Thursday, October 27, 2011
A Special Lesson with the Remarkable Bernard Sachsé
I recently had the opportunity to take a riding lesson with Bernard Sachsé, a truly remarkable man whom I’d never heard of until my trainer, Marie-Valentine, asked me whether I’d be interested in doing a clinic with him. She told me a little about him, mentioning she’d read his book a few years ago and had been blown away, not only by his background but by his incredible courage. I looked him up on the Internet, found his website and was immediately eager to work with him. I also ordered his book, “Sur mes Quatre Jambes” (On my Four Legs) on Amazon and, when it arrived a few days later I read it in one sitting, finally turning off the light at one thirty in the morning. If you can read in French I highly recommend it.
Classically trained in dressage at the Haras du Pin, one the most prestigious and rigorous French riding schools, Bernard Sachsé worked as a stuntman in movies and shows all over the world. He even rode horses on stage in ballet and opera performances, working with the likes of Maurice Béjart. His accounts of the difficulties of galloping up narrow ramps through curtains onto slippery stages and then back down the ramps in pitch black gave me goose-bumps. It is obvious from what he writes that most film directors or ballet producers have no idea how complicated their demands can be when it comes to working with horses.
Tragically, in 1994, Bernard lost the use of his legs on a film-set in Geneva. The accident took place in front of the cameras while performing a particularly dangerous stunt that the director wanted to edit into a previously shot polo match. Bernard had trot up, then make his horse rear and fall over backwards. For reasons he never understood, Bernard had not been allowed to ride the horse beforehand.
The cameras rolled and Bernard attempted the stunt only to be surprised by the horse’s apathetic reaction. Instead of going up into an energetic rear which would allow him to flip over backwards, he reared lazily, sank slowly on his haunches, and did a sort of floppy tuck-roll. The second take was hardly better, and the head stuntman snarled disdainfully at Bernard, asking him whether he wanted him to do it instead. Irritated, Bernard told him he’d try again. The third attempt showed improvement, but by then Bernard had come to the conclusion that the horse was neither strong nor enthusiastic enough to perform the stunt flamboyantly. He told himself he’d have to make the most of the tuck-roll and got the horse to perform it with a little more oomph by the fourth take, which satisfied the film director who suggested they move on to the next scene.
The head stuntman, however, intervened. He said the horse could go higher, that they would do it again.
Bernard did as he was told. His horse reared, tuck-rolled, and Bernard lay on the ground, waiting for the director to yell “Cut!”. Unfortunately, the horse didn’t wait, and as the animal struggled to its feet, Bernard felt one of its legs slip beneath his back. He recalls an elusive cold trickle down his spine. He knew immediately that his spinal cord had been damaged.
The head stuntman urged him to get up, saying it had been the best take, that the horse had reared far more flashily this time. But Bernard couldn’t move. Soon afterwards he was transported by helicopter to the Cantonal Hospital in Geneva where
the doctors informed him he’d spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Rehab was a nightmare, the pain horrendous, yet Bernard was determined that before too long he’d ride again. When he spoke of this to the doctors they just raised their eyebrows; as far as they were concerned the notion was inconceivable. Nevertheless, in March 1995, only nine months after his accident, two friends helped him up onto one of his most trustworthy horses, a twenty-four year old schoolmaster. Bernard’s wife, Agnes, held the horse’s head and, once Bernard was ready, lead him forwards a few paces. Bernard was terrified, the motion made him seasick, the height gave him vertigo. He panicked, tensed, holding onto the neck strap for dear life. And then suddenly, magically, the fear dissolved and his body remembered what to do. The horse flexed to the left, to the right, offering a collected walk, even some lateral movement, a hint of piaffe. That night Bernard went to bed exhausted but high on happiness. Pretty soon he set himself a new goal; to participate in the French handicapped dressage Championships.
Would you believe he won the gold medal, two years running? Would you believe he taught himself to trot and canter, was selected to participate in the Para-Olympic games in Atlanta? Bernard didn’t win, but came fourth in the individual programs (the judges said he “didn’t appear handicapped enough”!) and played a decisive part in the French team’s bronze medal. Four years later he took part in the Sydney Para-Olympic games, where once again his apparent ease on horseback played against him, placing him in a less severely handicapped category of riders (he recalls watching the winner warm up her horse in rising trot and “standing” canter).
Bernard Sachsé lives in a small village in northern France where he owns an equestrian property. He rides every day, gives lessons to local riders, and offers clinics for external riders who can stable their horses at his facility. He travels all over France, and regularly visits the French speaking area of Switzerland to teach.
My lesson with him two weeks ago was fantastic. First of all, I had no idea what to expect from a teacher in a wheelchair, and secondly I didn’t know how Qrac would react to being ridden in new surroundings. This was the first time I’d be riding him anywhere but at “home”. Also, I was flying solo as the friend who was supposed to accompany me and help me out with Qrac suddenly needed root canal treatment, poor thing! Whisking me further from my comfort zone was the fact that it was very windy, that I had no idea where the equestrian centre to which I was travelling was located, that it was over an hour and a half away, and that I’d be returning home in rush hour traffic. Quite a big deal for a chicken like me!
Of course, when I arrived at my stables, Qrac had rolled in his field and was sporting muddy dreadlocks instead of a long lustrous mane. Thank goodness he’d been wearing his outdoor rug as I’d have been frantic if he’d been thoroughly caked in mud! I didn’t have much time to give him a thorough grooming as my other trainer, Greg, had to leave our stables at one o’clock at the latest, and I wanted him to help me load Qrac in case he played me up, which he did, if only for a minute or two. With my lesson scheduled for four, leaving just after one gave me more than enough travelling time, but under the circumstances I didn’t have much choice.
The journey went smoothly, I drove slowly so as not to arrive insanely early. The only hairy moment happened when I overshot the turn-off for the equestrian centre and had to find a place where I could make a U-turn. This always gives me palpitations as I have a terrible time reversing my trailer and am constantly terrified of finding myself stuck in a narrow dead end (it’s happened!). But the saints were with me and I found a fantastically giant circular turnaround space and arrived at the stables with plenty of times to spare, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing as I soon discovered that Qrac doesn’t really like standing in his trailer unless I stand by the side door talking to him.
I was a little worried about unloading him by myself, but the lady who’d organized the clinic arrived (there wasn’t another soul around) and kindly offered to help. Qrac came out slowly, even regally, arching his neck to survey his surroundings. He didn’t prance or get all nervous and silly, so I was very proud of him. The lady held his halter while I saddled him up, pointing out the canter track around a cross country course where I could walk him to warm him up before the lesson. I climbed on and we set off. Qrac felt a little electric as we stepped through the gates and onto the track; the wind was blowing flurries of golden leaves all over the place, and the cross country course jumps looked a little scary to him (to me too!) but I just chatted to him non-stop and he settled down and strode around almost like he owned the place.
I was walking Qrac around the arena when Bernard Sachsé arrived, coming straight from the airport. We chatted for a while; he asked me some questions about Qrac (it turned out that he was very familiar with the Massa stud farm in the south of France where Qrac was born, and had just come back from there with a new horse), what we could and couldn’t do, whether there were any particular problems. He came across as very friendly and down to earth, very much like he does in his book. His assistant hooked me up with a wireless earpiece so he could talk to me easily from a distance and the lesson began.
By this time a photographer had arrived, as well as another person with a video camera, which was nice as I’d been relying on my unfortunate root canal friend to take some photos. Qrac was a little spooky in the arena, but Bernard spoke to me calmly, giving me tips, getting me to breathe deep in my belly, to “think” my horse calm, to get him to listen and connect with me. Once Qrac had settled, we moved on to shoulder-in where Bernard worked on sharpening my awareness of where my weight was distributed in the saddle, and where I place my legs. At one point he specifically told me to put my right buttock deeper into the saddle, to sit taller and to use my outside leg (we were tracking left) a little further back and apply a more regular pressure. I immediately felt Qrac’s back come up to meet me as his hind leg stepped a little further beneath him. Magic!
We worked on the trot in a similar way, Bernard gradually getting me to ask Qrac for more collection by using shoulder in, halts in shoulder in, and then moving straight back into trot. Qrac seemed to be enjoying himself; he certainly felt fantastic to me. I don’t think he’d ever offered me such a good trot; he felt connected and forward and springy. The canter work was great too; Bernard really got us going forwards and Qrac’s rear engines were firing on all pistons, giving me such great sensations that I couldn’t stop smiling. By the time we finished (and I was sad to
finish, the whole experience having been so utterly more-ish!) Qrac felt wonderfully supple and loose and was so attentive to me that I could transition from canter to walk simply by lifting my solar plexus. This, of course, made me smile even more!
I thanked Bernard for his help, chatting for a while (he really liked my horse!), and then took a very sweaty Qrac (not to mention a very sweaty me) back around the canter track to cool off. If Qrac was strutty before the lesson, now he thought he was seriously hot stuff, striding around, rolling his shoulders. He was tired though, and was happy to get back to the trailer where, once I’d undressed him and suggested a carrot, he walked into the trailer all doe-eyed and goody- goodyish. I could hardly believe how well behaved he’d been during the entire day, and how well we’d coped just the two of us!
I’d love to take a clinic with Bernard Sachsé over several days, and might consider trailering Qrac to his centre in the north of France if ever I have the opportunity. I’ll definitely take lessons with him if he comes back to Switzerland next year. I found the experience truly inspiring, mega motivating, and also really fun. I’ve rarely felt so much admiration for someone; having read his book before I met him definitely heightened my respect for him. I loved his special charisma, the sparkle in his eye, his cheeky sense of humour, his respect and passion for horses. I loved how involved he got with my ride, how he gave me the feeling of riding with me every step of the way.
Have you ever had a similar experience? Do you know anyone who has overcome a dramatic accident and willed himself/herself back into the saddle?