Mags, Lancashire

Mags and Alfie
July 2011


From being a promising (although very green) young Dutch Warmblood,  Alfie was progressively becoming more and more difficult to handle and ride, and his training was not going to plan to say the least.  I stopped hacking him out because his napping, rearing and spinning had become dangerous.  We had gone through three conventional saddles in three years, each one causing him bad bruising to his back.  Searching for an answer to our problems lead me to try BALANCE saddles. 
The BALANCE saddle started us on the road to recovery.  I can’t thank enough Carol Brett and the whole BALANCE team who have not only worked hard to find the right saddle solution (the Matrix GPD proved best for us)  but have provided support throughout the whole process of getting myself and Alfie back on the right track. 

This was way more than I expected and was support I badly needed.  Through BALANCE Saddles I have been introduced to, and received tremendous help from Hilary Wakefield (BALANCE registered Test Ride Facilitator), Sara Ussher, Abigail Rowland and Gavin Scofield (Osteopath).  After treatment from Gavin and with help from Hilary, Sara and Abigail, I am learning how to understand Alfie’s movement, when it isn’t correct, and how to ride to help Alfie to keep straight and balanced.   His posture is changing and he is at last becoming more engaged.  He is now alert, more confident, and attentive during schooling sessions.  We still have some way to go, but now we have the right saddle and the right people to train us things can only get better!

The full story
Alfie was a very green 4 year old when I bought him.  He is a Dutch Warmblood with a very sweet nature but can have a temper tantrum at times!  He loves contact with people though could be a bit ‘ in your face’.   His erratic strides and lack of straightness I put down to his young age and inexperience – it was what I expected although perhaps a little more profound than other youngsters I had ridden in the past.  Just after our partnership started, (I use the term somewhat loosely) my work took me away from home during the week.  I arranged for him to be schooled 2-3 times a week at the riding school/livery yard where I kept him and I would have lessons and ride at weekend.  I thought this would be a good thing as I was starting to realise that educating this particular young horse may be a little beyond my capabilities and I needed some professional help.  

The erratic strides were improving but the straightness certainly wasn’t, and we could hardly canter, particularly on the left rein.  Asking for a canter transition held terrors for both of us.  Meanwhile, I took him on hacks to encourage straight, forward walking and build confidence in traffic and scary situations. Well that was the plan.  About this time, the napping, rearing and spinning started.  An unfortunate incident with a less than understanding tractor driver didn’t help.     Things were going worse instead of better. 

The ‘before’ photo shows how dejected and downhill Alfie was at this point.

Then came a spell of physio and rest for Alfie to recover from a saddle that had badly bruised his back.  Another new saddle and I enlisted help from a dressage trainer who quickly reported that Alfie wasn’t using his hind legs correctly.  Arthritis in both hock joints was diagnosed and steroid injections administered– but this didn’t resolve the problem. 

Next it was off for an operation on the suspensory ligaments – an operation that is becoming more common apparently.  We then changed yards where there were more country lanes for lots of hacking to help his recovery, though the future did seem uncertain.  By now Alfie was terrified of horse boxes (though he loved going in them pre- vet visits).  He would transform from docile- not very interested- drag me round if you must, to rearing, spinning, and  freaked out at the first thing that looked scary. On hacks he wouldn’t stand still, hated going near gates, would ‘piaffe’ on bridle paths (off road), and reared and spun at any traffic larger than a small lorry.
His movement and hindquarter engagement wasn’t really getting any better.  I was still working away from home for most of the week so I continued to ask for professional help with schooling him, hoping someone would be able to correct his posture, movement, and behaviour problems.  All this time I knew there was a confident horse with lots of ability in there somewhere because there were odd flashes that took me by surprise. Something other than the hock problem was giving him serious issues.  By this time he was backing off from leg contact and hopping into trot transitions.  And as for the teeth grinding, it got on everyone’s nerves and frankly I’m surprised he has any teeth left.  I was getting desperate by now, maybe Alfie wasn’t the horse for me, and maybe I wasn’t the rider for Alfie.  I was tired and had my confidence knocked after a couple of minor injuries.  But how could I sell him or loan him?  Who would take him, and if I did sell him I dread to think what his future would be.  I was even beginning to think he may have to be put down.
A work contract came to an end last October (2010) so I purposely took time off.  The professional help wasn’t working; it was time I took matters back into my own hands and try to understand what was happening to Alfie. 

At the same time – another badly bruised back from a too narrow saddle (which had been recently checked by a saddle fitter who had it reflocked).  Never mind, I took the opportunity to do lots of ground work, looked into Parelli and Monty Roberts techniques and started reading and scanning the internet for information.  I felt we were making some progress. We did lots of work with a Monty Roberts halter and hired a horsebox to work on loading and unloading issues.
I read a book that had a section about BALANCE saddles –the concept made a lot of sense and as I needed a new saddle I called the office and spoke to Carol Brett.  All my tales of woe – Carol predicted them as we spoke.  I arranged a session with one of the BALANCE Test Ride Facilitator for my area – Hilary Wakefield.  I also arranged an appointment with a locally recommended conventional saddle fitter thinking I would make an informed decision after seeing both.  The conventional saddle fitter didn’t turn up.  The day for the BALANCE saddle consultation arrived.  Hilary almost asked me to get off when she first saw Alfie trying to walk with me on board, but his stiffness eased gradually and I quickly realised that Hilary was not only looking at saddle fitting but also the whole way Alfie moved, pointing out his lack of straightness and balance and the way my riding influenced his movement.
I arranged to hire 2 BALANCE saddles to try over the next couple of months and started the Remedial Programme and weekly lessons with Hilary.  Hilary would explain how Alfie should be moving and started to educate me so that I could see when he was moving correctly and how I should be enabling correct movement through my own posture and way of riding.  We found the Matrix saddle the best for both Alfie and me.  Alfie is very sensitive and doesn’t put up with discomfort, but I think that is a good thing as otherwise I wouldn’t have started my quest to find out what the problem was and Alfie would have gone through years of discomfort.  Alfie seems to be much more comfortable in the Matrix, we think because there are no points and it allows him to move without feeling any restriction.  It does mean I have to make sure I’m sitting straight, but I can feel better when Alfie isn’t straight so I know when I need to make corrections.
At this time, Hilary mentioned Gavin Scofield, and that Alfie might benefit from some distance healing from him. I have felt the benefits of Reiki treatments from my sister who is a Holistic therapist so I arranged for a consultation.   Gavin reported that Alfie had a problem in the dorsal lumber region (just behind the saddle area) with this part of his spine being pulled down and twisted to the right.  In my own mind I can see how back pain could have caused Alfie’s lack of confidence and ability to cope in scary situations.  Gavin started distance healing to help re-balance Alfie and I continued using the BALANCE saddle, having lessons with Hilary and working towards hind quarter engagement.  Hilary took short videos during our lessons and I could see improvements in Alfie's movement and he was certainly starting to relax in the school and the teeth grinding had almost stopped.   We took wither tracings and Alfie’s back had increased by 1 cm in the space of about 2 months of using the BALANCE saddle.
I had stopped hacking him out when I first started my own ground work with him, so I started just walking him to the end of the lane after schooling.  All seemed OK until the day I insisted he let me open the gate from the school whilst still on board.  He hated it, and rewarded me by reverting to won't stand still, rearing spinning, napping and generally being obnoxious.  I obviously still had some work to do on the behaviour and discipline front.    I had been off work for 4 months by then and needed to work again to replenish some funds – but who could school him for me?  I didn’t want to end up back at square one.  Hilary recommended Sara Ussher, who would be able to school him and correct his behaviour.  Sara also uses BALANCE saddles.  Hilary spoke to Sara on my behalf and then I had a conversation with her.  Sara explained that Alfie’s flight instinct needed readjustment and that my signals to him, and his responses, had become confused. 

Off we went to Sara’s.  When we got there Alfie promptly gave a wonderful demonstration of the issues to be addressed by launching himself from the top of the ramp with me dangling on the end of the lunge line, then spooking at the turkey that was roaming around the yard.  Sara had come to watch us unload and started on ground work straight away.  After about 4 weeks Sara asked if I could visit with Hilary to check the saddle fit as Alfie’s posture was changing.  I was amazed at the difference in him, he looked far more ‘uphill’ even just stood still, and he was alert, interested and calm, as you can see in the ‘after’ photo taken that day.  The turkey had become his best friend. 

I rode him for a few minutes that day after Sara had worked him in and he felt like a different horse.  After a few more weeks I went for lessons with Sara before bringing him home.   Sara taught me how to do ground work with him and how to control his legs.  I had riding lessons and learned the importance of keeping him straight and balanced to increase his confidence and stop him feeling insecure.  Just before he left Sara’s Gavin Scofield paid a visit and treated Alfie ‘hands on’.  Gavin said his back and pelvis were undergoing changes as expected and were doing fine.  He worked on the muscles over his shoulders to allow him to start opening up.   Alfie looked relaxed and like he was dozing a little whilst Gavin worked.  Then when he had finished, he ‘woke up’, and spontaneously lifted and flexed his left hind leg, as if to give a little extra stretch to his back.

Alfie before he left Sara.

Sara recommended that I move Alfie to a yard nearer home that is run by Abigail Rowland who is also a BALANCE Test Ride Facilitator and who I had met at a Feldenkrais workshop run by Vreni Booth and organised by Hilary.  Sara wanted to make sure I had the right support and also someone who would be able to teach me and help me school Alfie along the same lines.   Since we have been at Abigail’s I have had lessons with both Abigail and with Sara who came to give a clinic one day.  I have practised the ground work exercises and been schooling Alfie on my own.  Abigail will start to escort us on hacks soon, and I’m sure that now Alfie has learnt ‘stop’ instead of ‘flight’ we will be fine.   Its early days yet for me, but so far I’m confident that we have a saddle that is right for us,  and that  I can apply the techniques I have been taught and can get results.  It is now my job to continue to improve my riding and handling of Alfie so that he stays a happy confident horse.  I know I can do that because I have the support of the BALANCE team and the wonderful people I have mentioned here. What a relief.