24 October 1997

Equestrian guru who sees horses as partners and not as subordinates…

EQUESTRIAN guru Mary Wanless didnt start riding until she was 14, was burned out by the time she was 25, but is now a successful author in the forefront of the revolution that is quietly changing the way we look at our horses as partners not servants.

Having novice evented a mare called Catweazle in early 70s, Mary gave up riding in despair. "I felt I was bashing my head against a brick wall. I had problems I just couldnt get to the bottom of. I felt my teachers couldnt tell me and because I didnt have talent, I was an idiot. I sold my horse, went to London and sold fire extinguishers for a living."

Eventually she resumed teaching because she lived close to a city farm at Kentish Town where they needed someone with her professional qualifications.

"What happened in the end was a bit like losing your purse – you keep looking for it in all the same places, you stop looking and find it under your nose. Because Id stopped caring so much, I started noticing things like how my right seat bone was heavier than my left and the horse is heavier in the right rein – is it connected and what can I do about it? Before that, I was saying Bloody horse, bend right will you! and not liking myself for doing it!"

Strangely, it was her degree in physics which came to her rescue.

"There are laws of bio-mechanics which govern what you do. I began experimenting – every so often Id do it right, but I didnt know what Id done and so couldnt do it again which was even worse!"

Eventually she discovered what she calls "bearing down". "Ten per cent of riders cotton on to it naturally. When were told to sit up straight we hollow the back and pull our stomach in which is entirely the wrong thing. You have to aim at the feeling you get when you clear your throat."

She wrote about her ideas in Ride With Your Mind and Ride With Your Mind Masterclass. As soon as the rider stopped trying to force the horse into a shape and rode the way she taught, it started to work properly with a soft mouth and rounded back.

"My whole aim here is to make life much easier and better for horses which I try to do by changing the rider. Nine horses out of 10 say Thank God, shes stopped pulling me around. They breathe a sigh and just let go! Riders reactions vary from tears to relief or anger because previous teachers have wasted their time."

Health issues of her own led Mary to discover complementary medicine. "I had always got tired easily. I went to see a cranial osteopath because Id had a lot of orthodontics as a child. These had changed my bite and altered my cranial rhythm affecting fluids surrounding the brain and spinal cord which left me tired all the time. I wore a bite raiser for five years at night and brewed up wicked mixtures of Chinese herbs! Im now better than Ive ever been."

In 1991 Mary held her first annual conference to share her ideas at West Wilts Equestrian Centre near Trowbridge, Wilts, and invited a number of speakers who were discovering new ways of approaching the horse and rider partnership. It was called For The Good of the Horse and spawned the title for her latest book.

This years conference included a lecture by Mary on horse care and management, and one by an equine osteopath, as well as lectures on aromatherapy, the nutritional pitfalls, and natural balance farriery which reproduces the foot shape of the wild horse. All these ideas and more have been pulled together in her latest book* which was launched at the conference.

"People need to think of MOT-ing their horse a couple of times a year like they do their car. Bute it and shoot it is on the way out. There are now a lot more options – chiropractors, herbalists, equine dentists, remedial farriers. When people get desperate enough, theyll try them. Lots of top competition horses have teams of people keeping them on the road using these techniques preventatively.

"I cant deal with the idea of horses as livestock to be disposed of when they are no longer of any use. Horses are partners not servants. They work with people on a different level, I dont know of many people who havent loved their horse. They are so amazingly neutral, forgiving and non-judgmental. Whatever you ask a horse to do, theyll usually have a go. Horses just blow my mind!" Claire Hopper

*For The Good of the Horse by Mary Wanless, Kenilworth Press (£19.95).