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My Trip to Sweden with Gillian Higgins

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

As I write this blog I have recently returned from an incredible few days away with someone who has become a good friend over the last 3 or so years. Gillian Higgins called me a few months ago to say she had been invited to Sweden to present one of her painted horse lecture demonstrations and was wondering if I would like to accompany her on the trip to be a helping hand. How could I say no!?

The trip soon came around and off we headed, flying in to Copenhagen, Denmark and then taking a train from the airport to Flyinge in Sweden.

Gillian has been to Sweden before to present, although at different venues to the one we were going to this time, but this was my first ever trip to Sweden, and it didn’t disappoint, what an incredible country and what an incredible welcome we received when we arrived.

We were headed for Flyinge AB, which is an equestrian school, where students from 16 years of age and upwards can learn Equine Science, Farriery or Professional Rider Skills. But this is a school with a difference. It is based at what used to be the Swedish National Warmblood Stud. The buildings date back to 1663 and the place is steeped in history.

On arrival at the train station one of the school staff members, Cissi, was there to meet us and drive us to the school. As we drove down the drive lined with beautiful stone houses she explained to us that these houses would have been where the staff, grooms and riders would have lived when the stud was fully functioning. They are now private houses.

We then passed a large building that she explained used to be the stud veterinary centre, this is now a huge on site tack & feed shop. All around we could see small electric fenced turnout pens with horses snoozing in the sunshine and we then came to a stunning outdoor arena in front of a yellow mansion house. This used to be the main house where the stud owner lived and is also in fact the house where world number 1 showjumper Henrick von Eckermann lived as a child. This was the house Gillian and I would be staying in for the weekend!

Once we had set down our bags it was time for a tour of the school. Cissi and her colleague Victoria showed us around and gave us some history on this phenomenal place.

I lost count of the number of stable barns and indoor arenas, stalls where the stallions would have lived and areas where they would have been paraded and trained.

So many fascinating things that I had not seen before such as automatic feeding systems and a covered exercise ring where young horses would have been encouraged to move around in a group.

Historic types of bits and shoes, hundreds of trophies, rosettes and plaques displaying names of horses that had been bred at the stud and their lineage.

We also had a chance to explore the canter track, the woodland hacking routes and cross country training area where some of the stud’s treasured horses have been buried and remembered with headstones. The current stud barn, the forge, the horse walkers, classrooms and the amazing Active Stable living system (I plan to write more about this in an upcoming blog).

Of course most of the stables are now filled with school horses (some of which were bred at the school) and also some of the student’s own horses. There are 120 horses on site, and 200 students. Students aged 16-18 live on site, older students commute from home or from offsite student accommodation. I wondered if the students fully appreciated what an incredible place they get to spend time in and learn at. I had never seen anything like this place before, I was in absolute amazement walking around and exploring.

We noticed that on top of all these ancient buildings were huge nests with giant birds in them. These were Storks, the Stork is a protected bird in Flyinge, and their nests are not allowed to be moved. So platforms are built on the roof tops for the storks to build their nests on, just in case any roof repairs were required, and then the platforms can be moved and then put back without disturbing the nest. There were storks all over the place!

After a day of travelling and exploring and having a good catch up with Gillian over a few cups of tea, it was time for an early night before all the prep for the demo.

The following day was horse selection and rehearsal day. Mette, one of the school instructors had a selection of her students that would be helping us for the next couple of days to prep for the demo, paint horses and then perform the demo.

This demo had been long awaited by the people of Sweden as Gillian has not travelled internationally since 2019 due to the Covid lockdowns. 600 people had purchased tickets and some were travelling a big distance to come and see it.

Gillian’s plan was to have 1 lunge horse and 1 ridden horse for the demo, so we also had a student handler and a student rider. As well as a further 5 students that I was going to be heading up as the ‘arena party’ to move poles and jumps into place during the demo.

After seeing a small selection of the school horses move and negotiate the poles and jumps Gillian settled on a horse called Slide as the lunge horse. Slide was a 14 year old bay German bred warmblood that has been with the school since he was 6yrs old. He competes at Advanced dressage and 1m20 show jumping. He was to be handled by student Wilma who is on the Professional Rider Programme in her second year.

The ridden horse was to be Wallstreet. He was a 10 year old grey Swedish bred Warmblood that has been at the school since a 2 year old. He was competing up to 1m20 showjumping and was to be ridden by student Henrick Soderwall who is also a student on the Professional Rider Programme in his first year and competing up to 1m35 showjumping.

By the end of the afternoon we had our performers and our arena party and we were all up to speed with what we would be doing during the lecture demonstration. It was now time for us all to get some rest ready for what was going to be a very full on day ahead.

Demo day started at 10am, we were to be painting the horses in what used to be the old stallion stalls. There was a solarium in there which was great as it’s very handy for helping the paint to dry on the horses. We had 2 tables set out, one for paint and one for the all important refreshments. And we had plenty of students and also staff (including the onsite vet) on hand to assist with the painting progress.

Once the horses were settled in the cross ties with a well filled hay net and a bucket of water each we were ready to commence. Each horse was to be painted with the skeleton on one side and the flexor and extensor muscle chains on the other side.

Gillian marks the outlines of the bones and muscles to be painted and then it’s our job to do the filling in and go around the bones with black lines, before Gillian finishes the design with the ‘artistic’ bits, showing some of the prominent bony parts and also some of the tendons.

We finished painting by 4pm, allowing breaks for the horses to walk and pee and a few moments to stop for cups of tea and sustenance for ourselves.

Just enough time for a quick freshen up and clothes change before people would start arriving for the demo. Students were allocated during this time to keep an eye on the horses, who had some chill time loose in their stables but at the same time needed to be monitored so that they didn’t scratch off their paint or lay down and rub it off!

There was a real buzz in the indoor arena as people started to arrive. My job was to be in charge of the book stand, we had a few of each of Gillian’s 10 book titles available to purchase, including her new title ‘Massage for Horses’, but limited amounts so orders were being taken for books to be shipped out once Gillian was back in the UK. People were queuing to take a look at the books and place their orders. Everyone seemed to excited to be there. It was great.

As everyone got to their seats Cissi was in the arena and welcomed them over the microphone and then introduced Gillian. The day before Cissi and I had persuaded Gillian to enter the arena to some music, which she doesn’t usually do. The audience loved it and were clapping and cheering as she entered. And then Gillian surprised them by welcoming everyone in Swedish – the crowd went absolutely wild, it was so cool. You may have seen the video posted on the Horses Inside Out Facebook and Instagram pages? It’s worth a watch if you haven’t - here it is:

And so the demo began. My job in the first half was to stand with Henrick and Wallstreet and point to the landmarks on Wallstreet that Gillian was talking about and showing on Wilma’s horse Slide. As well as demonstrate reflex exercises, carrot exercises and assist with the demonstration of the action of the Nuchal Ligament using Gillian’s infamous ‘Nuchal Ligament pole’.

I didn’t realise that Gillian was going to introduce me to the crowd and that they would also clap and cheer as I walked into the arena. This was an experience I was not prepared for or used to!

The first half of the lecture demonstration went really well, Gillian provided the crowd with so much information, as well as having the horses in the arena she also had images on the big screens for the crowd to see and they had also all received pdf ‘handouts’ prior to the event that they could also refer to.

During the interval it was back to the book stand for me whilst Gillian stayed in the arena with the horses and was busy with people wanting selfies and book signings as well as wanting to see the horses up close. The second half of the demo was seeing the horses in motion, for this half I was with the arena party.

Gillian talked about the horses whilst Slide was lunged and Wallstreet was ridden in walk, trot and canter on the flat and then over walk poles, raised walk poles, trot poles, raised trot poles, canter poles, raised canter poles, cross poles, upright fences and oxers.

Demonstrating how the flexor and extensor muscle chains work in motion and how the movement of the skeleton changes when the gait or exercise changes.

Even though I have been fortunate enough to see Gillian’s painted horses many times, I still find the demos fascinating to watch and there is always something new to learn. Everyone is slightly different and each time the horse and rider/hander combinations are different.

The demo went so well and there was a real buzz at the end, oh and we also all sang a happy birthday to Henrick (our demo rider) who’s 20th birthday it was that day too.

As the demo ended some people stayed to ask Gillian questions and I could hear many comments from people about how fabulous it had been and asking when would Gillian be back to demo again?

One of the national Swedish equine magazines had sent a photographer who had been taking photos throughout the evening and also interviewed Gillian at the end.

There was a real buzzing atmosphere.

The arena then started to empty out and the horses went off to be washed down and head back to their stables for their evening feeds and a well-earned rest.

Gillian and I headed back to the mansion house and spent half an hour over a cup of tea to take in the evening and unwind before going to our rooms. I think I passed out the moment my head touched the pillow.

The following morning there was time for a lovely sunny walk around the property before we were to head to the airport and return home. I don’t think I have ever felt so tired, in a good way, but the painting and demo day had been so full on. And I wasn’t even the one presenting so Gillian must have been feeling it even more!

I was sad to be leaving this wonderful place in Sweden, but happy to be heading back home to my own horses, my dogs, and my husband of course.

I absolutely loved with time in Flyinge and will never forget it. Thank you to the team there for making me so welcome, and thank you Gillian for this incredible experience. I can’t wait for the next one!


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