How I got to where I am today!
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN I have loved horses for as long as I can remember! I’m that kid who comes from a non-horsey family who pestered my parents for so long they finally gave in and took me for lessons at our local riding school. They thought it was a phase and I’d grow out of it, HAH! At 8yrs old they brought me my first pony, Patsy. Patsy was a fairly green broke 4yr old pony, priced within my parents affordability, she was recommended by my pony club instructor, because you know “we could grow and learn together”, where have you heard that before? Although I loved that pony, it’s safe to say we proved the saying “green on green makes black and blue” to be very true! If I hadn’t loved horses so much it might’ve just put me off all together, perhaps that was my parents plan?
I was fortunate enough to find an absolutely awesome 2nd pony called Fizal who was a go anywhere, do anything confidence builder that I so desperately needed! A few pony’s followed after him, working my way through the pony club certificates, showjumping, pony club one day events, dressage etc, just a kid having some fun with her ponies! There wasn’t a weekend I didn’t have my mum cart me around to some horse related activity. Thanks mum!! And Dad for working so hard to support it all.
I had a brief break from horses after I sold my last pony when I was 17yrs old and could no longer compete in the pony classes, I had a boyfriend (10yrs later he became my husband) and at that point he’d become more interesting than the horses.
At 22 my dad and I thought it’d be a grand idea to buy a couple of yearlings from the Karaka yearling thoroughbred sales with the idea of preparing them for a career in racing. I started one of them under saddle (with a lot of ignorance about how much skill is actually involved in starting a young horse), anyway I got the job done and off to the racing trainer he went. Turns out he wasn’t fast enough and came home after a couple of slow trials. I thought this was awesome because now I had a young horse that I could train towards being a sport horse.
THE DAY IT ALL CHANGED
It was the 15th May 2005, I was schooling this young thoroughbred when what ever I was doing at the time just wasn’t ok with him, he reared up, fell over backwards and landed on me. I knew right away that I had injured my back quite badly, I was laying in a heap on the ground wondering if I could actually feel my toes wriggling in my boots or was it a phantom pain. The possibility of being paralised flashed through my mind. The ambulance arrived and the paramedics scraped me up off the ground and that is the start of how I got to where I am today. Having never had any major accidents or broken bones, it became apparent that at 23yrs old I was making up for it in one foul swoop!
I was resigned to 6weeks of being bed ridden, pretty much flat on my back for the entire time. The nurses would come and roll me every 2hrs to stop bed sores from forming, I can still remember the pain the first time they did, it was excruciating. After a few weeks of sponge baths I was allowed to be lifted, still laying down, onto a stretcher trolley, and wheeled down to a shower room (the highlight of my day because I got to leave my room), where it was such a relief to have the water running over you, even if someone was washing and hosing you off, and I could have my hair washed!! I tell you it’s not until the simple things in life are taken away from you that you truly begin to understand just how much we all take for granted.
6 weeks felt like an eternity, my muscles atrophied a lot and when it came time to sit up and start to think about standing/walking it was both exciting and scary all at the same time. They sat me up a little more each day in order for my body to adjust and so I wouldn’t faint. The day I finally managed to swing my legs over the side of the bed was the most unusual feeling as my feet touched the floor, it felt like I was walking on glass, the soles of my feet were so sensitive, it took a couple of days of just rubbing my feet on the floor before I felt like I could try to stand up. Finally it was standing day!! With a belt that had handles around my waste, a zimmer frame in front of me and two physios ready to help me up, it was time to stand!!! And stand I did for about 20 seconds and then I had to sit down again, it was exhausting.
I was determined to get out of the hospital in the next 5 days, they had told me that I had to be able to walk with my zimmer frame all the way to the end of the corridor and I had to be able to negotiate stairs with crutches before I could even think about going home. SO I got to work, by the 3rd day I could get myself to the bathroom, by day 5 I had achieved my goal of the corridor, it felt like I had run a marathon!! I could go home!!
RECOVERY AND REHABILITATION
This is really where the hard work started for me, my body had begun to heal but my mind was a wash of fear, anxiety, pain, self doubt and uncertainty. I was VERY good at covering all of this up as no one knew I had any of this going on. I’m not sure why I didn’t ask for help but perhaps it was a fear of judgement or burden or that I should just be getting on with it “feel the fear and do it anyway” and it would all just be ok! The physical recovery was much faster than the mental recovery. I knew I still wanted horses to be in my life, I couldn’t imagine not having them in it. Most of the medical professionals told me that I shouldn’t ride again as did most of my family, who I now understand were coming from a place of love and not wanting me to get hurt again. This added to the mental stress I was feeling as it just fed those mental and emotional barriers I was building in my mind. The idea of even going out in the paddock gave me the sweats, let alone the idea of getting back in the saddle.
It was approx 3yrs after my accident that they realised things hadn’t healed as well as they’d hoped and they decided to operate to fuse my L5-S1 vertebrae together. The next 18months was one of the worst times of my life. I had just married my childhood sweetheart, we were building a new home together, it was supposed to be one of the best times of my life, wasn’t it! I wasn’t sleeping because of the pain, I couldn’t get up in the morning to go to work (because I wasn’t sleeping), it was quickly becoming a downward spiral, and I couldn’t see much in the way or light at the end of the tunnel. I secretly cried a lot! I so desperately wanted my old life back! I wanted my confidence back, my smile and to be back with my horses. It was my younger brother who was living overseas at the time who phoned one morning and asked me if I was alright. For the first time I finally admitted to someone that I wasn’t. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t here and it was easier to talk to someone who wasn’t living it with me. I think I had just had enough of feeling like crap! After all I was 26yrs old and supposed to be enjoying life. He asked me what I was passionate about, what would get me out of bed in the morning? He knew it was the horses, and I admitted to him that I was scared of them (something I hadn’t yet acknowledged even to myself). I will eternally be greatful for the wise advice he then gave to me. He said that if I was scared of them then why didn’t I just go and hang out with them over the fence, take them a carrot and just be, with no intentions! Up until that point in my life I had never just gone and hung out with my horses, I had always had an agenda. That was my turning point! Before too long I had gained the confidence to climb the fence and to sit in the paddock with them, it became my safe place, where I could let go of everything and just sit, it was my therapy couch. I could see the light again, I’d bury my head in their neck and take a deep breath and all of my worries would melt away.
Once I began reconnecting with my horses, I realised that I needed to do something differently if I was to continue this journey towards creating a partnership with them. I realised my entire life with horses had been about me telling them what to do rather than learning how to understand the horse, and create a willing partnership.
Time to find a new path!
I was fortunate enough to have a very interesting neighbour at the time. I very nearly drove off the road one day when I saw my him riding bareback and brideless in his big open paddock. They looked as if they were dancing. I couldn’t even imagine doing that in a small pen let alone a big open field. I decided to call in and have a chat about what he was doing and more importantly find out how I could do that with my horses. He happened to have an intro to horsemanship clinic coming up in a couple of weeks that he thought would be a good place for me to get started. So I signed up, booked a transporter for my horse as I had no horse trailer and I wouldn’t have been able to get him on a trailer anyway. I spent the next couple of weeks in anticipation about this new, exciting, scary chapter in my life with horses.
The clinic day came and it took the transporter and myself over an hour to load my horse onto the truck, but we got it done and made it to the clinic! I unloaded what resembled a fire breathing dragon, who I’m sure had grown a few hands, I was petrified! I cried and felt very inadequate, what the bloody hell was I doing here and what would everyone else think of this girl and her crazy horse. The instructor could obviously see that I was in a little trouble, he quietly wandered over to me and asked if he could please use my horse for a little demonstration, I think I might’ve desperately thrown the rope to him and said go for it. Well he worked with that horse for about 5mins, he guided his feet with such deliberate and accurate intention, with a confidence I had never seen in a person, while at the same time empathy and leadership I had never encountered either. He had that horse following him around like a lamb!! I was hooked and knew that I NEEDED to learn this stuff, not only to have fun with my horse but to simply feel safe around them.
I quickly realised that I was going to have to unlearn a lot of what I had been taught via traditional methods and that I really didn’t know as much as I thought I did. It was a lesson in humility and learning to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. The conscious incompetence phase of learning. The added advantage for me was that there was never any pressure to ride. There was so much to learn about Online and Liberty, I didn’t actually put my foot back in the stirrup until 4yrs after my accident.
MY NEW OBSESSION
I began learning as much as I possibly could, attended clinic after clinic, 1 week super camps, made life long friendships, this was a community where I felt safe, encouraged and inspired.
It was at a 1 week super camp that I finally decided that I was ready to get back in the saddle. It was a process. I had to be very aware of my fear thresholds. I had to take myself to the ledge but not throw myself off the cliff so to speak. So to begin with I could only step up on the mounting block, then off again without feeling like I wanted to vomit. By acknowledging these thresholds and using approach and retreat I was able to finally put my foot in the stirrup and stand up in the saddle, then back down again. Finally I was up there sitting on the horse. This whole process probably took around 30mins. I don’t think I could’ve achieved that in any other environment, everyone at that camp wanted me to succeed and I could feel that, I will be forever greatful for their support. By the end of that day I was trotting around on my horse in a taped off round pen with a smile on my face from ear to ear.
I was working my way through my Parelli levels and could now get to work on the Freestyle and Finesse areas of study.
I ended up realising that my thoroughbred just wasn’t going to be the right horse to carry on with at this part of my journey, in order to preserve and grow my confidence, I set about finding a new partner.
MY NEW PARTNER AND BIGGEST TEACHER
Hail came into my life as a rising 3yr old who had been bred by one of my very best friends. His mother was a beautiful old school Polish Arabian mare, called Rainfall and his dad was Dutch Warmblood stallion Voltaire II. I had known him since he was born and could only have dreamt that I would own a horse like him one day. Well that day came! He hasn’t had what you’d call the most consistent of foundations as a young horse as not long after he was started I found that I was pregnant with our first daughter, Matilda! It had taken us so long to actually get pregnant that I chose not to ride much while I was pregnant, lucky for us we could still work on our Online and Liberty together. After Matilda was born it was the perfect time to spend with him, I’d put her to bed, take the baby monitor out to the paddock and away we’d go. I remember taking a 6month old Matilda along to a 1 week super camp, my mum came along as my nanny for the week. She would give me a holler when the baby woke up and needed a feed, so I’d ride over, hop off, feed her, then mum would take her off for a walk/sleep in the push chair. Thanks mum for always being there to support me, couldn’t have done half of this without you!
You have believed in me at times I didn’t believe in myself.
I then found myself pregnant with baby number 2 when Matilda was only 8months old. How on earth was I going to juggle two young kids and find the time for my horse. I seriously considered selling him, I even offered him to a friend of mine who I knew could continue to develop him the way I was and give him an amazing home. What was I thinking!!! Lucky for me she wasn’t in a position to take him at that time, so he stayed with me. I figured I owed him the time after all he had given me. After Charlotte was born, I made the decision to make my horsemanship a priority, and that this was what I wanted to be doing with my life. But how on earth was I going to do that? Well I am also the kind of person who thinks out loud, has bold ideas without plans, I’m fairly spontaneous/impulsive, when I make up my mind about something, I want it and I want it now!!! Just ask my poor husband who has heard every crazy idea I’ve ever had.
THE WILD ONES
In 2013 I was approached by HUHANZ to foster and handle some wild ponies that they were rescuing from the East Coast. They were supposedly Morgan x Kaimanawa 2yr olds. There were 5 of them and I agreed to take them all on. They arrived in the middle of the night after a long journey, as the truck ramp came down, I began to realise just how much work I had gotten myself into. I had gone back to work as a Real Estate agent, had 2 toddlers and my own horses! I can still remember seeing in the moonlight, their little legs shaking as they got a glimpse of their new home. A couple of them found their way gingerly down the ramp while two of them lept from the top of the ramp and spread eagled on landing. Needless to say those two were the hardest to tame. It was an interesting experience for me and I still credit those little ponies for being some of my best teachers. They didn’t lie or fill in for you, ever!! They really taught me the meaning of “knowing where to be, when to be there, what to do when you get there and when to quit doing what I was doing”. I got three of them tame and to a point where they could be safely rehomed. The other two we adopted, we called them Smokey and Bandit. I went on to start Bandit lightly under saddle and began working with Smokey. A lovely family over in the Hawkes Bay ended up buying both of them and I believe they had a great time with them on their sheep and beef station.
THE POWER OF SUGGESTION
It was at a camp with a visiting Parelli instructor from Australia, one of the instructors gave me some advice about how to do something (I can’t actually remember what it was) but I can remember what came after it, “you’ll want to know that for when you ride with Pat one day”. WHAT!!!! Ride with Pat Parelli, I had never even thought that would ever be a reality, after all he lives in the USA, I have two very young kids, a job, a husband, I’m not good enough, I could never ride with Pat, or could I? I don’t even think she realises how much of an impact that comment had on me. She had planted a seed that just continued to grow. I began to wonder, what if!!!
MY FIRST INTERNATIONAL CLINIC I then found myself at my first international clinic in the November of 2013, I had gone to watch Pat and Linda teach in Sydney then travelled down to Melbourne, Victoria, to participate in a clinic with a some very skilled horsemen and women supporting one of Parelli’s highest ranking instructors at the time.
The wonderful Kaye Thomas had leant me a horse called Willow and had invited me to stay at her lovely facility. Needless to say I checked my tent every night for snakes. It was this environment of being surrounded by such wonderful horsemen and women that I decided I was going to get myself to Colorado, how, I had no idea, but I had made the decision, I just needed to figure out how to get there. I realised that in order to get the knowledge I so desperately craved I needed to immerse myself it in. I had never gone to university so this was going to be my degree!
MY JOURNEY TO USA May 2014 I was on a plane to the USA! Destined for the Parelli ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. In a matter of 3 weeks I had enrolled in a 4 week Fast Track course at the ranch, I had found a room to rent for the month and I had found a fantastic lease horse for my time there as well.
At this point I have to confess that I was still scared of cantering, I did it but I was terrified every time I did!! It was like giddy up, but just a little bit. That fear was still there, even after all of this time! How on earth was I ever going to be able to canter around bareback and bridleless? I was so excited to be going to the ranch, it was like a dream come true, fingers crossed they could help me overcome my fear.
Pagosa Springs is a lovely little town surrounded my beautiful mountains, with a beautiful river that runs right through the middle of it with natural hot springs along the edge. I felt like I had arrived home! The ranch is situated up on a mountain with a view you can only dream of, looking out to the snow capped mountains, I couldn’t quite believe I was here. I got settled in, met my lease horse Lily, who was a lovely Quarter horse mare, met some of the other participants in our course, had a tour of the ranch and went to town to get a few supplies. For the next 4 weeks we did nothing but horses, horses, horses oh and with the odd trip to the hot springs to soak the sore muscles. I was in heaven!
WHEN PREPARATION MEETS OPPORTUNITY
It was in my 3rd week of being there that the opportunity to stay on and go up to Pats barn came up. WHAT!!!! I never in my wildest of dreams thought this would ever happen! I still had a lot to organise, I had to make sure everyone at home was onboard with the idea, I had a family to consider. Lucky for me they are my biggest cheerleaders and we managed to get things organised so I could stay on for a further 2 months. I completed my course, packed up my things and moved into a little cabin in the woods on the ranch.
My first day in Pats barn was a little daunting to say the least, I had seen him around, he had been to talk to our course but I was now working and learning in HIS barn. These were his horses, some of them his top performance horses, no pressure! The first morning I was given an orientation and run down on how things ran at the barn. Then we were on horses in the Big Top (Pats covered arena at the top of the ranch), I had never really ridden much in a western saddle and here I was on one of the performance cutting horses working a flag for the very first time! OMG it was awesome! You just sit there and hang on as the horse works up and down the side of the building following the flag as if it is a cow. I was bracing in my stirrups quite a bit, so Pat told me to shut my eyes and feel the horse, shut my eyes, really???? Pat said to do it so I guess I better do it. Well what a ride! I loved every minute of it. For the next couple of months I was assigned specific horses to develop each week, gathered cattle just about every day, worked cattle, played with horses at Liberty, rode bareback and bridleless, played with young horses, more seasoned horses, trail rides in the forest, hiking on our days off, swimming in the lake, made lifelong friendships and guess what, got over my fear of cantering. I didn’t want to go home! It was one of the best summers of my life!
RICHELLE MARSH - WALNUT RIDGE EQUESTRIAN
But reality was, I had to go home. I found it really hard as all of a sudden I was back to being a mum! I found the balance of trying to include my horsemanship quite difficult. I missed Colorado and the time I had to spend on just me. I got a “real” job as an office manager for the next 18months, every day I’d sit at my computer dreaming about what I could be doing with my horses. I felt a little like a rat in a cage! So my family and I decided to create a space for me to not only continue my own learning and the development of horses but also a place where people could come and have their own experience similar to the one I had in Colorado, right here in NZ. I am passionate about changing the lives of horses and humans alike. This horsemanship journey has been way more about myself than the horse.
Richelle Marsh – Walnut Ridge Equestrian has been operating for the past 4 years now, offering lessons, clinics, foundation training for horses, camps, kids clubs and hosting international clinicians.
I have become quite involved with judging the sport of Cowboy Challenge, it is a fantastic avenue to put the principles of horsemanship to purpose, testing out the relationship you have with your horse for people of all levels and ages. The emphasis is on horsemanship rather than simply getting the obstacle completed. I am looking forward to helping the sport continue to grow as well as getting out and competing a few of my own horses.
HERE'S TO SILVER LININGS I think the future of horsemanship is bright, I will continue to be a student of the horse and to share what I learn with others. I have met some amazing people and teachers along my journey, they continue to enrich and add value to my journey, I am forever greatful for that day I had my accident as my path might have been quite different and to be honest I wouldn't change a thing!!! In every dark cloud there is a silver lining. I can’t wait to meet you and your horse some day on your journey. If you ever see me out and about, please make sure you come and say hi.
RICHELLE MARSH - Walnut Ridge Equestrian