Equine Lock down  in Belgium

By Josepha Guillaume

When it comes to the mounted sports, Belgium undoubtedly emerges as one of the world leaders. A casual look at the statistics reveals that a lot about the equestrian world is either happening on the Belgium soil or on the Belgium blood. For example, ten percent of all the European 5-star competitions are taking place in Belgium. Six Belgian bred horses’ figure in the FEI top 20 list and 5 Belgian riders in top 25. On an average, almost 25% horses making it to international jumping finales are Belgian bred horses. And well, who can forget the Big Ben, (stay tuned for a story on this  mega star soon), who was born in Kalmthout (northern Belgium) and went on to become the only other horse to be in ‘Canadian Sports Hall of Fame’.

But all this was when word ‘Corona’ wasn’t topping the trending charts. A lot has changed since. To find 'what'  and 'how' we approached ‘dressage in hand’ specialist Josepha Guillaume.

Equine Lock Down In Belgium

Remembering the initial days of lock down, Josepha mentions, “Everything came to a full stop, everything was closed, nothing was open other than hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets and animal food stores for two months. The borders between European countries were closed. A walk around your neighborhood to give yourself and your dog some exercises was all that we could venture out for. Riding was not allowed either, to minimize the chance of rider accidents and keep the ICU’s cleared. As all events were prohibited, so were all Equestrian events. Police were patrolling the streets and borders nonstop. Drones were telling us to stay in our homes, the situation was surreal to say the least and felt rather war-like.”

“Finally the borders are open, and we can go and visit our families across the Dutch, German and French border, after two months of being separated.  It was such an incredible moment and I shall never forget the joy that was in my heart. If the whole covid situation has taught me one thing, it is to not take anything for granted anymore, especially not my family or the fact that we can freely cross borders at all times in Europe.”


Effect Of Covid on Equestrian World

Josepha recalls, “Obviously everyone has experienced and spent the lock down differently, but most riders I talked to, took the time to contemplate what they are doing with their horses and why. Reading those stacks of equestrian books normally no one really has time for, cleaning out tack rooms etc. I was just on my sabbatical from teaching, since a few months, to write my new book about ‘dressage in hand’. It so happened; the subject of my book became even more relevant than ever. You see, for me and all my students across Europe, not being allowed to ride wasn’t a problem at all in terms of having to pause the horses’ training. Although on one hand, I think that a two months’ pause might not at all be a bad thing for most horses, provided they can spend it outside in the paddocks with other horses. On the other hand, this long a break in training can result in serious drop in performance for the horses preparing for competitions."


As Josepha is a specialist of teaching horses all the dressage moves up to piaffe and passage, in hand, not being allowed to ride was not a problem at all. She works with rehab horses as well as performance and show horses to improve their performance, whether it be dressage, show jumping, eventing or endurance.

She explains: “During the lockdown, everyone who was able to perform dressage in hand was able to keep their horse’s training on point, and in some cases even improve on it. I reached out to as many riders as I could via my social media platforms about the benefits of knowing dressage in hand and tried to inspire them with photos and videos of how I was training my horses in hand during the lockdown. At that point the demand for the book I am writing, which was already vast, extended tremendously. Luckily, not being allowed to go anywhere also sped up the writing process and now I hope to launch it by coming winter.”


Getting Back To Basics

“I feel like many of us took a good hard look at all we were doing and started to wonder if we should continue this way. Bruce Lee, who always is of great inspiration to me, once said: “It is not daily increase but daily decrease, hack away the unessential. The closer to the source, the less wastage there is.” I don’t know how many others were consciously considering this but I do have heard and read all around me, of similar thoughts expressed of going back to the bare essentials, both in horse training as well as in what we all put ourselves to do. People are starting to ask themselves questions like: “Do we have to do this many shows, and do we have to say yes to shows that are actually hours of driving away? Who or what are we doing this for exactly? Is this what we want to do? Is this really necessary?” I have also seen equestrian competition organizers come up with new ways to test and challenge yourself and your horses in fun ways, without even having to leave your yard. I think the covid situation has given us the time to stop and think about how we actually want to spend our precious time. It also showed us that life is short and may end any minute. It became apparent that time with family and friends is precious and maybe we haven’t spent enough time with them, because being an equestrian has taken up all of our time.”


Contemplating these words while at the same time agreeing with them, we have to ask Josepha if she herself has changed anything coming out of the lock down. “In a way, yes.” She says. She continues, “Apart from the fact that spending more time with my family and friends has become a priority, I also became aware that I was always training my horses, or always working on the yard. I never really took the time anymore to just ‘be’ with them, to spend time with them, not doing anything, the same I do with family and friends. After all, horses are family and friends to many people, are they not? Just scratching their itchy spots where they wanted me too, sit with them while having coffee and listen to them chew their hay, or watch them play together, became one of my favorite things to do. Or simply take in their wonderful smell. When you smell horses all day, every day, you forget their wonderful smell and how that smell means everything is right with the world. That smell that will always lift any equestrian’s heart, no matter how heavy it is. It started to feel like an equine retreat at my home. I noticed a relaxation within myself and within the training with my horses, I had not had for a long time, without even realizing. I hear many more having had similar experiences. Instead of being busy all the time and not really having time to enjoy what is going on in the present, nor having time for the things that matter most, I feel that this is one big positive that has come out of this strange unreal situation, not just for equestrians, but perhaps for many people in general.”


It was perhaps not exactly the interview we expected, nevertheless, we hope you find as much inspiration in it as we have. We ask Josepha if she has anything else to say about the situation.

“Why yes”, she says, “Now that you mention it. Covid is probably here to stay and who knows what else might happen in the near future that might warrant similar situations where riding is no longer possible. Amongst the many reasons to learn about dressage in hand, this is a very good one!” Josepha says with a big smile.


Photos by © Ralph Scheffer

Visit Josepha’s website www.dressageinhand.com and drop a like on her facebook page www.facebook.com/josephaguillaume


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