Hi, I’m Jenny Barker, and I’m based in Brinsley, Nottinghamshire in he UK, where I live with my 2 dogs, 7 hens and 5 horses. Believe it or not, this is the smallest family of animals we’ve had living with us in a while!
I began my journey with horses when I was around four years old, when my mum took me for a lesson at a local riding school. Up until that point I was apparently a quiet child and barely spoke, but that afternoon when we got home I wouldn’t stop talking about the experience and I’ve not stopped talking about horses since!
I had several years of riding lessons and was lucky enough to spend time outside of riding with my friend’s pony. When I was 12 we got a pony on loan named Bentley. He was a 14.1h Fell cross, and I learned a lot with him.
While I had Bentley I had discovered a series of stories based on a more holistic approach to horses and a new idea called ‘Natural Horsemanship’. This different approach to horses sparked my interest in training and in how I could help the more ‘misunderstood’ horses.
Nowadays when I think back to my days of doing ‘Natural Horsemanship’ I feel rather sad, but I try to be grateful that I remained open to learning about alternative approaches and in truth, my journey through using those methods was a huge step on the path which led me to where I am today.
When I was 14 years old I was told by an authoritative yard owner that I ‘needed a horse instead of a pony’. So I sadly ceased loaning Bentley and Dee came into my life. Dee was a gorgeous 16.1hh former race horse thoroughbred gelding.
In 2009 mum and I moved from the yard to a rented field near our home with Dee and Apache our now 16 year old Irish Cob gelding. Once at the field the pressure of feeling like I had to ‘work’ the horses was lifted. I gradually spent less and less time doing things with them like riding and more time just being with them and learning about their behaviour and individual preferences. I enjoyed observing what choices they made if they were given the chance. This is where it really clicked for me that they truly were sentient individuals who deserved a better deal than they had been getting.
Soon after moving our farrier at the time ‘sacked’ us, probably because our field was too muddy and we asked too many questions! This led to us researching hoof health and making the decision to keep Dee barefoot. The more we researched the more controversial topics we discovered and the more it was revealed that many of the things we believed to be true about horses and their needs were actually myths, some causing more harm to our horses’ welfare than others. Needless to say we made a LOT of changes in our perspectives and in turn to their management at this time.
While at the field our ‘mini herd’ gradually grew in size. We took on our now 28 year old Arab X Welsh mare Folly, who came with an array of issue including chronic laminitis, COPD, borderline EMS, and Cushing’s disease. The first few years with her we had her booked in to be euthanised three times due to the severity of her issues. Each time she showed a slight improvement the morning of the appointment, and each time we cancelled. Thank goodness we did because each of her conditions are now managed well and she’s become one of the healthiest in the herd!
We eventually developed a make-shift track system to help us manage Folly’s laminitis, but because they were older and only living in a small group they still weren’t moving very much so we decided it would be good for them to have more companions. This is of course an obvious and logical decision for anyone who is obsessed with equines!
We adopted Joey and Charlie, two unhandled 2 year old semi-feral Dartmoor Hill Ponies from our local rescue. They had been rounded up during the annual cull, and were both bought from the back of the meat man’s lorry as they were about to head off to slaughter. Charlie was an inquisitive boy who got his nose into EVERYTHING and always initiated lovely interaction with humans whereas Joey was fearful of everything. When he saw you coming he’d panic and stand trembling, sweating and pooing himself until he realised you weren’t going to so much as look at him. Not yet knowing about force-free training, for the first 2 years – apart from vet visits – we left Joey completely untouched, just gave him his daily feed and threw him some ‘treats’ when we walked past.
I was inadvertently helping him change his view of humans but I didn’t realise that at the time and I was just hoping that patience and kindness alone would be enough to help him, and gradually he did relax a lot.
In July 2014 we attended a workshop on clicker training as my first introduction to the concept of positive reinforcement. I went home and practiced what we’d been shown, but as often happens when you don’t have any ongoing professional guidance, quite a lot went wrong. The horses and ponies all became overly aroused and frustrated and spent all the time outside formal training sessions in food seeking and knocking me about to see if any treats would fall out.
I’d made a lot of common mistakes including trying to train advanced behaviours without any foundations in place. At this point I was studying Animal Assisted Therapy and I was actually enjoying most of my time with them going for walks in hand, practicing mindfulness or doing things such as enrichment activities with them so I ceased all formal training for a while as none of us were enjoying it anymore. A while later I saw some of Alizé Muckensturm’s resources and tried again, this time with more understanding of why things had been going wrong previously, and we finally had far more success and much calmer and happier horses.
As I shifted in my approach to horses I realised how much I had to learn so I enrolled on and completed the Natural Animal Centre’s equine behaviour course.
I then started working with the rescue centre from which I had previously adopted our two semi-feral Dartmoors. I am still actively involved there and I help rehabilitate and train previously abused, neglected and traumatised ponies.
It was through the rescue that I came to be able to see some of the Connection Training approach to horse training and then I came across Max and Horse Charming in 2018.
A lot of what Max said about the approach to training horses resonated with me. For instance the fact that we need to recognise that most horses and ponies who have spent any time in the ownership of humans have suffered trauma. That could be due to common practices of premature, abrupt or forced weaning, being rounded up, sold on, and because aversive handling from humans and isolation and confinement in stables is still the norm in our society.
I did wonder how my extensive “rescue and rehab” experience was going to be useful to normal horse owners, but then I saw that the Horse Charming approach is unique in that the focus is on starting by trying to change the perception these amazing animals have of humans – much as we had had to do with Joey – before we can realistically expect to train horses and ponies to do anything. It’s so important to alter perception so that they can be calm, relaxed and confident around us, especially when food is involved, since many horses in the UK and elsewhere in the world have food anxiety related to abrupt weaning.
In my never ending pursuit of knowledge and experience, I’ve just completed an animal training course with Karolina Westlund and am about to begin the Natural Animal Centre’s equine behaviour qualification stage 2 which I hope to complete in 2020/21. I am also studying science-based courses at my local college because apparently I’m addicted to learning! I also became a multi-species Pet Professional Guild accredited force free trainer in January 2020.
Sadly we lost our Dartmoor Charlie in 2018 aged 7 due to fireworks and Dee in 2019 aged 26 to heart failure, and we have recently taken on two new members of the herd both with more than their fair share of ‘issues’. My mum and I are very much the kind of people whose desire to take on and help a horse increases in direct proportion to the number of ‘problems’ you tell us they have! We are currently helping Miro our new 16.3hh thoroughbred lady boost her immune system and heal various physical ailments and 3 year old baby pony Harry find out that he is safe and secure after a traumatic and unsettled start to his life.
I am thrilled to now be a part of the Horse Charming family and to be able to offer help to other people as part of that team and using the extensive library of Horse Charming materials!
It’s a privilege to be able to work alongside people who are so generous with their extensive knowledge and who genuinely put the horse’s welfare first. I am super excited to help others learn and grow with their horses and ponies.
by phone: 07505 000709
by email: firstname.lastname@example.org