way of the horse

In the spotlight

way-of-the-horse

My father and I have just gotten back from a four day horse clinic hosted by Australian horseman Ken Faulkner. I first heard of Ken through a friend who had completed one of his clinics at his property in rural Queensland. She arrived a not-so-confident rider with a new horse and came away from the clinic enriched. Since then I’ve been hearing Ken’s name circulate in horse circles quite a lot. It was when I heard Ken had won ‘Way of the Horse’ at Equitana 2012 that I decided to sign myself along with my stock horse mare, Jinx, for a four day intensive at Tallebudgera, south of the Gold Coast.

Leading up to the clinic I’ve been flat out finalising our eighth birthday edition of Salt Magazine, trying to work three horses for polo and being present for our darling girl Finn. So, I didn’t really put in any research as to what to expect at this clinic and I was starting to get annoyed that I had overcommitted myself by dedicating four precious days. I chose Jinx out of my three mares as I believe she has extreme potential as a performance horse whether it’s on the polo field, eventing or drafting and I know I’m not getting the most from her. Dad took a thoroughbred mare called Dizzy who hadn’t been worked for the past seven years and previous to that was a racehorse.

Ken is a big, burly man with a greying moustache and I never saw his black sunglasses leave his face. Kitted out in his akubra, wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, silver buckle he oozes cowboy and walks like he’s had his fair share of thrills and spills on and off the horse.

There was (at a guess) fourteen participants along with their horses in our beginner clinic which went from 9am to 12.30 pm Friday through to Monday. Once our class had finished there was a lunch break then the advanced class began and we were able to watch them.

We circled our messiah waiting for his direction. Just like the first day of school, I could feel the anticipation in the air. Folk were discreetly eyeing each other and their horses off. Horses stood agitated in their new surroundings, fiddling, rubbing on their owners, other horses were asleep, bottom lip dropped with cool casualness. Some horses snorted ears pricked ready to yank a lead and bolt at the first sign of trouble. Nonetheless we were a motley crew with no idea what the four days was going to bring.

Thankfully Ken was the man to take charge. He introduced himself and went around to each person asking ‘what we wanted out of the four day clinic’. Answers varied from  ‘to learn as much as we can’, ‘confidence’, ‘become a better horse person’, ‘get more out of my horse’. The first morning was dedicated to ground work and more importantly lateral flexion which Ken stressed was the single most important element to take away from the clinic.  On reflection I felt the lateral flexion was the master key to the majority of the exercises that we learnt on the ground and then in the saddle.

I had been warned previous to the clinic that Ken is not backward in coming forward, that he has a tendency to yell and he will single you out and tell you the truth without sugar coating it. As we worked our way through the lateral flexion exercises all in rope halters, his big booming voice would hone in on individual’s and their horses ‘you’re a quitter, you give up too easily’. Jinx struggled to lateral flex and would walk backwards rather than going soft in the halter. At one point he said to me ‘that horse is spoilt’ I rebutted ‘no she’s not’ and he just stared me down. I was mortified, I don’t spoil my horse! She’s not primped and pampered with carrots and allowed to dictate the rules but as the morning progressed I realised that he had a point. I gave up too easily when asking Jinx for the hard stuff, I’ve pinned her as a quiet horse but once I started digging beneath the surface I realised she’s actually a lazy horse.

The entire morning was absolutely exhausting and I started looking at my watch every ten minutes by the time 11.30am came. I was fighting with Jinx trying to establish leadership, asking her to back-up on my body movement and if she wouldn’t back queue a series of steps with the rope to get her to back away and out of my space. Asking her to be soft in the nose by gently squeezing above her nose strap on the halter. Asking for the hindquarter yield in lateral flexion and then forequarters yield. At first she tended to barge into me with no respect and disregard for me. Slowly but surely with Ken’s assistance she started to wake up from her stupor and respond to limited touch.

The last exercise we were asked to push our horse forward by standing behind their front shoulders and then zig zag them through barrels by pointing at the eye as to what direction. Difficult to explain this, but it was a tough exercise to ask for forward impulsion without pulling on a lead rope. Fascinating.

The session ended with welcome relief. My head was swimming with lateral flexion manoeuvres and the thought of my spoilt pony getting the better of me. That afternoon we watched the advanced riders go through their groundwork and for some it was like a classical dance. The horse responding with a thought, a tickle or a fine tuned rope movement – finger tip control. It was good to see this and what we were working towards but the thought did cross my mind that I would never in a million years be up to that stage.

The next day, after having an incredibly restless night with horse terminology swimming through my head Dad and I arrived early to practise. Firstly, I was surprised at how supple Jinx was getting to the exercises. Ken had mentioned several times when working Jinx ‘ you know what’s wrong with this blue horse, she has no balance, she’s always on her front shoulders’. With these ground work exercises its going to help build her muscles and for her to find balance. On her near side she holds the lateral flexion beautifully and will hindquarter yield when asked but on her off side she struggles and so I’ve made a concerted effort to practise this.

The second day’s morning session was building on the lateral flexion with impulsion. Asking the horse to work in a close circle without moving your feet and then progress into a lunge asking for a good solid stop. I’m not going to explain the exercises here because I will completely butcher Ken’s teaching philosophy and ethos. I found the second day encouraging I could feel Jinx responding and I was getting a better understanding of the jigsaw pieces fitting into the puzzle.

Ken constantly talked throughout the sessions, quoting ‘the great masters’ and different disciplines from English style to western style to draw comparisons. A lot of his teachings is about the biomechanics of a horse. Once we were in the saddle for the last two days of the clinic I had many light-bulb and ‘a ha’ moments. Ken was constantly saying ‘does that make sense?’ and after each exercise he would ask ‘what did you learn?’ to each and every participant keeping us all on our toes.

A lot of horse trainers are great with horses but can’t articulate their training methods, techniques and philosophy but Ken has a real knack to teach and explain. He draws upon decades of riding the wrong way and then a decade of riding the right way. He has a wonderful way with words and some of his analogies are hilarious and hit the mark.  I like that he’s honest with each rider because that’s the kindest way forward. He has a uncanny knack of picking the horse and the rider and the underlying issues. It’s magical to watch him work with a older horse who is stubborn and bored to the bone or a young, restless two year old, the horses shape and form according to his presence and technique. The horse is like putty in his hands.

I love that his teaching is structured, as in step-by-step processes to each exercise- ‘learn by numbers – it’s the easiest way’ says Ken.

Look I won’t go into a step-by-step, blow-by-blow account of every hour of every day, I’ll bore you to tears. It was a wonderful four days and to see my horse, Jinx respond by getting off her shoulders and starting to take form in her hind was remarkable. At the end of the fourth day she was responding to one rein in the halter and a tickle on her belly to back up collected.

Ken offers clinics all around Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Pictured above is Ken with his horse, Smoke and mother and daughter Tracey and Charlie. Charlie has been attending Ken’s clinics since she was ten and now she’s 15. She has the lightest of hands and is a pleasure to watch in the saddle.

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