding in a natural way. Most from what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from them.”

 

The horse has taught me a thing or two about posture and self-confidence

As for myself, Tatoari’s reactions have showed me that I should relax better and be more aware of my breathing (something that’s easily forgotten when spending most time behind a computer, stressing to make yet another deadline). Aroa has taught me a thing or two about posture and self-confidence. Naturally I’m still a long way off from riding horses like Andreas does, galloping over the hills without reins, just by using body language. But if this learning is done in a way that’s fun for both human and animal, by means of mutual respect and communication instead of domination and fear, then I can’t wait to go back to (riding) school!

Pictures by Marijke Verschuren and Kyle Rodriguez

 

When to go?

Holistic riding is possible all year round.

Temperature-wise, spring and autumn are often the best times. However, due to the location near the sea, there’s often a breeze in Monte Velho, which makes it also possible to ride in the hotter summer months (although rides will then be planned early mornings or late afternoons). If you’re riding in winter, wrap up a bit warmer.

Want to go? Reserve beforehand to avoid disappointment. All contact details can be found on: www.holistic-riding.com

 

For whom?

Horse lovers of course. It doesn’t matter if you’re already a pro rider or if you’ve never even been close to a horse. Even people who are terrified of horses can take part, as the holistic approach will work on your fear or anxiety issues.

Holistic riding can be done by anyone (although being over the age of 6 is advised). Those want to include terrain rides or countryside hacks in their holistic riding experience must be over the age of 16 and be experienced riders.

Riding caps are provided, but do take some sturdy closed shoes.

 

 

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve magazine October 2015

Posted in This month we try.

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