By Sandrina Weller
Long Term Study about my own Horse and my way to Peggy Cummings’ Connected Riding, 2003 – 2014.
I think it is very difficult to write the story of my horse without telling it not also a part of my own history. We are interwoven with our horses; they are an important part of our lives and so this is also a bit of my personal story.
I originally wanted to buy a dog when I arrived in spring of 2003 in Grefrath, on a small farm. Over a cup of coffee, the owner of the farm told me that, unfortunately, the last puppy was sold one hour ago. But she had a horse that urgently needed a new home and if I wanted to have a look at Phoenix? Buying a horse was not my plan, but rather my childhood dream…
When that woman opened the door of the barn, and out of the darkness very slowly an almost black horse head pushed out to sniff my hands – I already knew that I lost control of my plan.
Phoenix was less than 5 years old and had unceremoniously slipped into my heart. Not much was known about him. The owner of the farm had taken him from a friend who didn´t want to keep him for unknown reasons, and he was that one horse too many at the farm. Nobody had the time or nerves to deal with his problems. Somebody started to ride him when he was only 3 ½ years old and he let himself fall to the ground in the middle of the stable to get rid of the saddle, and from this point he was so girthy that there was no more possibility to ride him. For almost a year he stood in a meadow or a paddock – most of the time on his own – somebody made a little bit of TTEAM Bodywork with him – nothing more.
We summarize: a nearly five-year-old Warmblood, started under saddle, girthy and incompatible with other horses, very fond of dealing with people, okay with smith and trailer, not ridable at that time.
I was thrilled. I had no idea. I did not care.
Over a few months I worked him from the ground, what I was thinking about groundwork at that time, and then I choose to buy him without sitting on him even one time. At that time, I had never heard something about Connected Riding and Groundwork. I just sent the horse round me on the lunge or sent him over poles or little jumps – he liked to move and run, and I tried to find out what kind of “person” he was. My “Groundwork” with him was quite unskilled but I observed his movements and his behavior over hours. I was a beginner and Phoenix was my first horse. I didn’t know much, but he came to me in two parts from the beginning: both inside and outside. He was totally sweet and cuddly in his handling – but he could also completely explode from one second to the other when little things happened like a fly on his back which he couldn’t reach, or water under his feet. On this occasion he also damaged several halters and I’m sure that the problems with his neck (which I realized later) also came from these incidents. Externally he looked like two horses – the front part was walking quite normal, and the hind end looked like it was from another horse – the tail was clamped and the hind legs where looping through the sand as though were not part of him.
In the middle of September, he was brought to a little farm in my area, which I had chosen for him. I’m not sure to this day, how they took him into the trailer because after that journey nobody could send him into a trailer for many years. He was completely upset about it.
The picture shows Phoenix with about 5 years in his typical “girthiness-posture” seconds before explosion – the girth on this picture is quite loose. He suddenly got “stuck” from inside, his eyes were looking inside, he was not able to react to any impulse from outside. Within a few seconds he got completely tense over his whole body, then it looks like he blew up his belly and cramped in his whole back. He did two or three steps on the spot and then he started to buck completely crazy to get rid of the saddle – really dangerous. I always had to watch him, never had the chance to let him without supervision.
That was his condition when I started to ride him. Unfortunately, my knowledge at this time was not like today so I couldn’t notice what I see now. Today I see that in those days Phoenix wasn’t able to carry a rider in self-carriage, he had no muscles and no training for that, I also think, he really had back pain. His saddle was not fitting, it was too long and so he always had pressure around his kidneys, it was quite too tight for his shoulders and the center of gravity was much too far behind – but I didn´t know that, and I was always asking myself and others who to deal with his problems.
Because of my Western-Saddle I took lessons in Western-Riding. Most of the time I was just confused during those lessons. We had to go round and round through the arena in walk, trot and canter, but I had always problems in understanding the “Why” of the lectures. If I had questions, I got no answers to deal with, no homework which I could make to my own kind of learning process. I also had problems with Phoenix. I remember one trainer who tried over months to teach us to go sideways. Phoenix did not go even one step sideways no matter how hard we tried him to make it.
Today I know – he wasn’t able to do it, because he didn’t have the balance, the right training, and the muscles to do it under saddle. Today I also know that it doesn’t make sense to go round and round in canter to calm down a horse – in lessons like this Phoenix just got more and more exhausted, more stiff, more unbalanced, more on his forehand. So, I tried to work with several Western-Trainers, all experts, but it took them all just a few lessons to find out, that Phoenix was quite obstructive and that he was fighting against every kind of pressure. If there was just a little bit of pressure on his mouth, he took his head up or tried to run away. So, they told me to use a sharper bit and work him harder – and this was usually the point where I changed the trainer again because I didn’t agree with that.
The situation with the different trainers was really confusing and frustrating for me. On one side I was looking for somebody to help me to become a real good rider, horseman and friend for my horse on the other side people told me things I didn’t want to do to my horse. I didn’t want to work harder, I didn’t want to ride with spurs, I didn’t want to ride with draw-reins, I didn’t want to circle him around until he gives up – gives up what? Until he gives up running, gives up falling on his shoulders, gives up shaking his head up and so on. I didn’t want to do all these things because I found out that they did not work and so they aren’t reasonable for me. What people told me to do and what I felt inside were two different things. Inside of me I felt guilty towards my horse. How should a horse “understand” what to do just by repeating something again and again? But I was a beginner and tried to find a way to get more experienced, and many things sounded positively, but when it came to practice – with Phoenix they didn’t work.
I also changed the saddles quite often to find the one that fits to his body but that was also quite useless. At that time, I believed in what saddle-fitters told me. If somebody came and put some saddles on his back, they explained fitting from their point of view, and I was not enough self-assured to ask more or let them explain exactly what they mean. Now I know that Phoenix has a combination in his anatomy that makes it nearly impossible to find a Western-Saddle that really fits for his back. His back is quite short, and he has immense withers and very narrow shoulders. Western Saddles are not made for horses like him – and Phoenix very often showed me that he was not happy with the saddle. There was not enough space for his shoulders to move, no place for muscles to build up on his back, and there was pressure on his kidneys which got his metabolism into a mess.
What I learned from a well experienced endurance rider was, that the best way to “heal” girthiness would be to ride as much as possible on long distance trails.
Ignorant as I was, and thankful for any help, I did exactly what she told me. Several years I rode Phoenix nearly every day on long distances out on the trails – 20 km, 30 km later also 40 km. We took the endurance trails – sometimes before breakfast – and we did it all in fast trot or canter. And it seemed like it went well for a while, but most of the time I went out with Phoenix on my own.
Going outside on a Trail with a group of other horses was difficult, because Phoenix wanted to be in the first place all the time, and he fought with me, offering resistance, and struggling against my hands. If he was not allowed to run, he began to buck violently. He became stronger and stronger, he always got more stamina, and he became faster and faster. No wonder really, in later research I learned that he comes from a well-known family of gallop racehorses.
Unfortunately, I had to change from a Snaffle-Bit to a Western-Curb Bit, because I wasn’t able to stop Phoenix from racing outside anymore. I spent a lot of time with endurance-riders, but I never rode him in competitions – neither of us would have had the nerves for that.
He was never easy to get along with around other horses, very often he had smaller or bigger injuries from the pasture and the girthiness was always current. To put the saddle on him was always like a never-ending story. Put the saddle on his back, close the girth (open wide), walk a few steps, slowly and carefully go to the next hole of the girth and so on, again and again. After nearly 20 minutes he was ready to get on (if all circumstances around where quiet and safe), and if everything was going quite well, there was a feeling of insecurity, because he was able to change completely from one second to the next if something unexpected happened and then he would buck like a rodeo horse, and I had to get off quite quickly and open the girth again immediately …
I had bought a supposedly healthy horse, but he was a project from the beginning. The first year ended up early in the morning with a life-threatening colic, which lasted almost 2 days and we both recovered very slowly from that. This was followed by 4 – 5 colic’s a year of different origins and strengths. He also suffered from metabolic disorders, lack of muscle building, cough, tendon and ligament injuries and his nerves were thin. Our vet did his best, but Phoenix was unstable in every way.
Someday it began, that Phoenix could not relax anymore outside on the trails – even in walk he was excited and always on the run – and he was quite fast and in good condition. We both knew the surrounding riding areas really well, and as soon as we came to the point at which the trail led back toward the stable, the horse started to spin, and it was really dangerous. He started to rip his head backwards and up, as soon as I tried to hold him back and several times, I escaped very nearly a clash with his skull. It felt like sitting on a bomb which was ready to explode.
We couldn’t go out on the trail together with other horses. We were too fast and the distances we took were too long for other horses. Often, I had to walk long distances home and then I quit riding out all together because it was too dangerous. I was frustrated.
On the advice of my naturopath, I bought a new saddle for Phoenix. There were always problems with the Western Saddles because of his short back, the narrow shoulders, and the extremely high withers – that was the reason for his metabolic disorders and of course, partly, for his girthiness. I had to adjust him a Massimo-Saddle for Trekking which was extremely short, didn’t press on his kidneys and offered enough freedom for his shoulders. The process took more than six months, because Phoenix fell back into his old pattern and fully tried frantically to get rid of the saddle.
Phoenix had built a scary condition over the years and I imagined he lacked the long distances. He was unbalanced and totally unpredictable. He was used to run until he’s getting tired. Working in the arena, which we had to do perforce, didn’t make any sense to both of us and it was no fun. I knew no other solution to “work” him, I was used to run him outside over years. Working in the arena didn’t made him tired and at that time I thought I had to work him hard day by day to satisfy his need to move. I’m not sure that he was more difficult than before I stopped riding him outside, but I had a guilty conscience to do not enough for and with him.
As something like an emergency solution, I worked him in a round pen. That was a compromise solution. I never did it of conviction. I always found that running around on a small circle could not be a natural and healthy movement for a horse. When I watched him I saw two significant things: in walk he was without power and not moving his hind legs, in trot and canter he ran away and tried to find balance by holding his head up high to the outside – running on the inside shoulder – that was counterproductive.
Round penning for a prolonged period led to worn out knee ligaments and a horse that was so full of tension that riding was not possible anymore.
Over eight years I tried quite unsuccessfully to find a way for me and Phoenix to spend time together with joy, ease, and relaxation. Phoenix brought with him a part of the story and me – I was quite inexperienced with traumatized horses and unfortunately, I couldn’t find anybody who was really able to help me. However, what I heard with increasing frequency, and what I also felt inside, was, that in the meantime, this horse became a danger for me and itself.
Our overall state was lousy. Because of that exhausting riding I had massive knee problems, my shoulders were tense and hurt and regularly I had pain in my lower back. Phoenix’ nerves became thinner and thinner, he was as unhappy as I and – I felt totally helpless.
Phoenix 2009 – Lunging with draw-reins on a snaffle-bit, the saddle doesn’t fit him, he has a hollow back, base down, clamped tail and his hind legs are not working.
In February 2011 I met Thomas Meffert who practices his kind of special Dorn-Osteopathic Method for Human and Horses. He listened to our story and began to work with both of us. After several treatments’ things started to get better. The pain in my shoulders and my back got better and Phoenix nervous system began to relax – this was the first step in a better direction. Thomas gave me advice to look for somebody who was able to teach double-lunging and riding in a really good and horse friendly way.
What an idea – how should I find somebody like that?
A good friend of mine who also rides gave me a tip. She told me the name of her own Riding-Teacher who also should be able to show how to do double-lunging. So, this is how I came to Petra Sackschewski and Connected Riding – in springtime 2011.
In my riding career – until this time – I never met anybody, who really gave me answers to my questions, who explained the reasons behind the lessons, who taught riding without stress and tension. Petra Sackschewski came to me as a Trainer who teaches “something different in a horse friendly way” – I didn’t know anything about Connected Riding at that time, I never heard the name Peggy Cummings before. I had no idea what would go on now, I just wanted somebody to help me and Phoenix out of this spiral of confusion. At the beginning of our first Connected Groundwork lesson, she explained a lot of things about her kind of teaching and how to work horses, but I cannot remember what she said. I guess I was so amazed about her way of touching my horse and how he reacts that I wasn’t able to understand what’s going on.
Yes – Petra said – she would also teach double-lunging-work – and then she began to open Phoenix’ poll and explained to me, why this horse always tried to run away. She told me that there is tension in his neck and in his shoulders and bracing patterns everywhere in his body which prevent him from being relaxed and move with balance and freedom in his joints. She told me he is running away all the time, because he is so unbalanced and on his forehand.
I was surprised. I never heard such things from anybody before. I told our story to Petra and we started with some simple Connected Groundwork exercises. I remember we started with “Caterpillar” – funny name, and so strange and different to all I knew before about working with horses. But as I did the exercise, Phoenix began to lower his head, he became lighter in my hand on the line and after a few steps it felt more pleasantly and we both began to enjoy the contact.
I didn’t understand anything at the beginning of the work, but I saw immediately the changes in my horse. The tension began to dissolve, instantly, during our first lesson. Phoenix was attentive and relaxed instead of explosive and nervous. The first time in a long time I did something that felt right for me. And I did something together with my horse, not against him. We walked around the arena and just enjoyed walking together. Petra showed me how to “comb” the line and we walked together, and I tried to figure out this new movements and feelings as well as my horse did – and it felt good.
Step by step I learned with Petra how tension from the handler (or rider) produces tension in the horse and how the Connected Groundwork Exercises can help the horse to get out of his tension patterns. We learned to have fun by doing Connected Groundwork and how important inner and outer balance are for both of us, how to build up contact and how good it feels to be in contact with each other. I had one “WOW”-adventure after the other.
It was outstanding during Petra’s lessons how completely different (from other teachers) she started the work. We never worked after a fixed plan or pattern – like I knew it from before. At the beginning of every new lesson, Petra picked us up from where we were in this special moment and day. That was new too. Before that, I only knew the focusing on the faults of the horse and the effort to change them.
Now I learned how much my own posture and tension and even my attitude, affects the movement and the behavior of the horse. I learned a lot of new words and terms and how to use them in Connected Groundwork. We made bodywork for me and the horse, I got to know what it is to be in Neutral Position and how it feels for my horse on the other side of the line. Petra led me on the line as a horse and showed me the difference the horse feels when the handler is in Neutral Position or in an arched or slumped position and then we did it with Phoenix and I learned to be aware of my position and remember to remember what I had learned.
I got used to rotation, floating, breathing into my lower back, thinking up or working with pictures and feelings. She asked me a lot of questions, “what do you notice?”, “how does it feel?”, “what’s the difference?” so that I started to think by myself and be aware of the effects to my horse. I learned to ask myself questions like “What do I expect from an exercise and what do I get from my horse? What can I change by myself to make things better?”
If I was slack and weary, I immediately had the exact reflection of my own posture or attitude on the other side of the line – Phoenix was shambling heavy and without energy through the sand, without a chance to motivate him to use his hind legs. Petra showed me how to think forward and up, to rotate and to remember always being in Neutral. I learned exercises designed to help Phoenix overcome his old habitual bracing patterns, shift weight more efficiently from side to side and front to back, or to help him stretching into contact like “shoulder press”, “heart girth press”, “wither rock” and “four corners”.
With Petra I got to know a new kind of teaching. I felt safe during the lessons and my horse did so. She provides to us an atmosphere in which we were able to learn with fun an ease – from the beginning of a lesson we were relaxed and able to work as a team together not against each other. Learning to “connect” with the horse was an important step for me. Once I had that feeling of “being connected” I wanted to find it again and again.
There were different moments of Connection. It could happen while doing bodywork on the horse – sometimes I noticed that we were breathing together, sometimes we found the same rhythm in movement. Or walking in Connection – it’s still amazing for me, if I start to feel the contact over the line from my elbow to the horse’s head and it comes to a give-and-take between both of us, the Connection becomes light and elastic, I can feel the energy of the horse coming from behind, and both of us move together like one creature.
I even learned about the importance of a pause after an exercise, or when I notice the horse is stuck somewhere, to give time to the nervous system of the horse to process. Once I learned what to look for, I realized, how big the change is in the horse’s body and reaction. After a small pause, Phoenix was often able to do an exercise with much more ease, or he was more balanced, or blockages and resistance were just gone. And all of this happened without force, stress, or constant mindless repetitions – just simply a small pause at the right moment – and I found a balanced and relaxed horse by my side.
With Connected Groundwork and Bodywork, I really found what I was looking for, such a long time: a clear and friendly kind of communication between trainer, student and horse. Clear explanations and understanding even if I asked something for the umpteenth time – Petra always had her “tool-box” with new aids and solutions. Step by step we changed old habits and bracing pattern by learning new words and movements and by thinking in pictures.
I changed from “Sit up straight!” to Connected Riding tools like “Zip up – rotate – float – breathe”, from “Stop pulling the reins!” to “Combing reins – give – soft wrists – meet and melt” or from “Heels down!” to “Stop and correct the position of your feet to level feet and open your joints”. The Connected language was new and creative for me and my body was able to integrate the pictures into new behavior. The exercises came in small pieces and every small piece which is noticed is important to see and comes into awareness.
After 3 months with Connected Groundwork and Bodywork I started riding again with Petra’s help. Phoenix and I felt better and better and we had fun again while spending time together.
There was a regular rhythm between groundwork and riding lessons and during the weeks between the lessons I found my way back to my horse and back to myself. I learned that it’s not necessary to “work hard”, or to ride the horse until it’s sweating all over, to do good and useful work. Twice or three times a month we had a lesson with Petra and in the meantime I worked five or six times a week on my own with Phoenix.
Bit by bit I got more tools in my hands to build up my own working lessons in a fruitful way, without boredom or overtaxing. Sometimes I did just a unit of 20 or 30 minutes Connected Groundwork and sometimes I did a little bit of riding after that – that was all. My horse was changing so much although I did so less. Unbelievably.
Connected Groundwork Lesson with Petra Sackschewski – equal and opposing exercise on the neck, bending through the ribcage, activating the hind legs.
Connected Riding Lesson with Petra Sackschewski – starting to engage the hind end, base more up, starting to stretch into contact.
In autumn 2011 I met Peggy the first time, at an open clinic in Marienheide and I remember like it was yesterday, how I sat at minus 5 degrees freezing and exited in the riding arena watching her. I was fascinated. She concentrated with infinite patience and full attention on tiny little details and achieved amazing big changes in the movements of the horses. In spring 2012 I started my Connected Education to become a Practitioner on the advice of Petra Sackschewski.
Some impressions of a Connected Groundwork and Riding Lesson with Phoenix from November 2014
On this first picture you can see me with Phoenix doing some Out-In-Out-Changes in trott. This helps him to activate his hind legs, shift his weight from side-to-side and lift his base up to find into a self-carrying posture – which is where I want him to be before I get mounted.
Before I started doing Connected Groundwork Phoenix was not able to trot in hand or under saddle – he was just running away because he wasn’t able to balance himself.
Starting to connect. Here I’ve shortened the reins and started to engage the hind legs more by asking the inside or outside leg alternately to step more under.
Nice trot for Phoenix – here he is in light contact and on a good way to establish his balance more without lifting his head up against my hand or losing energy.
At the end of the lesson – stretching and satisfied about our work together today.
The more I get used to the Connected Riding Values and Philosophy over the years the more I discovered about myself – my desires, my fears, my strength and my weakness, my own idea of how to live my life for myself, my horse and others. The process of learning “Connection” helps me to come back into contact with myself, face my fears, learn to listen to myself and my own body and feelings, and to understand that all of that has a direct connection to the emotional and physical well-being of my horse.
So, e.g., I found at an information day about Alexander-Technique, that wearing my glasses during riding or groundwork, prevents me from holding my head in a relaxed way. I instinctively always try to look over the glasses – so that there is tension in my neck which I can prevent when I don’t wear my glasses. This seems to be just a small observation, but for my way of working or riding it’s a big deal. Without glasses it’s much easier for me to straighten the spine and find neutral position. So, I don’t need the “control-view” over my glasses during riding and looking forward to the direction I want to ride is much more relaxed.
During a TTEAM workshop I learned to be much more careful with pressure strength while doing bodywork with horses and I got a lot of impulses for my work. I do NSR, Yoga, Meditations, and other kinds of bodywork in workshops, or with my Connected Friends, so that all of this comes more and more to a big picture about horses and human beings.
I have become more attentive to patterns of behavior or tension that restrict my own mobility and affect my connection with my horse. We can use many Connected Bodywork exercises in our daily lives to remind us of our posture, e.g., “own your elbow” or “think UP in your wrist” or, of course, constantly seeking Neutral Position while standing, walking, sitting or doing anything. So this becomes a daily reminder, and more and more we connect and are Connected in our lives.
Today I don’t assess a horse by what the owner tells me or by my initial observations. Instead, I take a closer look and see what comes to me after I have contact with the horse on the lines or in another way. There I feel tension, irregularity, and emptiness from energy, warmth, cold, or stress. Things like that transfer over the lines or through the body of the horse very directly and are more honest than explanations. In these ways I get valuable information about what kind of exercise from Connected Groundwork, or Bodywork I will start with today, for that special horse.
My view of horses today is more neutral than before, and I am not that afraid anymore if a horse reacts hotly. Now I know that horses don’t show unwanted behavior without a reason. By their behavior they show us how they feel – there is no other way for them to communicate with us. If I am aware and willing to understand, the misunderstandings are always less, working together is more harmonious, and stress and pressure and fear belong to the past.
If I take care of myself and stay connected, I’m able to really work together with the horse and come together with them in a united rhythm. That is the rhythm of the breathing, rotating together, walking together – the horse can change from tension to relaxation, and we can get together from one exercise to the next one with ease.
Sometimes I just let myself be guided by my intuition. I work by trial and error and if an exercise doesn’t work well I pause, go for a walk with the horse to give both of us time to process and think about it, and after that, sometimes the second try works better. Sometimes it helps to simplify the exercise, and do it step by step, or, as Peggy says, “Chunk it down”, or simply do less. I can work with less pressure or movement, or I can try to help the horse with another exercise and then come back to the first one.
Hopefully our way together with Connected Riding and Groundwork skills is still far from over. Changes need their time and now, because of my work I see even more possibilities, to help Phoenix to come to his potential of freedom of motion and stability. Phoenix is my greatest teacher. We have these Connected moments where we are in sync together, breathe together and it feels like being one creature. Connection helps us to find this moment again and again, go further on that path and come to a better understanding and partnership between horse and human.
2021 – Thank you!
In October 2016 I got my certificate as a Connected Riding Instructor. Since these days I am teaching the method to people and their horses in single lessons and in group work – often as an assistant at Peggy’s side.
The challenges I went through with Phoenix during so many years were his greatest gift to my life. He was a problem, a challenge, the mirror to my own fears and inadequacies and after all – my biggest teacher and mentor.
I am where I am in my life today because of him. By getting a “push” from the situation we were in together, I started trusting the process of this lifelong journey, “floating forward”, rotating, activating the hind end and breathing, moving on – one step at a time!
I work as a Life Coach, a Connected Riding Instructor and I am part of the Connected Riding International Team which is dedicated to the Method and building up a virtual School for the future of Connected Riding worldwide. I am proud to be part of this community and will always be grateful to Phoenix.
Phoenix passed away in March 2019 after some lovely years in a herd on the pasture in a nature reserve park. I know – I will never walk alone.