BY JENNY ROLFE
Many of us will know wonderful horses during our lives; but for a few of us, there may be just that one special horse who becomes not only a wonderful companion, but also a “soul friend.” Delfin was a Spanish PRE stallion who was a well-known bull fighting horse in Spain. When I brought him back to the UK, he was full of nervous energy, and it took much time and patience to begin to gain his trust.
Delfin is a very special horse who has chosen to show me the many aspects of the horse’s mind. Dressage movements for Delfin are full of life, fun and vitality and are most definitely not just functional or mechanical. The spirit of this wonderful stallion has created an indelible stamp upon his training and also on me.
So why has Delfin become such a great teacher? I have learned with Delfin that nothing less than total self-awareness and focus of my mood, balance and breathing will gain a positive response. He always mirrors my frame of mind, and my every nuance of balance; he has the ability to reflect my personality and body language. He immediately senses tension, sadness and frustration. Equally, he can exude energy and joy when he feels my pleasure and happiness.
In our early days in the UK, I would lead Delfin, in as quiet an environment as possible, into a field and just stand or sit with him. He would snatch violently at the grass, always more curious about his surroundings, but it was quite a while before I could take off the rope and leave him alone in the field. When I walked to the gate, he would follow me back and only return to his grazing if I stood and watched him. If he saw me make any attempt to move away, he would immediately gallop back towards the gate.
His life in Spain had been very disciplined and restricted; so we also turned him loose in the school to let him play a little. When I began to loose school him, I realized that he was mirroring all my movements: If I turned or moved, he would do the same. He appeared to want to become an important part of my life.
Delfin was to become the teacher who would show me the importance of listening and tuning-in to a horse, not in a logical or mechanical way, but with feeling and emotion. A truly amazing and revealing empathy was to develop between us. We were becoming kindred spirits, and we both were trying to learn from one another.
Early Days in our Training
Our early training sessions taught me so much. Through his training in Spain, Delfin had developed a way of going under saddle that would take years to change. He was very tense with highly charged, nervous reactions. His trot was bunched up, being almost executed on the spot, and it did not improve at first even with walk and trot transitions. This highly charged tension controlled all his movements, but he did seem to settle more in the canter. A mounted bullfighter works in canter. It appeared that trot work was a foreign language to Delfin.
Because Delfin did not understand trotting forward rather than on the spot, I had to find ways of teaching him what was required. Most days, after working him on the lunge, I would begin by riding in walk and then get him to take a few strides in trot before quickly moving into canter. We would stay in canter for a while before I asked for a downward transition into trot. The first few trot strides would take us forward, which was a huge improvement on the stilted trot he had been presenting before. I then came back down to walk and praised him, stroking his neck and allowing him to stretch his top line forwards and down. These exercises progressed slowly over the months until he learned to take the trot movement forwards and relax more within the gait.
Early in his training, I thought that trotting poles would be helpful to lengthen his trot, but when he saw the poles his initial response was total panic. He looked upon them with the greatest suspicion, but did change his mind over a period of time. Delfin now works loose over poles with no tack, responding only to my body language, voice and breathing. This type of trust has taken years to build up, with no quick fixes, just time and patience, and I believe there is no substitute for this if you want to build a harmonious relationship. Trust has to be our goal when working with horses.
The most testing lesson for me has been learning to maintain Delfin’s trust and confidence. He would often try my patience, and I felt that a strong tap with the whip would be in order to gain his attention. The problem was that after such a reprimand, Delfin would become extremely agitated and the chance of any relaxed work would totally disappear. This is one of the reasons why Delfin has become my greatest teacher. Whenever I thought that I had the answers, he would produce another aspect of behavior for me to deal with. If I chose the route of patience and more patience, we did reap rewards in our communication.
Feeling very frustrated one day, as I could not seem to find a solution to this problem, I decided to halt near the gate. Delfin’s body was a quivering mass of energy, and he felt as if he might be about to explode in any direction. I gave a deep sigh, probably as a result of being so frustrated by his refusal to listen to me. I walked him for a few more strides, came back to halt and exhaled deeply again. Immediately, I felt tension flowing from Delfin, he seemed to be responding to my sighs. Perhaps all his excess energy was also proving too much for him.
Delfin had taught me a valuable lesson; when horses respond in a negative manner, you have to ask yourself why. If these intelligent, sensitive creatures with amazing memories are given the chance to express their emotions, they will be more willing to accept our instruction and discipline. If anger is expressed when a horse is emotional or fearful, his training will be suppressed. Communication demands patience, spiritual insight and a feeling for our own and the horse’s emotions. This requires discipline of a trainer, but the rewards are worth the commitment.
Progress – Patience Reaps a Reward
I worked with Delfin consistently for about a year along these lines, trying to establish a bond of trust between us. During the training I was steadily aiming for more relaxation and fluidity within the gaits while developing straightness and rhythm in his work. It was easier for Delfin to produce half-pass and lateral work, than for him to work forward and cover the ground. I realized that the more advanced movements could physically be quite easy for him, but at that time we had to concentrate on our basic training. I was also keen to get him to focus on his work, a task which took both diplomacy and tact, trying to keep a calming cap on an erratic mind.
At times, progress seemed painfully slow. There would be a few settled sessions when Delfin paid attention, and then for some reason, he would show evasion and inattentive behavior. If at this point I showed my frustration, the trust we had built up would have disappeared. I knew that I could have put pressure on him to comply with me, but somehow I felt that we would have lost sight of the joy and freedom of movement. He would produce only stilted gaits if he felt under too much pressure.
Once again, Delfin had become the teacher and I the pupil. A horse can be made to comply by the use of force, but the true principles of classical training will be fundamentally lost. It was important to me that Delfin and I had established a bond of friendship and trust. During the years I have spent with him, however, I realized that when we appear to achieve nothing of consequence, we are achieving it all. Less may be more and sometimes calmness and quiet can be everything.
I have also learned that it is possible to become very focused on the work of the day and lose sight of the bigger picture. The relationship is far more important than any single goal in training and sometimes we have to settle for less than we hope to achieve during a training session. If we have the courage and wisdom to accept something good, and be thankful, even when our expectations are not being fulfilled, we are learning the skills of the true horseman.
Delfin is now well advanced in his training and when he is working often gains a captive audience. People can sense his joy and pride which enhances the picture rather than becoming a demonstration of only his obedience.
This harmony and balance is the essence of a successful relationship– a negotiation between rider and horse. The relationship with the horse, for me, is paramount and the movements in training are not only exercises to gain athletic ability but also an opportunity for the horse to demonstrate his natural pride and joy. We can all learn something new each day and our greatest friend and teacher will always be our horse. Delfin has taught me the significance of our breathing within training. He was the inspiration for my book “Ride From the Heart.”
Update: Sadly, since this article was written, Delfin has passed away. He was an amazing and wonderful gift to Jenny Rolfe and many others. Their partnership was truly amazing!
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR JENNY ROLFE