I grew up in Tasmania, Australia, in a small country town. My father was a business owner and my mum looked after us. No-one in my family had anything to do with horses or any particular interest in them, but for some reason I was smitten. At the age of around 9 or 10 I would lay awake waiting for the sounds of everyone going to sleep to stop, then I'd get out of bed and climb out my window. I'd make my way in the dark to the neighbour’s paddock, where my true love lived. Her name was Patch and she was the most beautiful creature in the world. A rich chestnut and white paint, Patch was around 14hh and had the heart of an angel. I'd climb through the fence and just be with her. Sometimes I'd climb up on her back and lay there smelling her sweet horsey aroma, listening to the sounds of grass munching while gazing heavenward to the stars. Hours would pass unnoticed, I was very happy.
Banjo cuddles, he has my initials!
I would visit her during the day too, but only from the other side of the fence. I thought no-one knew of my nocturnal adventures in the paddock and was sure it was extremely naughty, so I didn't tell a soul. One day as I walked past my neighbour toward Patch, he said under his breath, 'there's a bridle and saddle in the shed'. I nearly fainted, he knew, AND he was saying I could ride his horse. My heart pounded as I went to the shed and then had my first ever ride on Patch out in the open in daylight. There followed many years of joy together with Patch. Now I could take her out of the paddock. I rode her
everywhere, I gave up walking. One year her owner decided to have a foal with her. The baby was born and looked just like her mum. I drank Patch's milk and spent my days lying in the long grass with the two of them.
Patch No2, circa 1973
By now I had a bit of a reputation in the small country town. People started giving me their horses to ride. I didn't have enough money to buy my own and it wasn't something my parents would buy for me, but it didn't matter as I always had beautiful ponies and horses in my life. A local racehorse man took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew, thanks Jack. He trained steeplechasers and wanted me to be his training jockey. He would lunge his steeplechasers over the jumps with me on board. I particularly loved one huge horse, Black Baron. I kept my horses at his property and he took me to hunt meetings on the weekends. These were drag hunts only, but still had the baying hounds and red coats and full pelt galloping in a herd over the jumps. It was cold in winter in Tasmania, and we'd always stop for a break and a whisky flask would be handed around, then we jump back on and gallop away. I loved it. I had a few big jumping horses by this stage and started getting into show jumping. Jack took me to the shows so I could jump and taught me to drive a car while pulling a horse float.
Hunting with the club, that's me on the grey, circa 1978
Then I turned 17 and everything changed. I moved to Sydney and became a city girl. Then I started travelling. I lived in the UK for a year, Greece for a year and travelled to other countries. There were few horses in my life through these years. In my mid to late 20's I became the proud mum of two gorgeous girls. Eventually I moved back to Tassie and lived on a farm so decided to get a horse. We got Donald, a snow white 3yo 10hh Shetland and bundle of fluffy joy. Next a quarterhorse, Chook, then a lovely mare, Pepsi. As the girls grew up we all spent many hours on horseback riding in the bush and on the beach. We moved to NSW and more beautiful horses joined our lives, Frente, Goldie, Darcy, Soray and many others. I started buying ex-racehorses and retraining then to be riding horses. I gave riding lessons to local kids.
Donald! An adorable teddy bear in horse shape, teaching my daughters to ride. Yes, second shot he's in the house!
My daughters went to Pony Club and I became a Pony Club Instructor. We entered a new world of hacking and dressage and competitive riding. We were basically bush riders, I had always ridden my own way, flat out and jump anything was my motto. Now we were in the world of 'correct English riding' where there was only one way to do something and if you did it differently the pressure to conform was huge. We all had riding lessons to 'get up to scratch' and I started doing dressage. I began my Coach training with The Equestrian Federation of Australia (now known as EA). I also began an Equine Science degree at Charles Sturt University. For six years I did my degree part-time while working as a riding instructor and trail guide, raising two teenagers and doing my EFA coach training.
Darcy - my soul mate with 4 legs, a huge soul and a lot of horse.
I aspired to do it all ‘properly’ and prove my worth by winning ribbons and having certificates. The fact that it meant hurting my horse sometimes (it’s called ‘correcting’) was accepted as normal, everyone did it. I undertook years of riding lessons to gain my coaching certificate and used harsher and harsher bits. I rode with spurs and a whip. I had come a long way since my days laying on Patch in the moonlight.
And then something happened. A client of mine was getting a bitless bridle and I decided I wanted one too. We went to Equitana together and while there chose our bridles. I went home to try it on my horses. I had three main riding horses at home at the time and another four at work. I tried them with the bitless bridle and they all went really well in it. It felt great because I wasn’t hurting my horses anymore. I rode the same as I had been taught and was impressed with the results I was getting from the bitless. My horses were softer and more responsive and stayed calmer in elevated situations. The first time I catered my dressage horse in the bitless he did the softest canter I'd ever felt while being fully collected - without a bit! I started crying while we catered around, apologising to him for all the years of pain I had put him through unnecessarily. This moment was a cross-roads for me, it changed me forever. The two green broke brumbies I rode at work still reacted to things, but in the bitless bridle were easily corrected then instantly calm. With the bit they would end up being hot and difficult after a correction and I never realised it was the pain of the bit causing it until I took the bit away.
Then the magic of the bitless bridle really started having an effect on me. The connection between myself and the horses started opening up and changing. There was no longer pain for them while being ridden so they slowly emerged from a place where they’d been hiding. It was only then I realised what a huge thing a bit is, for the horse. For us it disappears when we pop it in the mouth and the mouth closes. We can’t see it so we don’t think about it. But the horse does. The whole time the horse is thinking about the pain in their mouth. Without that pain the horse starts thinking more about other things, about the rider and what’s happening. They start responding to more subtle cues, which they can now perceive without the loud distraction of the bit. The rider can get lighter and lighter with the cues and the horse will hear them. My whole way of thinking about horses and all animals took a step back to where I'd started as a young girl.
Rumpy the brumby, what a teacher this boy has been. Thankyou.
At thirteen I became a vegetarian because I loved animals and didn't want to eat them. Over the years I'd gone in and out of being a vegetarian. But now I was seeing horses in a different light, as fully sentient beings. The innate understanding I'd had as a child, and then lost as I became an adult, returned. I looked at cows and pigs and chickens, at all animals, and realised they're all sentient. I became vegan and looked for other ways to be with animals. I looked at Natural Horsemanship and Animal Communication. But really all I needed to do was look inside. Everything I needed to know was right there, it always had been, I’d just stopped listening.
Now I listen all the time. I don't spend my days telling horses what to do. I spend my days listening to what they have to say. And I continue learning as they continue teaching me. It's funny, I'd always said I preferred animals to humans, but the way I treated them wasn't congruent with what I was saying. When I stopped forcing them to my will, I saw them so differently. All over the world now I am connecting with others who are on a similar path to me. The understanding that animals are sentient beings with their own thoughts and emotions is now accepted globally by millions of people. The future for us all, regardless if we have two legs, four or none, fur, hair, feathers or scales, is looking good, but will still take some work. My contribution will be to help remove bits from horse’s mouths. This will be my contribution. And to help and guide people to see horses in a different way.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.Dip.Couns.