by Mitzi Summers
I always knew what I wanted to do with my life — to teach people how to ride and train horses. My goal carried with it certain particulars — I needed to become as educated as possible so I could do the best job that I could, and it had to develop into a system of riding and training that made sense to horse and student and was non-abusive to the horse. So, fresh out of high school, even though I had scholarships to colleges I set off on my own, taking a ship to Southampton, England.
I decided on the Northern Equitation Centre in Ormskirk, England owned by Dorothy Johnson, who had her Fellowship of the British Horse Society. At that time there were only about 16 instructors in England who had achieved this honor, and I wanted to learn from the best.
Since my finances were shaky, I was accepted as a working student. There were 12 students in the program, four of which were working pupils. The brunt of the chores fell on us. We had four horses to take care of instead of the normal two, and I soon realized that horse care and stable management (which was part of the tested syllabus) were far superior to anything I had been exposed to thus far.
It was absolutely accepted that the students were at the bottom of the pecking order. The horses came first; even the comfort of the owners and the “head girl” came after the care of the horses.
Stables started at 6 a.m. and ended after 7 p.m. Daily lessons and lectures were included each day, but other than that, it was constant work. The Residential students (not working students) received two riding lessons a day.
We were indoctrinated with the slogan, “Water, hay, oats” for feeding. Water buckets were scrubbed out twice daily, and water was carried. When it was cold the horse were given lukewarm water. Then hay was given. We used hay nets, (which we learned to make by hand), and the filled hay nets were then weighed. Each horse had a different feed chart and hay AND grain were individual for each animal.
Mucking out was very thorough, and then each stall was skipped many times a day. The name skipping was derived from the plastic “skip” carrier that was used. For the heavy mucking we used and carried muck baskets — no wheelbarrows here. They were carried sometimes a fairly long distance to the muck pile, which was kept in a neat, square pile until it was picked up by the mushroom growers once a week. Indeed, “squaring the midden” was one of the many chores we working students had to perform.
This demonstrates just a small bit of the work that had to be done. The horses had to be groomed every day for at least 30-40 minutes. “Strapping” was included. This was a type of massage with a stable linen over the muscled part of the horse’s body. I remember getting yelled at one cold January morning by the “head girl” because I still had my sweater on over my ratcatcher shirt and tie while I was grooming. She said that if I had been doing a good job I would be too hot to wear a sweater.
Saddles back then were individually made for each horse once he was a permanent member of the school. It was not all that expensive, as there were many more saddle makers. Because the saddles fitted the horses well, we rarely used numnahs (or saddle pads) unless they were going hunting or the saddle was not a perfect fit. That meant that cleaning, (which was done every night) included wiping and then soaping the undersides of the saddle which could get quite sweaty.
In the winter most horses were trace or body clipped, as they were sometimes also used for hunting and cross country. There was a special large enclosed stall away from the others that was used for clipping. A huge clipping machine was suspended from the ceiling on a long cable, and we wore the rest of the complicated mess on our backs in a back pack. As we would move about, the cable would follow. It was very loud. Suffice to say, if the horse was not amenable to being clipped in the first place, this did not help. Woe be it to the poor student whose clipping skills were not exemplary.
Back then as students preparing for the exam, we were simply required to keep up. No one of course was at the same level, but we tended to progress at the rate the instructors desired. Within a week we were tackling some of their formidable cross country fences, often on horses who were very powerful and not too patient with riders who were less than highly skilled.
I once was jumping a huge horse named Swagman over their huge table jump. This jump is high and wide, with the middle portion consisting of a flat area which is designed to take the weight of the horse if he does not clear the entire element. Swagman did not clear it, landed on the middle, unseated me, and then jumped down. I found myself galloping madly about the field, perched on the middle of Swagman’s crest. Since I was not able to find the reins, I was somehow able to reach forward with my hand, grab the ring of the ring in my fingers, and pull back. It worked! Swagman slowed down. I then clumsily skittered myself backwards until I was again in the saddle. The head instructor was screaming at me just to do it again, so I did. It is somehow scarier to get yelled at by someone with an English accent.
We really studied for the Exams, which consisted of written, practical, riding and teaching portions. For the practical portion I had to put together a double bridle, show how to make a hay net, and lunge a horse. The riding was in two parts, dressage and jumping. The teaching was the most fun except for my being nervous. I had to take a group of students over cavaletti and then their first jump. Spacing was of course most important.
Horsemaster School in England was invaluable for many reasons. It really taught me correct care of a horse. I learned one of many systems of riding and training, one that was established and respected throughout the world. I also had to simply learn how to really “stick on” a horse. Circumstances prevented me from returning to work for my Fellowship; however I would still recommend the experience to anyone.