Vikki Spit is our Horse Charming professional in the North of England. She’s based in Alston in Cumbria.
Vikki can be contacted via Facebook and on 07734 214 198. She has poor reception in her area – so leave a message or send a text and she’ll get back to you.
Here’s what Vikki wants you to know about her:
I have been obsessed with animals my entire life. I am pretty sure my first word was “Doggy”.
However, being born in London, I didn’t encounter horses until I was 11.
A family friend had a yard in Surrey and I was taken along one Saturday and shoved on a pony and left to my own devices. It was love at first sight.
From then on I spent every Saturday there, I mucked out, groomed and rode.
I was never actually taught how to ride. I was put on a horse and left to figure out how to not fall off. So began a life-long obsession.
Fast forward and I was living in Surrey and was a bassist and founding member of a touring rock band.
I had occasional lessons when I could at a very nice local riding school and started helping out with Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) lessons. That together with more lessons, learning from watching the RDA lessons and getting known for my common sense and affinity for horses eventually led to me being offered a position as a part time riding instructor.
Even then, I had a reputation for being laid back and calm with the horses. Unlike many, my mentality was “let’s understand each other and work this out” not “YOU WILL RESPECT MY AUTHORITY!”
I encouraged my riders to think about how their horse was feeling, why he might act a certain way, how they were sitting, breathing, tensing might affect their horse.
I had particular success with adults returning to riding – often far more nervous than when they were bouncy kids.
My ethos of “everyone relaxing and having a good time and think about what we’re doing” really seemed to help them to relax and get over their fears and to make progress.
This attitude also meant I was the person called on to school any horse who had become troublesome.
I was always patient and on the look out for anything that might be wrong physically, and would take my time with lots of rests for my horse.
In all honesty, in all the times I was asked to ride a horse who had been throwing off others, I never had any problems with those horses.
Looking back now, I believe it’s because I never pushed a worried horse and I never held my reins with a death-grip, believing then that a horse can’t pay attention to you and be relaxed if you’re holding on to it’s head tightly and causing pain with the bit.
Ah, the early tell-tale signs of my leanings towards horse charming!
As time went by, I became more and more non-traditional in my behaviours with the horses. Back then, I didn’t have a name for it though, and as this was a riding school and these were not my horses, there was not very much chance for exploration of these new ideas.
I wanted to ride bitless, I wanted the horses to be barefoot, but it was not my choice.
Then, in 2014, everything changed.
In the space of a few months, both my partner Zion and I lost a grandparent each, and were informed by the owner of our little cottage home, that she was retiring and wanted her cottage back.
We decided to take a break from the band, and we wanted a change so we moved 350 miles to the Northern Pennines and the wild moorlands of Northumberland and into a cottage with an already resident elderly Fell stallion called Timmy. His owners (our new landlords) told me to treat him as my own and were very happy for me to get some friends for Tim as well!
So I got Cato on Halloween 2014, about 6 weeks after moving in.
Rather stupidly, I bought him from an advert on Facebook without actually meeting him in the flesh. It was love at first sight!
He was a rising 5 years, 15.1hh, dapple grey full Irish Connemara. The owner had ridden him through the summer and didn’t want the expense of keeping him through winter so they were selling him through this dealer friend of theirs.
He was advertised as easy to handle and do in all ways, backed and quiet. That is exactly what he was…. NOT!
He was actually only just 4 years old, he didn’t want to be caught, he DID NOT want you touching his feet, he was quiet, that was true – but that was because he was in such a fearful, stressed, terrified state he’d stand there with every muscle in his body tensed sweating all over.
He hadn’t been taught anything, he’d been punished until he inadvertently did the correct thing, although I don’t think he ever knew what the correct thing was!
He had muscle damage from being ridden in a poorly fitting saddle and to this day he still worries it’s going to hurt when the rider dismounts.
At first, I thought I had a really nice horse who just needed to get to know me a bit and get used to his new home.
He was barefoot and bitless, I had a treeless saddle, I was not using a whip. I had good intentions. I had a lot to learn!
After about two weeks, Cato came out of his shut down state a little, and started to say “no” when I tried to mount. And he started to bolt.
This poor horse was so used to being punished until he did the right thing, that fact that I wasn’t punishing him drove him over the edge, he was just waiting for the pain until he couldn’t take it anymore and he would bolt flat out.
He once jumped a metal 5 bar gate from a fairly slow canter! I did not expect that at all, after all, I had been told he was only nearly 5 and had popped a cross pole a couple of times… I started getting very suspicious about what he’d actually been used for prior to coming to me.
Anyway. I wasn’t going to give up on my horse, and I wanted him to be happy.
I started scouring the internet. I couldn’t get on with Parelli, I couldn’t get my head around the whole friendly game / chasing in a circle to earn trust / dominance stuff.
I hit a major road bump at the idea of chasing an animal away to created trust and friendship,
I didn’t do that with my dog, cats or human friends, it didn’t seem very friendly to me, so I didn’t go down that route.
I tried finding trainers who could help me, but I wasn’t going to let anyone near my poor horse with a bit or a whip, as he’d clearly had enough of that already in his short life so no more thank you very much!
Being rather remote, I didn’t have any luck finding a trainer, but eventually, my searching led me to discover positive reinforcement.
Now, the really dumb thing is, guess how I train my reactive rescue dog? Yup.
Why on earth didn’t I think about it for horses?
As I’ve already mentioned, now I had my own horse I wanted every to be pain free and happy.
As I read more I had a real “where has this been all my life??” experience. This was it.
I was going to use positive reinforcement and only positive reinforcement.
I joined some amazing groups on Facebook, I found some incredible people (Max being one of them) and I immersed myself into learning as much as I could and putting it into practise.
One of the first things I had to do was to stop trying to ride Cato. I thought this would be hard, after all, my background was riding horses. Was I ever wrong!
We played at liberty, we learned to target, we learned new movements, we counter-conditioned equipment, we learned to handle feet, we went for walks in hand initially, but after not very long at all, I could walk the vast moors and my fabulous horse would walk along with me, stop to graze and trot to catch up with me BECAUSE HE WANTED TO!
I had never gotten to know a horse so well, and I had never had this amazing level of trust. Cato began to understand he wouldn’t be punished for not doing what I wanted or for not understanding and his ability to learn and his eagerness to learn astounded me.
I learned to listen. Cato learned he didn’t need to shout.
As the months went by, we worked on many, many things. We are now at a point where Cato will put on his own bridle, line himself up at anything for me to mount and we can have a relaxed walk and trot up and down our road.
Not one hint of a bolt in over a year.
The turnaround in my horse who is now nearly 6 is incredible. The change in his attitude to everything is huge and is purely down to using force free training methods. This isn’t hippy pony-hugging mumbo jumbo. This is proven science based on the Psychology of how all animals learn – what’s known as learning theory.
As you can probably get from my waffling on, the fact that I can use science to train my horses in the most humane, fun, reliable way possible, really rocks my world!
Anyway, as well as Cato, I also have Jango. He is a 13.2 stunning welsh section C pony, who joined us in March 2015 just before his 5th birthday.
He was rescued aged just 3 months by the wonderful woman who homed him with me, and he is being allowed to grown up nicely as the little prince he so rightly is.
I’ve slowly backed him using positive reinforcement and we’re happily enjoying the journey and building strength and confidence and he’s a super affectionate and fun little guy.
He has issues with resource guarding and separation anxiety, both of which we have been working on with great success using, you guessed it, positive reinforcement!
We were recently joined by Spartacus, an adorable 7 yr old black Shetland gelding whose owner was hospitalised and he needed to find him a new forever home.
We sadly lost Timmy to old age in February 2016, and our little herd didn’t seem right with only two, so Sparti was a great fit.
He’s not been backed, but assuming all is well when he is checked over by a chiropractor, that is something we will do.
In the meantime he’s learning to target and is being retaught how to lead, pick up his feet, back up and so on the positive reinforcement way.
He is also learning Spanish walk, because well, a Shetland doing Spanish walk …RIGHT!!???
So, here I am, a pink haired, tattooed ex punk-rock bassist who can help you and your horse learn a new way of doing things, which I promise you will both love.
Cato may have a lot of issues, but in uncovering them and learning how to help him through them, it has opened up a whole new world to me and I have loved the journey so far and am very excited to see what the future will bring.
There is literally no end to thing things I can do with my horses using this method, and knowing they enjoy themselves as much as me – well, what more can you ask?
Follow the journey of Cato, Jango, Spartacus and I guess me too on Facebook, at Buck You Horses