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University in the Sky

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

At times dreams get soggy round the edges, but you can't live so close to heaven without getting caught in the cloud sometimes. And the waiting gives time for reflection.

We're at 1,700m in the Picos de Europa, Spain's massive and spectacular northern cordillera, waiting for the thunderstorm to roll off somewhere else. Every year Toño and I bring the horses up here for two or three weeks, travelling light and fancy free. We avoid roads completely and tracks as far as possible, following cow trails winding up the vertiginous slopes to the lush high pastures. Cow trails don't sound particularly challenging unless you have seen the strength and athleticism of the native cattle, which power up and down precipices with the nonchalance of monkeys swinging through trees. Atila, our packhorse, does the same, chugging along at any angle like a tractor: he's done high-altitude routes over these mountains for over 15 years now with my friend Hector, imperturbably scaring clients into a healthy respect for a horse's potential wisdom and knowledge.

Agility, strength, wisdom, knowledge, and that closeness that renders overt forms of communication unnecessary, a continuous flow of information based on mutual understanding and respect: that's what we and the horses find on these journeys. As I see it, they're the qualities we look for in any activity with horses, and this is the most natural way to achieve them. I hesitate to use the word “natural”, since it has been so prostituted in the commercialisation of training schemes requiring the repetition of exercises and techniques: in short, work. What happens naturally happens without work. My idea of natural training is that I do as little work as possible while the horse trains himself. In Picos de Europa, this takes place amidst limestone cliffs and turrets, high passes and flower-strewn meadows in a jumble of peaks that stretches, week after week, as far as the eye can see: in short, close to heaven.

Atila has a Ph.D. in self-education in propitious circumstances. A stocky, short-legged little chap, he has had no formal training and is not even well ridden, although Hector insists that his clients leave the horses alone when they're on the trail. Yet his musculature, his arched neck, powerful back, bulging hindquarters and snake-like flexibility, make Atila feel like a highly sophisticated horse when ridden: he carries himself lightly and, although rather surprised to be asked these things, does splendid pirouettes, half-passes and changes of leg at canter. He's been doing all these movements, and a lot more that aren't included in what we normally term schooling, for years by himself, mostly at crazy angles, so he finds them easy.

Toño has a Lusitano gelding, Babia, who's reached secondary school on our mountain excursions. Castrated late in life after spending two years tied to a manger in a pitch-black stable, he regards my mare as his and spends most of the journey more preoccupied about her relations with Atila than about the mad angles and dizzy drops that he traverses. For my mare Lula, who was brought up in tiny patches in a flatland village, all is astonishing and new, first term at primary school. She's 8, but had not been ridden before she came to me. Daughter of my great Lusitano stallion Iberico, she shows his athletic aptitude in her frolics and games at home as well as great curiosity – always a sign of intelligence - and quickness to learn. Her total riding experience amounts to some 12 times, mostly short, and she isn't fit: not what one would consider prepared for such an adventure. But she seems made for it, both mentally and physically.

The upland pastures are lush, for the cattle have only just come up for the summer. A horse travelling on grass alone doesn't go more than 2 or 3 hours without needing food and rest, so we generally make two stages a day. A seasoned traveller drops his head immediately whenever you stop to check the map or open a gate, and Lula quickly learns to follow Atila's example. In contrast, when we reach a point that might suit for the night and check it out for water, flat places to sleep, tethering availability and so on, they also stroll about assessing the place and the views before settling to graze: that is, they recognize what is a Pause and what a Stop even before we unsaddle them. This is what I mean by communication that needs no conscious signals. The horses learn to read our intentions with the subtlety that they read each other, and we have to learn theirs too: to realise that Lula is making off and will take Babia with her, that they are aware that there are wild boar about, when they need to stop on a difficult section not because of the physical effort but because of the relentless mental effort of choosing where to put their feet. Usually we don't have to tell them in which direction to go: they know we are looking at that col or that valley. In return, we leave them to pick the details of where to step. On tricky sections, we dismount, leaving them free to follow us or choose a variant. We're a little herd moving along together in mutual respect for each other's role, and this thoroughly equine idea of cooperation, fortified by our being together day and night, builds a relationship difficult to achieve in any other way.

Mostly our herd moves along together as horses do, without telling each other exactly what to do. If loose, Lula skips ahead satisfying her curiosity but checking behind to make sure we´re following, as a dog does. Riding, I let her discover that I don´t hinder or unbalance her and that she can be as extravagantly gymnastic beneath me as without me, so her balance, elasticity, impulsion and stride improve immensely. So does her confidence. But occasionally, when I can see problems ahead and ask her to take another tack, she refuses to listen to my minimal aids, as any green horse sometimes does. Wherever possible, I don't oblige her by increasing the pressure disagreeably but let her run herself into difficulties: for instance, on a steep downhill curve of cement, she wouldn´t step over on to the grass despite my asking repeatedly. As I had foreseen, she skidded badly, scaring herself. Next time I asked her to step over, she knew it was for her own good. After a couple of such experiences she responds rapidly and sensitively to the least suggestion. This is where aids become truly aids – “helps”, the Duke of Newcastle called them – guides to negotiating this tricky wilderness safely together, not threats that discomfort or pain will follow if the desired response does not. That is, I do not agree with the widely-held view that the only way to teach a sensitive response to the aids is through increasing negative reinforcement, a technique that horses do not use on each other. When a horse is in a sticky situation he welcomes a suggestion from a friend.

Although the occasional rainy days frustrate us, they seem to time themselves perfectly for Lula to strengthen herself naturally, never losing weight or interest. On a fierce uphill, she stretches her neck forward and down, lifting her back as she pushes; on a fierce downhill she learns to do the same, stepping forwards underneath her and shifting her balance back so a half-halt brings her to complete collection. She learns not to rush the tricky sections but to think. She learns not to feel overwhelmed by the immense views but to enjoy them, pointing out the wolf slinking through the broom, the stag in the heather, or the rebeco, a type of wild goat, fleeing at top speed until they realise we aren't hunters and slow down to observe us. Animals learn. They are survivors in their own world.

What we have to learn is to have more confidence in their capacity to learn and to develop their gymnastic ability, if necessary by getting off and leaving them to it. It was not by chance that the present interest in new forms of training was started by two old cowboys, men who had ridden for hours every day and realised just how much their horses had learned for themselves and how. Every old cowboy I've met has his story of how a horse saved his life by disobeying him, following its own knowledge. Yet the major problem that Hector has with his clients is persuading them, strangers to these mountains, that Atila and his herd-mates know how to negotiate these precipices better than they do themselves.

I consider these journeys an essential part of the education of a young horse, be it destined for dressage, jumping, endurance or pleasure riding. In the mountains, even when working hard, horses move forwards with elasticity, enthusiasm and impulsion; they take new experiences in their stride, often consulting us for guidance. This is true education, not the suppression of all intelligence and will through constant control. But we have a curious way of expecting confidence from the horse while not returning it ourselves. Our lack of respect for their abilities leads to our depriving them of opportunities to develop any. Many horses grow up wrapped in cotton wool for fear they will hurt themselves, a practice that leads to their hurting themselves because their tendons and ligaments are unhardened by working on different substrates and angles. Similarly, we wish to instruct them, not to let them learn. People get hooked on control, while a horse's idea is mutual aid.

So there are people, and horses, who are simply not prepared for this kind of high-altitude adventure (I admit to being delighted to find how well Lula rose to the challenge). Its greatest benefits come when we ride without control, confident in our seat and the ability not to hinder the horse as he scrambles over steep and swiftly-changing terrain involving constant adjustments of our balance: a type of riding foreign to many. We must teach the horse how to tether safely, know how to balance saddlebags and bedroll, learn to recognise medicinal and edible plants, read maps, protect against chafing and above all be incessantly inventive. As preparation I'd suggest a shorter, well-marked, lowland route, although it's the high-altitude gymnastics that really improve their athleticism. But if you want to learn the techniques and be astounded by the views without risk, try Hector.

Hector Calderón



Lucy Rees


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