Take your time. If there is one message that Dame Jools Topp would like to get through to riders and horse owners, that is it.
“Everyone’s always in a hurry. We’re always busy. But before anything else we do with horses, before we start to train them, before we even get on them, we have to make sure we are in the moment with the horse. The horse has to be with you,” she says.
Jools and her great friends, Teresa Trull and Michaela Evans of NZ Horse Help, follow the philosophy of the vaquero tradition, a method of training that dates back to the 17th century, and which has become a way of life for the three women.
Vaquero has its origins in Spain, and evolved though the vast cattle ranches of what is now Mexico and south-western California.With their lassos, Western-style saddles, elaborately fringed chaps, and colourful bandanas; it’s easy to confused vaqueros with Wild West cowboys – but in reality, the refined precision of the work is more akin to classical dressage.
It’s not something Jools can begin to explain in just a day. A “finished” vaquero bridle horse has as many years of painstaking and progressive training behind it as a Grand Prix dressage mount.
But she’s just so thrilled to have found her happy place in the equestrian world; simply sharing it with others is part of the buzz.
“It’s not a discipline we teach. It’s a way of life… a concept,” she says. “There are no short cuts. Spend time on the ground, spend time in the saddle.”
“It’s not new, what we are teaching. It’s old – but it’s so old, it’s kind of new again!”
The primary aim is a calm, respectful and safer horse – precisely what a vaquero needs to carry out his job. “Your life does depend on it when you’re working cattle on a 20,000 acre ranch. If you fall off, you don’t get home. If you don’t have good gear, you get sore,” Jools says.
NZ Horse Help started when Teresa and her partner, former NZ dressage rider Michaela, moved from the US to base themselves at Jools’ Liberty Circle ranch, near Helensville. Jools and Teresa, who is also an accomplished musician, met at a Michigan music festival. Talk backstage soon turned to horses, and though Teresa, Jools began to learn about the vaquero way.
She was already well along a journey of exploration into what’s often called “natural horsemanship”, having started the journey when she learned a little of Parelli. “The great thing about Parelli is that it made me start looking at some different ways of training,” Jools explains.
Teresa’s own journey with horses has profoundly changed after working with the legendary Buck Brannaman, and she dedicated her time from then on to helping people develop their horsemanship skills.
“We see people struggling with their horses. A lot of times they’ve gone for plenty of lessons, but they are still struggling. That’s because most trainers are trying to teach a discipline, like dressage or jumping, and what the horse actually needs is a foundation, and that comes down first and foremost to control on the ground.
“You get to a horse’s head by learning how to move its feet.”
Jools says many riders come to Liberty Circle as almost a last ditch chance to find harmony with their horses. “They’ll say something like, “It’s not fun any more, I’m tired of being scared…if you can’t help me I’m going to give up riding.”
They often arrive expecting their horses will be retrained – but more often find it’s the rider who needs the work.
This is not meant to sound derogatory about the riders – far from it. Jools says they never, ever judge the people who come for help, and often find that actually, they don’t give themselves enough credit.
“We’re none of us born with this stuff. A lot of people will come to us saying it’s their own fault their horse is playing up “because they are chicken”, but they need to be given credit for recognising something is wrong, that their horse is not happy, and that they are trying to find a solution.
“People need tools to take away, so they know what to reach for. We don’t want to undermine people’s confidence – usually they just need a few more skills.”
Jools, Teresa and Michaela strive hard not ever to be judgemental about the various facets of the equestrian world; feeling this is terribly detrimental.
“The thing about this concept is that there is basically no distinction between the foundation of what you do with your horse whether you want to ride in the forest or do top level dressage, or show jump, or go in endurance races… all of those things are goals. What we teach is the foundations for having a soft, calm and athletic horse.
“After that, you can set your goals in whatever direction you choose.”
Take dressage, for example. Jools says every single horse is capable of doing even the highest dressage movements, providing it is supple enough.
What’s difficult – and impossible if the horse has any degree of tension – is getting the movements both on cue and transitioning from one gait to the next with no change in attitude from the horse.
“It’s a very big ask – it takes years and years,” she admits.
Jools shows me how she works on the ground with her three own horses – the full Arabian Intrigue (‘Triglet’) who is her main riding horse; Ice, a Gisborne-bred former rodeo bucker she bought as a project because she loved the light way he moved, and the gorgeous Gypsy Cob/Welsh three-year-old, Texas, who she is just starting.
All three go from standing quietly in what looks like a doze to full animation at just a minimal signal from Jools. She calls this “dialling up and dialling down energy”, and says it’s vital the rider can direct the amount of energy required.
‘If you want to do any kind of athletic pursuit at all with your horse, movements that are extraordinary, explosive speed and strength… you have to be able to let them show that without tension,” she says.
Just as important is letting horses express themselves. “We can’t stop them from being horses. They are always going to be prey animals.”
But in an attempt to keep them safe, she says, many riders “shut down” their horses. Keeping them boxed and bandaged, paddocked alone and wrapped up 24/7 in hoods, rugs and tail bags all combines to prevent horses from being horses.
“Nobody wants their horse to get hurt but if we don’t let them express themselves, and don’t let them play, I think we are sacrificing physical scars for emotional ones,” she says.
“We ask a lot of these wonderful, magical creatures. We want them to be quiet and calm, good citizens. Most horses just want peace in the valley. When a horse is described as dangerous, or bad, we prefer to describe them as lost. They don’t have to be lost.
“I wake up every morning excited by the horses, and it’s great that people see us as having something to offer them. We can’t fix everyone, but we know we have good things to help people.”
A lifetime with horses
Jools and Lynda Topp grew up on a dairy farm just out of Huntly; their father Peter was a devoted horseman who played polo and whipped for the local Maramarua Hunt.
“We did pony club, but we spent most of our time yahooing all over the farm on our horses,” says Jools. “And from when we were about 9 or 10, Dad played polo every weekend so we went along to help … that was a real eye-opener because they were screaming out for people to groom with their strings of ponies. We’d have to warm up the ponies, which was a great apprenticeship because every single one was different – some mad, some quiet and some scary!
“So Dad instilled in us that real love of horses. We were as rough as guts in some ways, but it set us up for life.”
While Lynda had some success show jumping as a teenager, Jools says her own horse was a contrary mare called Carey, who’d been an orphaned foal given to the Topps as a “job lot” with a herd of calves.
“She was the meanest horse I met in my life – kicked, bit and bucked me off, and was hopeless at jumping, but I loved her anyway. I really had to strive to have fun on her, which was always a challenge, and I figured out how to get by without getting killed.”
Moving away from home in their late teens meant life without horses for a while, as their music careers began to blossom.
But Jools said her heart was never truly whole during those years. Inevitably, the pull of the equine world grew stronger, and though she was living in Grey Lynn in central Auckland, Jools eventually found herself the owner of Winnie, a little quarter horse mare who she grazed out at Piha on the west coast.
“I’d go out to her to spend some time – it was just magic. And I used to say to her, ‘Winnie, one day you will wake up on my ranch and I will look out of my window in the morning and see you there…’
It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened for Jools and Winnie. The mare enjoyed the final months of her life in the paddocks at Liberty Circle ranch, until Jools finally and lovingly laid her to rest at the grand old age of 32.