My first experience riding a horse was in the fields overhanging the lake of Tiberias in the Holy Land. Yet, despite the idyllic setting, the experience didn’t persuade me to the joys of horseback riding, and it took many years for me to consider a second try.
This time was in Normandy, land of William the Conqueror, of brave Norman knights and their fierce horses. It is also a land where the equine industry is flourishing, and I soon discovered why.
There are nearly 80,000 horses in Lower Normandy, making it the first French region where their numbers have soared so high, according to the Chamber of Agriculture of Normandy. And among these horses, many of the national and international champions of equestrian sports come from the Normandy Peninsula of La Manche.
So La Manche was my destination, and upon my arrival at one of its horse clubs, Equinitude—Natural Western Riding, its Zen-like atmosphere pervaded me. The training style for horses at the club revolves around the concept of fullness, which emphasizes the development of well-being and happiness—a concept that could apply just as much for the humans as for the horses.
Thus, the horses in La Manche live in herds, run shoeless through the countryside, and are ridden without metal bits stuck in their mouths. It is a method that combines Natural riding and Western riding. “After all, Normandy is situated in the West,” says the owner of the club, a big Norman cowboy named Patrick Sellier.
My first class consisted of me leading my horse on foot, talking to him and stroking his fur and mane whenever he did even the slightest thing correctly.
Groundwork is built on two primary forms. The first is the Western-style, natural horsemanship. The other is the Equifeel method, which was created in recent years in France, and establishes a real partnership with the horse.
“The greatest advantage of Equifeel is that one can have an intensive experience with his horse even if he cannot ride it,” says Véronique Sellier, Patrick’s wife.
Yet, while the Equifeel approach can be used to compliment other riding styles, the discipline is still rare in France. It is practiced in only around 40 of the country’s estimated 8,790 clubs.
Natural Western riding
Like Equifeel, Western riding also starts with groundwork, yet while Equifeel can include any method or language a person chooses to communicate with the horse, Western riding has rigorous codes the horse must obey.
Patrick Sellier decided to apply ethologic riding within Western riding. The approach requires more training than just Western riding, since instead of using coercion, it requires cooperation.
“In fact, Natural horsemanship can be applied to any other discipline,” says Véronique Sellier.
The horse trainers in the French West also don’t put shoes on the horses, which allows the horse’s hoof to retain its optimal functions.
Patrick and Véronique take this yet another step further by not using a bit on a horse’s reins. Their reasoning is that it damages the horse’s gums, not to mention how uncomfortable and painful it is for the horse.
The couple uses positive reinforcement, which contrasts negative reinforcement used in classical horsemanship. Negative reinforcement, however, is not punishment. Rather, it entails using pressure on the horse, and removing the pressure as soon as the horse gives the “right” answer. Yet, in positive reinforcement, whenever the horse answers well, it is rewarded.
A French study in 2011 showed that positive reinforcement was more effective and more sustainable than negative reinforcement. The method contributes to improved mental balance in the horses, and made their heart rates more stable.
To ensure the well-being of their horses, Patrick and Véronique also use veterinary acupuncture.
Pascale Piette, the local veterinary acupuncturist and tai chi instructor, has been connected with horses since she was very young. Piette began with her studies in general Chinese medicine. Then, 15 years ago, when veterinary acupuncture made its first steps in France, she applied it to horses.
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