I started riding at 8 years old at a typical riding school in Devon, in the UK. As a family of 6 we arrived, had a badly fitted helmet plonked on our heads, and similarly got plonked on a pony. We walk across Dartmoor, learning some basics (where to hold on!). Before I could ask what's a gallop, we were off...later, the rest of my family informed me they all kept together, in walk, and asked "Where's Pam?". Oh yes, I was flying across the moors in the 'galloping group' of experienced riders...and I was hooked!!!!
This joy of riding, flying across Dartmoor, feeling like I was on Black Beauty (!!) has never left me. The above photos were taken at a riding school in Devon and was my aboslute joyful place to go each week. I knew I wanted to work with horses and wanted to soak up any information I could. Although my family enjoyed the odd horse ride, getting my own pony was not an option and I couldn't have been anymore frustrated about it! Instead my instructor got drilled with a million questions each time we rode. It was supposed to be a relaxing hack across the moors but I didn't want to miss an opportunity to learn! I wanted to know it all. I needed to know as much as possible.
I have a vivid memory of one of the instructor's horses rearing every time he approached a farm on the laneways. We had all been given instructions that when 'Money' lost it, we all had to turn and move far far away. I used to watch in awe - how was it, that this strong, capable animal could react so quickly over some past trauma they said he had experienced? Oh, how I wanted to understand and help him!
In later years, this morphed into a fascination with behaviour…how come some animals can be trained for certain behaviours and others can’t? Why do some methods use force, punishment and demands? Is there another way? What can I do to help horses with fear?
But also - why do people do what they do? What draws people to make decisions that aren't right or fair for horses (and other animals)?
Understanding behaviour and changing people's motivation to act has been at my core for a long time...
I searched for kinder ways of training, wondering if the traditional methods with statements such as "we've always done it this way" were always right.
For a while I dabbled with natural horsemanship training - hoping this was the kinder way for horses. With explanations of respect, dominate, submit...I wasn't convinced.
I worked at a riding school in Cornwall and started studying the stages with the British Horse Society.
This was hugely valuable - not only did it teach me the absolute foundations of horse care and riding, but it opened my eyes to my love for teaching, questioning and learning. I constantly wanted to improve - myself, others but mostly the overall impact of horse riding and management on the horse.
It's probably not a surprise to many, that this fascination in behaviour led me to my Psychology degree. This is the beginning of my journey into learning theory - it made so much sense! I took on an ex-race horse ("Shania" - what a name?!) who had a need for speed! There were difficult moments to define - galloping or bolting across the moors? I wasn't sure which one we were often doing. I tried to use my new found knowledge of psychology for her; wondering what motivated her, what could I improve in her world and how did the horse-handler relationship help or hinder.
But there were some major missing ingredients. For instance, my mare used to bolt home so I figured 'work her hard' when we got home and it would break her positive association of rushing home. Of course it didn't break her positive association of being back with her herd, where she felt safe and secure. All I probably succeeded in doing, was making our relationship more strained than it was before! Breaking horses in with friends, competing locally, studying my BHS stages and helping others with their training problems - I knew it was my passion but still questioned 'what's in it for the horse?'
I wanted more clarity, safety and better outcomes that didn't involve guess work on what actually made a difference.
Luckily for me, around 2004 I was a spectator at one of Dr Andrew McLean’s demonstrations in Cornwall - and it was like the Holy Grail! Here I heard Andrew talking about how horses learn - to understand first what motivates them to act - what rewards them - what they actually need and want in life. To know the simplicity of behaviour. In the case of my bolting/galloping mare = she just hadn't been taught a good stop.
Andrew bridged the gap for me from learning theory to the application on horse behaviour. Knowing horses don't think at all like we do was the best bit of information I could've heard. I wanted to know more!!
Imagine my disappointment then, when I realised Andrew lived in Australia. No plans for me moving across the world existed back in 2004, I can tell you.
Yet here I am, 16 years later...lucky enough to have not only met Andrew but have been trained by him through the Diploma of Equitation Science. I can tell you, my first ride with Andrew I actually forgot how to mount I was so nervous. My husband said later "Did Andrew ask you if you'd ever ridden before?" it was so embarrassing. I'm sure Andrew pretended not to notice.
My direction went around horses for a while (children, work, life!) and led me to my Masters in Teaching.
Funny how life works, as I found my way back to my true passion and now combine teaching with horses. I have had the privilege of working alongside some amazing teachers over the 7 years of my teaching career, all who have made me improve everyday. Now it is my colleagues of Equitation Science practitioners and those new friends along the way who inspire me.
And learning. ALWAYS learning. Re-creating for myself and others that feeling of galloping Black Beauty across the moors as an 8 year old. Still asking a million questions along the way and wanting to always do more for the horse.
Any self-proclaimed horse addict will tell you - this obsession never leaves you.
In fact, I think it gets worse with age...