30,000 years ago our human forebears painted pictures of horses on the walls of caves, and the images clearly demonstrate a close relationship.

For the cave painters, horses were as wild as they were, with horses having a speed advantage to escape the predators they shared – the saber-toothed tiger and other huge felines – and only when the horses foaled, or were wounded, would humans have a chance to prey on them. And we did, armed with flint-tipped spears, and we ate their meat.

“But we decided an awful long time ago that horses were more useful as working animals than they were as food animals,” says Ruth Holmes, programme coordinator at Riding for the Disabled in Hastings.

Ruth gives a brief history in horse evolution. “Horses developed themselves from a very small animal about the size of a fox to a small sturdy thing like Przewakski’s horse or the Mongolian ponies.”

And when humans stopped being nomadic hunter-food gatherers, and settled down, around 10,000 years ago, we made horses settle down too. “These sturdy horses were useful as pack animals carrying coal, or salt, and then we got on them, and hitched them to ploughs and carts, and we rode them into battle, and so it developed. The horse has served us incredibly well through industry and war.”

Horse therapy

Ruth is right. Without the horse we wouldn’t have got far. Horses have galloped with us every step of the way in our evolution. And that horses are now used as therapy shows they are keeping pace.

“Riding recreates the movement of walking in the human body,” says Ruth pointing to a chestnut mare carrying a boy with spinal problems through a series of exercises. “See how the horses back leg comes underneath the rider. What it does is it brings the rider forward, then lifts them up, then it lets them down, which is recreating the walk stride we do. So for kids with limited mobility it stimulates walking patterns.”

Kowhai School kids at Riding for the Disabled

A group arrive from Kowhai School, and each child is assigned a horse and handlers, who are volunteers. “What we have to find are happy, healthy, sound horses, and ponies, who will work in this environment and enjoy it, which is hard,” says Ruth.

“Our horses have to be the right size, and they have to be able to take part. It takes about three years for the younger horses to learn it all, and accept it all, but older horses who’ve been well cared for by previous owners, and have been out, and seen and done a lot, can sometimes learn quite quickly.”

At The Leg Up Trust, children are often referred to Ros Rowe and her team from Child Youth and Family, and other agencies working with problem children.

“For some kids their first experience of unconditional acceptance is through a horse,” says Ros. “Some come here to deal with anger issues, communication problems, and low confidence, which is all done through the horses.”

A group of excited children arrive, and one by one they greet Ros with a hug, before sitting in a circle for introductions, and a discussion about the qualities needed to ensure a healthy home environment. “Kindness,” a girl offers. “Responsibility,” says another, and all the children contribute with ease … “Trust, respect, caring, friendliness.”

The group have been chosen by their teachers at Flaxmere Primary as showing leadership potential. “Leadership qualities like being assertive, but not aggressive, can be taught through working with the horse,” says Ros, “And we match horses to the children.”

Ros guides me to a pen where a boy is grooming his horse. “Stevie here has a strong character, but can be a bit impulsive, so I’ve put him with Ronnie who’s strong willed and stubborn.”

Ronnie is scratching his chin on a post, and Stevie seems hesitant brushing his rump.

“You have to show Ronnie strong leadership or he’ll give you a kick,” Ros tells Stevie. “He already has,” Stevie replies coyly.

“What do you think Ronnie wants you to do for him now?” Ros asks. “Scratch him.”

“Good, so you scratch him where he’s itching, and he will love you.” Stevie does as he’s asked, and Ronnie rolls his eyes.

“The level of observation needed from the kids is high, because the horse is watching them all the time, watching for body language, and signs.”

The horse, constantly vigilant, watching for signs of danger, is a remnant of their wild herd days as beasts of prey. And other characteristics of their survival mechanisms still persist today.

“Horses are incredibly good at compensation,” says physiotherapist, Sarah Massingham. “So if they’ve got a sore spot they will off-load to the furthest possible area. If the right hind is sore, they’ll off-load to the front fore.”
Sarah served 10 years in the Royal Air Force where she completed a Masters degree in Manipulative Physiotherapy. Later she graduated with a Masters in Veterinary Physiotherapy from the Royal Veterinary College, University of London.

“In the wild, horses had to keep moving, and not be seen to be injured by predators, or by other members of the herd, because that meant losing a place in the hierarchy.”

As she digs her fingers deep in to the groin of a big grey gelding, Sarah says, “Ra’s a very good communicator. If I’m not in the right spot, if I’m not quite doing it right, he positions himself. He’s very in tune.”

HuRa’s owner, Robbie Greenslade, attends the treatments, and explains: “He’s not built for dressage, conformationally; it’s something he should find really hard but he’s got an incredible work ethic. He’s been trained through to Grand Prix level. He’ll never be competitive at that level, but he tries his heart out.”

On her first treatment, Sarah says, “Ra didn’t want anything to do with me, but the next day he was really lame, so the little bit of treatment shifted something that he’d been compensating.”

Robbie Greenslade is grateful for Sarah’s skills. “Ra has a high profile, and is well known in dressage circles. He’s much loved because he’s such a character, and people, some of the top people in the sport, have commented how different he is, and that’s from the treatment.”

Ra has moved his haunch and is presenting another sore spot for Sarah to massage, and as his lips curl up quivering, Robbie says, “As well as all the qualifications and experience, Sarah has a really intuitive understanding of where the pain might be coming from.”

Sarah Massingham, HuRa, Robbie Greenslade

Sarah is modest. “I do feel heat or energy, but a lot is the horse’s reaction to the touch, reading their body language. Horses mask pain, but they can get to a certain stage where they are so sore they can’t off-load anymore. They get to a point where they can’t physically keep going, and that’s when you’ll see them bucking and off seating riders. The horses are shouting at that stage.”

The survival instinct of horses is something Ruth Holmes admires, “We have our amazing old girls who get to great ages, and they have things wrong with them, but they would rather get up in the morning, and go to work, than stay out in the field. They’re not doing it to please, they’re doing it to survive.”

But horses seem so willing to please, and when Ra nuzzles Robbie affectionately, there’s no doubting the depth of relationship between horse and rider.

“To have a good relationship with horses what you have to be is a good herd leader,” explains Ruth. “If you provide food, water, shelter and safety, and an interesting life, they’ll accept you as herd leader.”

And those old mares, who’d rather get up and at it, than stay in bed? “They want to interact with us because they include us as part of the herd.”

The leadership class at the Leg Up Trust is coming to an end, and on the final walk past, Ronnie spots a tasty tuft of grass, and Stevie gives in to the determined pony, who pulls him along in his quest for a feed.

“Ronnie’s a stroppy little horse,” says Ros, “He doesn’t like being groomed and he’ll bare his teeth and snarl, and kick. If the kid takes a step back he’s won, but if the kid stands his ground, Ronnie accepts he’s got a leader, and settles down.” It would appear Ronnie has decided he wants to be the boss today, although Ros says, “We would never say, ‘show the horse who’s boss’ … That’s bullying language.”

Ros Rowe’s determination to utilize horses as therapy took a novel twist when she came up with the idea of giving troubled teens the opportunity of learning to play polo. Now in its third year, the program is run by Richard Kettle at his Birchleigh Polo Club in Paki Paki.

“With the boys from Flaxmere, the first things that wins them over is the horse. They come in all tough, but when they handle the horses, they change. They quickly learn that if you give a bit to a horse, the horse will give a lot more back. Show care and respect and the horse responds.”

Richard Kettle is keen to see a Flaxmere Secondary Schools polo club formed, and will give it his full support. “A lot of the boys are naturals,” says Richard. “They’re good with the horses, and have great eye-ball coordination skills. And when I take them away to play other club beginners they kick arse. We took them down to Rangetiki to play the Otaki Pony Club polo team. These were privileged kids, and our boys beat them, 8 – nil.”

There’s no disguising Richard’s pleasure in giving boys from difficult backgrounds the opportunity to play polo, and his club is open to anyone who’s keen to learn.

Stevie, Ronnie & Ros Rowe

“What we’re doing is making polo accessible to people who want to play, but don’t come from traditional polo backgrounds. We’ve around 80% women at the moment. They’ve generally ridden as teenagers, and now reached a stage where their children are at school, and they don’t want to just ride around a paddock, so they come to polo. They’re good riders, and some have the means to get a pony for playing in tournaments.”

Out in a field, showing fragile signs of recovering from drought, a herd of horses are loosely bunched. “I’ve got 20 horses,” says Richard, “Some are trusty old mares you could put a baby on, and then there’re the keen young horses we take away to tournaments.” The horses are lean and well muscled, and with their short-cropped manes look like the punks of the breed.

“I tend to get my horses off the race track,” says Richard. “Well-bred little mares that have big hearts but are too slow. Being thoroughbreds they want to win, and part of the game is riding a player off the ball, and the little mares just love it. Hit the ball, and they chase, turn, and they turn. They love the game.”

My horse is faster

“Of course, at some stage,” says Ruth Holmes in her history lesson of the horse, “someone would have said, ‘my horse is faster than yours’, and we also decided they look good too, and could look even better.”

Today, in Hawke’s Bay, ‘my horse is faster’ is played out on the race course, and, ‘look good’ finds its pinnacle in Horse of the Year, held annually at the Show Grounds in Hastings.

As Jason Fleming, General Manager of Hawke’s Bay Racing says, “There is nothing more majestic than a horse in full flight. Seeing and experiencing the race horse in all its glory; the crack of the whip, the ground shaking, and the roar of the crowd. It’s a great experience.”

Hawke’s Bay Racing’s income in 2012 was $4 million, and Jason Fleming says, “Fifteen hundred people depend on racing for their livelihood in Hawke’s Bay, and racing generates $32 million to the local economy.”

The six-day Horse of the Year spectacle of show jumping and dressage had an impact of $14.1 million on the Hawke’s Bay economy in 2013, and under Kevin Hansen’s stewardship, the event now attracts over 2,500 horses, with mind boggling organisational logistics. And signs are the event will get bigger and better each year.

Robbie Greenslade competed at the Horse of the Year with HuRa, and although the big event is over, horse and rider are athletes, who must keep up their schedule.

Three days after his physio session HuRa is competing on a Sunday afternoon at the Hawke’s Bay Equestrian Park in Bridge Pa. He and Robbie perform a series of passes and turns to commands called out by a woman at the side of the dressage pen. “Turn left. Turn right. Three flying changes every third stride,” she says, and the judges sit in their cars, marking each movement out of ten.

“We managed a really good score and came second to a very smart horse that has been competing at that level for quite some time, so I am thrilled,” says Robbie.

A romantic might muse that the horse is living its Golden Age, where their qualities are positively resourced, be they for entertainment, sport, or as therapy. The skeptic might suggest we still ruthlessly exploit the horses’ willingness to please and be protected.

But as Ros Rowe pointed out, “We can learn a lot about ourselves through horses.”

Domesticated as long, and still preserving the raw herd instinct, comes to mind. And still looking for strong leaders to protect us, and lead us to food and shelter. Just like horses.

“In the wild they look for a strong leader, and it’s always a wise old mare,” says Ros Rowe. “It’s the same here.” Her laughter seals the truth of her joke.

And who is the leader of Richard Kettle’s herd? “That old mare scratching herself on a branch,” he says.

Jason Fleming compares race horses to top athletes. “Some top athletes are the most boring people you come across, but on game day they take on another persona, because they know they’re among the best.”

For Sarah Massingham, “Horses have taught me a huge amount about human physiology. When a person’s back is sore, I now know that might not be where the problem lies.”

And Ruth Holmes shares a profound parallel between the lives of horses and humans. “You find horses who’ve had horrendous lives, hard lives, but still give. Then other horses, who’ve had a hard time, might have completely lost trust. Some seem able to forgive whatever happened in the past and start a new life, but others can’t.”

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