In Search of Your Image- A Practical Guide to the Mental and Spiritual Aspects of Horsemanship by Jill Keiser Hassler
c 1993 and 1996 Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT. 366 pages.
This slightly older book is a worthwhile read if you are someone who enjoys spending some time devoted towards introspection and dissection of your motivations and goals– sort of a perfect way to start off a new year in the depths of a New England winter!
I first came across this book on the shelf of a Pony Club library in Racine, Wisc.; it was during a time where I was reassessing goals and priorities within my own horsemanship journey, and so the intersections of personal perspective, goal setting and philosophy discussed in the book were intriguing to me. I found a copy through the useful website Alibris.com—they network with used book stores across the country and can generally track down any title at a reasonable price. I would recommend them highly!
This book seems to have been written as a labor of love by Jill Hassler, who after its publication remarried and hyphenated her last name to Hassler-Scoop. Hassler-Scoop, who passed away in 2006, was a passionate educator, former manager of Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md., and founder of several Pony Clubs, among many other accolades. She was known for her positivity, commitment to family and friends, and her deep and abiding compassion for her horses. All of these qualities come through in her writing in In Search of Your Image. As a fellow educator, after reading this book I wish I could have sat with her for a cup of tea and a discussion of our role as mentors and guides.
Upon reading it, I discovered that this book is a sequel to her Beyond the Mirrors, and she wrote it as a “step by step approach to help animal lovers discover ways to know and accept themselves through their love of an involvement with horses” (Hassler-Scoop, p. ix., 1993). Her intention is to guide readers through a process of self-discovery; to unlock what it is that matters the most to them about horses, but also how those objectives mesh (or don’t) with other important aspects of life. A deeply private person, Hassler-Scoop reveals portions of her own journey with horses, and how they have guided her, helped her, and healed her. She also shares some stories of her students, and how she used her role as teacher/mentor to guide them along their own paths to self-discovery.
I think what most struck me, as I read through the pages, is that though this book is focused on horses and goal setting and motivations, it isn’t really, at the end of the day, a horse book. It is more about causing the reader to reflect on spirituality and on their mental state of being, and how these beliefs intersect with their relationship with horses. Further, these same qualities will affect the relationship the reader has with other people and activities in their lives. It is part self-help, part sports psychology—but published before such a term and concept was fully en vogue.
Overall this book is worth the read—but it is dense. This isn’t something which you will pick up, breeze through, and throw onto a shelf. To really do it justice requires taking the time to read each chapter slowly and with care, and then set it aside to let the ideas simmer for a bit. Truthfully, it took me years to finish it—so long that by the time I reached the end I scarcely remembered the beginning, and even if I had, I was a different person by the time I got there and would likely have brought a whole different lens to my reading.
There is apparently also supposed to be a work book which the reader uses to complete various self-assessment tasks during the reading; I did not have access to this but I suppose it might be possible to track one of those down as well to support the read.
I would imagine that the people who most need to read this book are the people who are least likely to do so—because it will most appeal to the reader which is already inclined to be reflective and thoughtful, to the person who will turn their focus inward anyway. But if they can find an additional degree of understanding through its words, I suspect that Hassler-Scoop’s legacy as an educator will remain intact.
c 2018 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 376 pages.
Most newly published authors do book tours—but for Tik Maynard, author of the 2018 memoir In the Middle are the Horsemen, it somehow seems appropriate that he has instead been doing clinic after clinic up here in New England, offering guidance not just on riding but also ground work exercises for horses of all ages. I’m not really sure how well known he was up here before giving a keynote speech at the Area I Annual Meeting in January, but after this year, you would be hard pressed to find a New England event rider who hasn’t at least heard this Florida based trainer’s name.
Maynard’s approach to training is positive and pro-horse. It is fair and it is humane. And what he has been able to do so successfully is fuse the perspectives of trainers who are from the “classical school”, who are usually focused on producing animals for sport, with the viewpoints of trainers who are from the “natural horsemanship/cowboy school”, whose training objectives tend to be more utilitarian. This book chronicles Maynard’s journey to get to this place.
I first became exposed to some of Maynard’s ideas through an article he wrote for Practical Horseman, in which he detailed ground work exercises for event horses. I was struck then by both his thoughtfulness and introspection in the descriptions he gave of the work and rationale. I enjoyed the piece so much that I pulled it for future reference, something I would suggest doing if you come across his articles in the future.
Normally I don’t expect that someone who is only in their mid-thirties has really lived enough life to warrant writing their memoir, but in this case, Maynard has done a great job of focusing his story on the years that followed a cross roads in life which most readers (and riders) can identify with—picking up the pieces when the direction you thought your life was going doesn’t pan out. Maynard chose to take advantage of this unsettling life phase to become a working student, and aimed for the top. It is through his three years of experience as an underling to some of the best equestrians in the world that we watch a young man turn into a truly independent, self-confident adult who believes in himself and his training philosophy.
This book is an easy and engaging read. Maynard writes in a clear prose and with the wisdom of being able to look back a decade later on his experiences, he is able to offer deeper insights into his motivations, his thought processes and the lessons that he took away from it all. As he moves from one apprenticeship to another throughout the story, the reader can almost feel the growing pains he experiences as he works to integrate new knowledge and understanding with preconceived ideas and beliefs.
What is perhaps most impressive is that Maynard lets us see his journey in full resolution—unlike some memoirs which only focus on the positive highlights, In the Middle are the Horsemen travels through the potholes and valleys, the moments of darkness and self doubt, the times where choices made had unexpected, negative consequences. It is perhaps because of this honesty that the other elements of the story have greater resonance.
Overall, In the Middle are the Horsemen is a worthwhile read, enjoyable and insightful, funny and engaging. I suspect that there is something in here which most readers—both equestrians and non—will connect with. Perhaps it would make the perfect gift this holiday season?
So keeping up my record as “world’s slowest blogger”, I wanted to give everyone an update on Izzy’s first official off-farm outing, which happened way back in May. Better late than never, I suppose!
DRF Isabela, better known as Izzy to her friends, just turned three at the end of May. Last year, she learned the basics of longeing, went on short trail walks ponied off her friend Marquesa, and practiced wearing a bridle and surcingle. She had the winter off, and for this year, my goals were to build on this foundation by solidifying her longeing skills, introducing a saddle, working on long lining, and maybe, if all went well, getting on and doing a few short walk abouts by the time school started in the fall.
So this spring, when I started the process of getting her back into a routine of being regularly handled, I was quite surprised to find that she had gone rather feral. Leading her had become like trying to walk a dragon. She wasn’t being mean or naughty per se, just overly joyful. It was as though she had learned to leap and buck over the winter and wanted to show off her new skills.
The problems for me were several. 1) Most of the time, I work with Izzy alone, and I didn’t want to get hurt. 2) My arena is only partially fenced, and I wasn’t confident I could hold onto her. 3) Winter hung on a LONG time this year, and the ice and snow didn’t officially clear out of my partially fenced ring until the very end of April, meaning that even if #1 and 2 weren’t issues, I didn’t have great footing to work with.
All of which left me SERIOUSLY QUESTIONING my mid-March decision to sign up for an in-hand clinic to be held at the very beginning of May with eventer and natural horsemanship trainer Tik Maynard. I much enjoyed Tik’s presentation at the Area I Annual Meeting in January, and when I saw that Fox Hill Equestrians in Barnstead, N.H., would be hosting him, I was immediately interested. Tik is based in Florida, and so opportunities to work with him for a northerly based equestrian are not likely to happen often, and Fox Hill is an easy twenty minutes up the road (as in, I turn right out of my driveway and then right onto the street with the farm, more or less). It seemed like the perfect first ‘off the farm’ outing for my youngster.
Tik was offering a lecture on horsemanship theory each morning, followed by private and small group in hand sessions and jumping lessons in the afternoon. I decided the sensible plan was to audit day one through at least the morning session, then bring Izzy for day two.
Despite her joie de vivre, I went ahead with my plan to bring her to the clinic, and I am so grateful that I stuck with it, as we both learned a great deal.
Lecture Summary: Day One
The horsemanship lecture focused on the theme of how horses learn best and gave an overview of Tik’s training philosophy. One of the main components is that humans must learn to think like a horse; when one can do that, it is easier to set up questions which horses are willing to answer.
Horses have evolved to quickly evaluate which stimuli are worthy of response, and which can safely be ignored. Only those animals which have correctly and efficiently solved this riddle survive, and we must respect that our domestic animals retain these wild traits.
To this end, horses pick up on visual cues and details that we miss, and they may react to them in unanticipated ways. We all have been guilty of responding to these behaviors defensively or angrily, but the truth is that getting emotional in this situation doesn’t do much to improve the relationship or communication between you and the horse.
The things which motivate horses to do a certain behavior, including ignoring an unpleasant or unfamiliar stimulus, are not the same things which motivate humans. Horses seek safety, food, comfort and play, in that order. Smart trainers use these motivators in their work.
Because horses seek comfort, creating situations which increase a horse’s comfort when they provide the desired behavior automatically reinforce that outcome. A common example of this in practice is the use of the rider’s leg; the pressure is slightly uncomfortable, but when the horse goes forward and the pressure goes away, the horse’s comfort level increases. Praise itself doesn’t mean much to a horse, but the release of pressure does.
Horses are scared or nervous of things which act predatory; this includes anything which comes running towards them and things which are going fast, being loud, or behaving erratically. They prefer to be approached slowly, which might not be the way we enter the paddock when our minds are preoccupied with catching a horse for a lesson—explaining why a normally cooperative horse might refuse to be caught.
Tik encouraged us to think in a positive frame of mind when asking the horse to do something. For example, think “Let’s do this” instead of “Stop doing that”.
One of our goals is to encourage our horses to play. To this end, ground work is like creating a series of puzzles for the horses to solve through trial and error. Just as with humans, horses respond to these types of mental challenge differently. “There are those which already know the answers, those which try to solve the puzzle, and those which wait to be told the answer,” said Tik. “Problem solving gets inspired when they are young.”
Solvable puzzles introduce to the horse a little bit of pressure; some pressure is needed for growth and learning, but finding the right amount is key. Too little and no learning occurs, too much and the horse may become so anxious they can’t learn at all. Because horses seek comfort, they are going to look for the release of pressure, whether that pressure is physical or mental. “Pressure motivates but the release of pressure teaches,” said Tik.
Day One Ground Work Sessions
With these thoughts in mind, we moved into the hands on portion of the morning. My friend Hilary brought her bay Thoroughbred, Tom, and Tik took the line from her. “When I first work with a horse, I want to know how interested in me he is,” said Tik. “Does he like me?”
Tik approached Tom at a slight angle, reaching a hand out and waiting for the horse to touch him first. Then he began to rub Tom’s head, neck and rump, which the horse seemed to enjoy. “Some right from the get go want to play and run, and some want to snuggle,” said Tik. “You need to play to their strengths but address their weaknesses.”
Tom wanted to be a little too much in the handler’s space, so Tik spent a few moments working on teaching Tom to back up from a soft pressure. He showed us how to use the rope as a cue in three levels of intensity: first, you flick it with your wrist; if there is no response, you then flick it with your elbow, and finally with your shoulder. Every cue with the rope starts with body language. “You may need to go through all three levels, but stop when you get the result you want,” said Tik. “When the horse is learning, go through the levels slowly and in sequence. Only once the horse knows how to do something is it OK to skip a level or two in your signals, otherwise you will desensitize the horse. Try to get BIG without getting MAD.”
When Tom gave the right response, Tik angled his body slightly away, shifted his weight onto one leg, and exhaled. They took a break. The pressure was released.
“There are three parts to this that the handler must understand,” said Tik. “There is your body language and intention. There is the handling of pressure changes. And then there is the timing of the release.”
For ground work, Tik prefers a rope halter, a heavy, dense, long rope, and a sturdy stick similar to Parelli’s Carrot Stick. Depending on the situation, Tik might choose a rope that is 12’, 22’ or even 45’ long.
Tik emphasized that consistency is key. Handlers should always start at level one in terms of pressure, and add to that baseline as needed. The only exception is in the case of dangerous behavior. “When the horse is checking out mentally, you need to get their attention back on you through the use of an exercise which you have established in a quiet time,” said Tik. “There are three goals I have for any training session: the human is safe at the end, the horse is safe at the end, and the horse is more relaxed at the end than at the beginning.”
The next set was a group lesson with five horses working in hand at once. The animals were at different stages of training as well as mental focus, which gave Tik the opportunity to speak to a variety of exercises and possible outcomes. But he started with having the horses get comfortable with their handlers standing about six feet away from them, with slack in the lead rope. “On the ground, you sometimes want the horse’s eyes and ears towards the handler but sometimes you want to direct them and their attention elsewhere,” said Tik.
One young handler and her sweet steady eddie type schoolmaster worked on learning to give from pressure on the nose. “For a lesson horse or a kid’s horse, you need to think about how sensitive you really want that animal to be,” said Tik.
Several horses in this group played with a tarp that had been laid out in the arena. “There are a few different ways you can ask the horse to cross the tarp,” said Tik. “It is like asking a riddle. You can lead them over, send them over, draw them over or back them over, if you have it secured down.”
Turk, an elegant bay Thoroughbred gelding, tended to speed up once in motion on the circle and needed to slow down and refocus on his handler; Tik helped her to cross his front feet and back feet over each other. “At first, it is about moving the whole horse forward, backwards, and then on a circle,” said Tik. “After this is established then we start to move the front half relative to the back.”
Horses can be responsible for four things: to maintain their speed and gait, to maintain their direction, to be looking where they are going, and to act like a partner. As trainers, we should not be doing these jobs for the horse. “But horses must be taught how to do these things,” said Tik.
Other than going for short trailer rides around the block last summer, Izzy has not left our farm since her arrival on a bitterly cold morning in March of 2017. I am not sure who was more nervous for the outing—Izzy or me! Two of my students, Julia and Nikki, tagged along for moral support, education and extra hands if needed.
I don’t think anyone else brought an animal as young as Izzy; I held her in the barn aisle while Tik wrapped up his morning lecture on day two, and although she danced and jigged a bit while waiting her turn, I felt she was really trying to be good. That said, I had no idea what to expect from her when we got into the ring. I think Tik fairly quickly assessed that her brain and energy needed to be redirected, and so he came back a little early from his post-lecture break to get started.
“Do you mind if I work with her for a few minutes?” he asked. I was so relieved! Yes, please!
The first thing he did was swapped out my long line for the sturdier rope line he had been using on other horses. He then let Izzy move out onto the end of the rope, where she leaped and ran and displayed the athleticism which I hope will be used for good things in the future. He wasn’t expecting her to be totally focused on him all the time; in fact, that day he said that he would be happy if she was with him 30% of the time.
“I am looking for the moment where she wants to stay still and relax,” said Tik. “I am not punishing her at all for her loss of attention or focus. Instead, I give her something else to do.”
It was truly amazing to watch Tik work with Izzy, who he had just met, in such a respectful yet constructive manner. She had moments of simply moving around him at the end of the line, and other moments of youthful behavior. He could halt her and turn her. They went and checked out the mirror together. As she started to visibly relax and become more mentally calm, Tik led her to the tarp and a wooden bridge which had been used in previous sessions. She inquisitively just walked right up to and over both objects. I was not surprised that she handled them so well, as this has been her typical response to something new, but it was lovely to see that she had the same attitude in a new place once the zoomies were behind her.
Tik wrapped up his work with Izzy by playing with some halt, walk, halt, back up transitions, teaching her to cue into his body language. He tipped his shoulders forward to encourage her to walk, squared them over his hips for the halt, and inclined them slightly backwards to cue her to back up.
After this, I took over for a few moments, practicing the same in hand transitions, and finally ending with her just hanging out all the way at the end of the long lead, while I turned my back to her and stood weighted more on one leg. I’m told she did lots of yawning, but of course I wasn’t allowed to peek!
“The more emotional something is for the horse to learn, the longer the break they get,” said Tik.
While he described his work with Izzy as being a “typical three-year-old session”, he also acknowledged that she was a pretty self-confident animal, as was evidenced by her overall response to the new situation and stimuli. “Horses like this which are clever and smart and brave are great but also a challenge,” said Tik. “You must find ways to help them learn and stay interested.”
Coming to this clinic, as mentally stressful as it was for me to do it, was absolutely the right choice to make at this stage of her training. Izzy was like a changed woman after interacting with Tik, and both his feedback and watching how he used his body language to interact with her helped to give me the confidence to do what I had sort of suspected she needed me to do—get a longer line and really send her forward when she wanted to act up. So long as your response to her is fair—I am sending you away to work a little bit not because I’m mad but because we have a job to do—she responds positively, and rather quickly settles down.
I have continued to play with some of these techniques this summer, but I will admit that I have much more to learn. It was a fascinating opportunity to do something totally different with one of the horses, and I am pleased that it was such a positive experience!
Proper saddle fit is a topic which has garnered much attention as equestrians have gained a better understanding of the intersection between tack and performance. Jochen Schleese, of Saddlefit4Life, is a saddle maker who is inspired to educate riders, owners and trainers on the basic concepts of better saddle fit. He gave a lecture and demonstration on the subject at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program in September of 2017, and the following is a brief summary of his critical points.
Several trends in modern equestrian sport have influenced the needs we must address in the design and selection of saddles. First, most riders are female, and the structure of their pelvis is different than that of a male. Female hip sockets face more forward, a shorter tail bone brings the balance point of the pelvis further forward and the seat bones are wider. However, saddle design traditionally has been oriented towards what will suit a male pelvis; when women try to ride in saddles which do not allow them to naturally sit in a comfortable, supported position, they at a minimum feel like they ‘fight the tack’, or in the long term, can suffer health complications including pain in their back, hips and knees. And of course, a rider out of balance will negatively affect the horse as well.
Secondly, the shape of horses has changed, with modern breeds trending towards being more “sporty”. As trainers, we want to encourage the horse to lift their topline up underneath the weight of the saddle and rider. But as the horse lacks collar bones, and their entire trunk is hanging from their shoulder muscles, the sheer act of saddling and sitting on a horse causes the topline to be pushed down. Just as one size shoe does not fit all wearers, one size saddle does not suit all shapes of horse, and as the horse develops muscle, even what once fit well may need adjustments. If we want to have any chance of engaging the topline correctly, we must set the horse up to be able to lift.
Horses are remarkably tolerant, and most will try to do what is asked of them even if their tack is ill fitting. But we will see the physical effects of poor fit in myriad ways—subtle cues, such as a wrinkle in the nose, pinned ears, and wide eyes are a good place to start. More significantly, we can see severe impacts such as the development of subluxations, sacroiliac issues (like hunter’s bump), swayback, scoliosis, muscle wasting and more.
A well fitted saddle will help prevent these issues, but it must be appropriate for the physique of the horse in question. And we must be cognizant that the shape of the horse will change over time.
It is critical that the position and shape of the saddle do not interfere with the cap of cartilage which is located over the top of the shoulder blade. Equally important is that the saddle cannot sit on the horse’s spine. Most horsemen know this, but at the same time, may not be able to accurately assess the true width of the spine; just because the channel is clear doesn’t mean that the panels are as well. Sometimes it is necessary to map out the areas on the horse’s back which can carry weight versus those spots where it simply can’t.
Schleese explained that there are fourteen reflex points in and around the saddle area which cause a negative reaction if they are being pinched from a saddle. Think of a reflex point having sensitivity akin to hitting your funny bone; the response to pressure is involuntary. Some of these points are more sensitive than others; Schleese used the analogies of “lemon”, “grape” or “egg” pressure to help the audience understand the tolerable amount of force on a given area. Clearly, a lemon will absorb more pressure than an egg before it breaks.
If these areas are being pinched, riders will likely experience resistance in their warm up for at least twenty minutes; this is the amount of time it takes for the nerves to go numb.
Schleese emphasized that there are nine critical points to check when assessing saddle fit for the horse:
Saddle length: The shoulder and loin areas must be non-weight bearing. In addition, the tree must have the same angle as the shoulder of the horse. It is critical to correctly identify the end of the shoulder (usually in line with the end of the mane/front of the withers) and ensure that the saddle is not impeding it. This last point was emphasized repeatedly.
Balance: The saddle’s balance point should be parallel to the ground when it is correctly placed on the horse’s back. It is the distribution of a rider’s weight, rather than the actual amount of weight, which is critical. An asymmetrical rider can almost double their impact on the horse.
No Rotation/Shifting/Twisting: The saddle should not shift to the right or left when viewed from behind. The tree points must be behind the shoulder blades.
Wither clearance: You are looking for at least two to three fingers clearance above the withers, but should also look for two to three fingers on the sides to allow for lateral work. Note here that conformation matters; the saddle will be closer to a high withered horse and farther away from one with mutton withers. There should be no pressure at all four inches below the withers when the saddle is placed on the horse. Schleese says you should be able to take a BIC pen, place it under the D-ring, and then slide it down without resistance. Otherwise, when you add a pad and the weight of a rider, the pinch which the horse feels will replicate the bite of a stallion.
Spinal Clearance: This relates to the width of the gullet—you are looking for 3-5 fingers here, enough to ensure that the saddle isn’t interfering with the spinous processes or the musculature of the horse’s back.
Billet Alignment: The billets should hang perpendicular to the ground, and the girth should be centered, not tipped forward or backwards. The girth will always position itself at the narrowest point of the rib cage, behind the elbow.
Horizontal Panel: The panels should touch evenly on the horse’s back, all the way down their length. Avoid “bridging” or rocking, which distributes the pressure unevenly, causing the horse to hollow their back.
Tree angle: The tree angle should be parallel to the shoulder angle when the saddle is positioned properly.
Tree width: The tree must be wide enough to allow for shoulder rotation, especially when jumping, but not so wide that the saddle rocks or sits on the withers. Most owners are familiar with the concept of narrow, medium or wide trees, but not that the angles of these trees can vary. This explains why a medium width tree in one saddle might not fit the same as one made by a different manufacturer.
There are two styles of saddle fitting: static fitting is done while the horse is still, while dynamic fitting considers how the horse moves as part of the fitting process. “You must bring your horsemanship and common sense with you,” says Schleese.
Dynamic fitting can give the saddle expert more information. Schleese likes to watch the horse move on the longe line at the walk with no tack; he watches the horse’s eyes, ears, and mouth, as well as the manner in which they carry their topline. In particular, he notes the tail carriage, which is essentially an elongation of the spine. How the horse carries their tail is a reflection of the way in which they have been trained. Most horses carry their tails to the left (and interestingly, their manes fall right).
“When the tail goes to the left, they will track up more easily on the left side,” says Schleese.
Schleese next will watch the horse with a rider on board, wearing their saddle as positioned by the rider; he notes that dressage riders tend to set it too far back while jumping riders tend to set too far forward. When mounted, the horse should still track up evenly and the loins should remain soft and supple. Within eight circles, the horse should begin to salivate and chew the bit.
While it is normal for the saddle to shift slightly away from the direction of the horse’s bend, it should not move dramatically. Often, issues are more subtle. For example, a saddle which is jamming into the horse’s back on the right side of their spine will cause their tail to swing left.
Schleese’s mission is to educate as many equestrians as possible on the essential elements of saddle fit. It is clearly a complex process which requires practice to master, but by reviewing the basics, any horse owner should be able to do a basic evaluation on their own saddle to determine if expert guidance is required.
Making it Happen: The Autobiography by Carl Hester
c 2014 Orion Books: London, UK. 260 pages.
ISBN 978 1 409 14767 1
Autobiography, biography and memoir have almost always been “off” my reading list, but with an increased exposure recently to this nonfiction genre through my M.F.A. program, I have become more open minded. I picked up Making it Happen, the autobiography of Carl Hester, last fall after attending his NEDA Symposium. The book is written in Hester’s voice–and the text has the unpolished quality of someone who does not write professionally—but on the back inside cover jacket it indicates the book was co-authored by equestrian journalist Bernadette Hewitt, whom Carl affectionately refers to throughout as “Bernie”. While it is no literary masterpiece, this book delivers on its promise to tell “the incredible story of one of the world’s greatest equestrians”.
The opening chapter shows us Hester at the London Olympics, just moments before the British team clinches an historic gold medal on home turf. From this career high, Hester then takes readers on the journey from his youth on the Channel Island of Sark, to boarding school and on through his rise up the ranks of equestrian sport– detailing his apprenticeships, hard horses, risky gambles and sometimes tumultuous professional relationships– to become the king of British Dressage. In 2016, Hester became a five-time Olympian with his appearance in Rio; he also is or has been the coach of all the riders on both the 2012 and 2016 squads, including two time gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin, riding Hester’s own Valegro. Perhaps the story of the 2016 Games might become an appendix if there is ever an update to the 2014 edition.
At times irreverent, only vaguely self-reflective and greatly entertaining, Hester is a lively story teller. There are many, many occasions in this book where he makes reference to someone by their first name only, and I was frequently left feeling as though I had skipped a chapter or missed a page somewhere. His prose is suggestive of the one way dialogue of someone who has drank too much coffee, when the listener can do little more than nod and murmur “oh dear” or “of course” at relevant moments. In reading the chapters, I was left feeling somewhat out of breath by the rapid fire pace of transmission—but yet still felt compelled to turn the pages. Hester takes you along for the ride.
I am not one to believe that someone is inherently interesting just because they are a celebrity, and perhaps that is partially why this particular written genre has never really appealed to me. But it can be heartening for those of us in the trenches, as it were, to remember and recognize that even the greatest of riders are people too, and that we all make mistakes. In Making It Happen, Hester owns the errors of his past and reveals his moments of hubris in equal balance to those occasions in which his good choices were deliberate or he was able to stand firm to his principles despite detractors. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of writing memoir or autobiography is to reveal the warts and dark moments; in his book, Hester does not shy from them. As a both a writer and a human, I appreciated that.
I would recommend Making it Happen to any equestrian, but I think it will be the dressage enthusiast who enjoys this story the most. When the world of “penguin suited fancy prancers” can start to feel a little too much—pick this book up. And recognize that even one of the best in the world is able to not take themselves too seriously.
As a New Englander, I have had rather minimal exposure to the western discipline; as they say, I know just enough to be dangerous. In fact, it is mostly through my experience as a board member of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), which offers both hunt seat and western competition, that I have acquired my limited knowledge. It is also through the IHSA that I had the opportunity to meet the talented and hard working Kelli Wainscott, coach for the Mt. Holyoke western IHSA team.
This past March, Kelli organized a benefit clinic at Clark Performance Horses in Winchendon, Mass. in which participants got to “ride a reiner”. Instruction was provided by Karen Clark, who grew up riding English but transitioned over to the western disciplines as a young adult. I have not so secretly wanted to try out reining moves but had always figured that it would be rude to just call up a reining trainer and be like, “hey, so I want to come ride one of your highly trained horses. I don’t want to do this full time, I just want to ride a spin and a slide. Is that cool?” Well, this sounded like my chance to do just that! As an added bonus, I could help the Mt. Holyoke IHSA western team fundraise for their trip to the semi finals at the same time.
I have been intrigued by reining since first watching it in person at IHSA Nationals in 2011. Seeing the reining there was like listening to someone speak a foreign language; the rules were undecipherable to my English-trained mind and I watched intently for any discernible pattern or predictability to the scoring. To me, all of the riders and horses looked great, and I didn’t understand why sometimes a team would receive a “zero” score after doing what looked like the same thing as everyone else. Cheering is encouraged, but I could tell that the cheers were intentionally timed, and when we tried to get into the “wooping”, we never managed to do it when everyone else did.
So I packed up my English paddock boots, half chaps and Charles Owen helmet and made the drive out to western Massachusetts under cloudy gray skies. As the miles on my GPS ticked down, I felt a pit of nervous energy grow in my belly. I suspected I would be the only full time English rider there (I think I was right in that), I knew no one other than Kelli, and I began to worry about upsetting the owner or the horses with my lack of experience.
But I needn’t have worried. Karen set me at ease with her cheerful personality and positive attitude. She was so extremely patient and answered the groups’ numerous questions with a smile, despite the fact that we were the second three hour group on a chilly March afternoon.
Karen assigned me to a sweet chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Whiz; her delicate ears and sculpted face are extremely feminine…I do love a good mare! As Karen’s assistant handed the reins to me, she mentioned I would probably need to take the cinch up a hole. A rider from the MHC IHSA team was kind enough to show me the mechanics of a western cinch. So began the afternoon—foreign tack, foreign aids, and foreign language. Who knew that after thirty plus years of tack time, it was still possible to feel so completely beginner?
Once the group was mounted up, Karen gave us a few moments to get acquainted with our mounts. Whiz is sensitive and “well broke”; she certainly knows her job. After watching a few moments, Karen called me over. “I think you’ll like her in some spurs,” she said.
I don’t know if Karen had been watching to see how well I rode before offering the spurs, and I don’t know if I was given them because I had positively impressed her (in the sense of having good control) or negatively (in the sense of, gosh, she is hopeless and without these spurs she’ll never get anything done.) She came over and affixed to my Dublin paddock boots the largest set of spurs that I have ever worn in my entire life—they were full on western horseback riding spurs: thick, engraved, spangly, roweled. The kind that jangle when you walk.
This is getting serious.
Disclaimer: What I write here I share with the intent of introducing other unfamiliar English riders to reining, but it is colored through my fairly inexperienced lens. Any mistakes or misunderstandings are wholly my own!
Reining patterns are comprised of a set of movements: big fast circles, slow small circles, spins, lead changes and sliding stops. These movements can be combined in various sequences, and for some movements, there are extremely specific requirements. For example, spins must rotate for an exact number of turns, and a spin which is under or over rotated will result in a penalty or elimination. Cheers can be used to help a rider know when they are approaching the end of a specific maneuver or pattern element.
Karen started us off with riding big fast circles. One at a time, we tracked left at the end of the ring, practicing keeping the inside leg off the horse (which is incredibly hard to do when you are used to having it on all the time) and encouraging our horses to fly around the circle. As it turned out, many of the riders in my group, while experienced at western riding, were also reining rookies. As pleasure or equitation riders, they were more accustomed to slower paces and staying fairly “poised” in the saddle, while reining encourages looseness (not sloppiness) and speed. When it was our turn to try, Whiz was, well, a whiz. She clearly loves to run and it was quite freeing to just zoom around the circle. I trusted Whiz from the get go, so much so that when someone suddenly opened a small door on the side of the ring, I didn’t tense in anticipation of a spook, as I would have with my own horse. When on the job, Whiz is all business. She was so comfortable to ride, and I was having so much fun, that I hardly noticed when the left stirrup came unclipped and fell off my saddle. It was another lap before I recognized that it was missing and stopped Whiz so it could be reattached.
“Big fasts” are usually followed by “slow smalls”, and the transition from one to the other is done by stepping hard into the outside stirrup, not by using the rein. We practiced this transition several times, and I was really blown away by how readily responsive Whiz was to the shift in my weight. “Hmm…” I thought. “Perhaps my dressage horse should be responsive like this? And what do I do with my outside leg in my own downward transitions?”
Part of the criteria for these movements is that the circles should actually be round, and trainer Karen frequently had to remind us to keep our eyes up and frame the circle evenly. I guess riding a round circle is a challenge no matter what discipline you ride!
Once each rider had a chance to practice the circles, Karen taught us about spinning. The spins and sliding stops are, in my opinion, the two most dramatic reining movements, and the Quarter Horse’s genetic ability to sit down on their hindquarters and coil their body like a cat is just one more example of the physical manifestation of the term “horse power”. In reining, a horse should spin a set number of times (as specified by the pattern), and like a dancer, the rider needs to keep their head spinning in order to stay centered and “spot” their starting point. If the spin is over or underrotated, there are point penalties up until ¼ of a turn; if the rider misses the mark by this amount or more, then the pair is eliminated.
Karen had us start from a halt, choosing a point out in front of our horse’s ears to use for focus. To go left, you just had to step into the left stirrup, slide the right leg back a touch, then shift the rein left, giving a bump with the right leg. To go right, the rider reverses all those aids. To stop, the rider brings the rein back to center. The entire movement is done with forward intention but the horse should be pivoting in place around one hind leg.
When I asked Whiz to initiate the first spin, I thought for a moment I was going to tip right off her side! She lowered her neck and shoulders and sunk into the movement in a manner which I both expected but was somehow not ready for. Then it felt like we were going about a million miles an hour—but when I watched the video afterwards, Whiz is clearly spinning with a “oh boy got a rookie here” level of energy. There is clearly much more power available in this creature!
After most of us were left feeling “well spun”, Karen allowed us to try out that most iconic of reining moves—the sliding stop. This was definitely the movement I was most excited about! We came down the quarter line on the left rein; just like my dressage horse might anticipate a leg yield, Whiz knew instantly what this turn meant. The key to a good sliding stop is to build the energy in the hindquarter, holding the horse back from their full run at first so that they don’t fall onto their forehand, then releasing all of that stored power. A good slide requires that the horse is thinking uphill.
Karen coached us to hold the horse until we were about half way down the long side, and then let them RUN. Whiz sure knew how to take this cue and the feeling of her haunches dropping down and driving into the surface was a form of horse power I’m not sure I have felt before. The fact that we were running at top speed directly towards the wall, on purpose, made it slightly disconcerting; this is the type of situation I am usually trying to avoid. And the especially hard part is you are supposed to actually let your hand go forward (which I can see in the video I failed to do, and in addition, I was holding the horn). The slide happens when the rider sits back and says “whoa”. When I gave the cue, Whiz’s hindquarters dropped away while her withers lifted up. It feels like the ultimate “throw down.” It is supremely cool.
After spending my three hours masquerading as a western rider, I made several observations which I would like to share, for what it’s worth:
Despite some of the similarities, I don’t quite agree with the notion that “reining is dressage in western tack”. It is its own “thing”. The similarities are the kinds of things which I believe all horse sports share, concepts like “the horse needs to be well balanced” and “the horse needs to engage the hindquarter”. Karen told us that good reining horses have a short career because they get too smart and start to anticipate all of the moves, leading to the kinds of mistakes which cause elimination. There are no “levels” in reining—from the beginning, all tests include all of the movements. English dressage is a progressive system of training with the goal of enhancing the natural gaits of the horse. While a dressage horse can certainly start to learn a specific test, ideally there is enough variety and change in the movements that it is possible for them to have a long, progressive career.
During our session, Karen rode a client’s green horse, who was working in a snaffle. Most of our “finished” horses were in a curb, though one was in a bosal/hackamore. In western riding, the use of a curb bit is the mark of an experienced, well-educated horse. I guess this is similar to the way in which an upper level dressage horse is able to be ridden in a double bridle for greater clarity of the aids and improved engagement. Probably in both disciplines, there are trainers who use the curb fairly and those who only use it to achieve forced submission. But when either of these tools is used fairly, the communication between horse and rider can be lighter and softer.
Most eventers are familiar with the concept of a “combined test”, in which the same horse and rider do dressage and show jumping, or a derby cross, which is a fusion of the jumping phases. At this clinic, I learned about a competition called “working cow horse”, which Karen said was a great outlet for a horse which understands the requirements of reining but lacks some of the necessary pizazz to be a real reining specialist. In this competition, riders first complete a reining pattern, and then when they indicate they are ready, a cow is released which the horse and rider must then “box”, meaning they move the cow along the fence and hold them there. At more advanced levels, the horse must also “work” the cow by making them move in a circle, with the horse on the outside. I thought it was interesting to learn that western riders have their own version of “combined test” in the working cow horse competition.
Overall, my “ride a reiner” experience was just what I had hoped it would be—a fun afternoon exploring an aspect of the equestrian world which I previously had known little about, and a chance to check off one of my “equine bucket list” items. I also have to think that those of us in other disciplines could be smart to take a page out of Karen’s notebook and offer introductory clinics to our discipline. How else are riders without access to horses trained for specific disciplines ever going to have the opportunity to try out something new? Who knows how many riders have gotten the “reining bug” after doing a clinic like this one? It is so easy to pigeonhole riders into one discipline and make assumptions about what and how they must ride and in so doing we create divisions in our equestrian community which do not need to exist. I am so grateful to organizer Kellie and our patient teachers Karen and Whiz for offering us this opportunity.
In late April, my friend Bethany shared a quote from Vonnegut which really resonated with me. I will loosely paraphrase here; Vonnegut contends that the reason we are often so frustrated with the weather in March and April is because we are falsely under the impression that it is spring. Instead, Vonnegut identifies six seasons, not four: January and February are still winter, but as nature wakes back up in March and April, this is not actually spring, but rather “unlocking”. Spring doesn’t actually happen until May and June, while summer hits in July and August and autumn in September and October. Then in November and December, another transition–“locking”, when nature and all of its creatures shut down, store up and settle in for the depths of winter.
This is sheer genius.
Inspired by Vonnegut, I would like to propose the Seasons of the New England Equestrian for the first third of the year: FREEZE, HOPE, DESPAIR, SPRING and DE-FERALIZATION. Here, I present an example of the inner monologue of an avid equestrian as she cycles through each of these seasons, inspired by my own experience:
January-February (FREEZE). “It is SO cold. The wind can’t blow any harder. Oh wait– it can.” [Pause to widen stance and reset wool hat]. “The water spigot froze and I have to carry water from the bathtub upstairs. My breath has frozen on my glasses. And the gate latch froze.” [Removes glove, exposing bare skin, in order to use body heat to thaw the latch]. “I am so lucky to have horses. I am so lucky to have horses. Repeat. WHY didn’t I go south like all my friends on Facebook?!?!”
March 1 (HOPE). “I see the bare earth! Just a small patch, and it is all mud, but I saw it. It still exists! I will start hacking and legging the horses up soon, maybe mid-month. We are going to get an early start on the season! It is going to be brilliant! We will be so fit and ready and it will be wonderful!”
Anna at her boarding stable during “hope”
The calm before the late March blizzard.
March 10 (DESPAIR). In the background, the meteorologist is happily announcing the largest named blizzard of the season.“There are three feet of snow out of my window and it is still snowing. This is never going to melt. Ever. And even if it does, it will be mud for the next six months. I will never ride again.”
April (SPRING) “I mean, it is pouring sideways, and the mud is now almost over the tops of my wellies, but the calendar says spring, right? So maybe I can start to ride?” It should be noted here that roughly 75% of the arena is still covered in snow and ice.
April 15 (SPRING, continued, after attempting to begin riding despite the conditions). “My horses have become completely, 100% feral. They scream when I separate them. They dance on the crossties like they have never been in the barn. Their girths don’t fit. One bridle was eaten by mice. I can’t find one glove. And now we have pulled a shoe.”
They left the browband and reins alone; these were from a different bridle and evidently less tasty leather.
A close up of my mouse-devoured bridle.
A close up of my mouse-devoured bridle.
They left the browband and reins alone; these were from a different bridle and evidently less tasty leather.
Oh spring. All winter, I yearn for it, for the return of fair weather, better footing, all my horses at home, and longer days with sunlight from the earliest hours of the morning until late evening. But somehow the initial reality never quite lives up to my ideal. Spring arrives with excess packaging: mud, tons of winter hair, lost muscling, and dust on all my gear despite efforts to keep up with cleanliness during the off season. And the worst part, for me, is the equine behavior. In order to get to the blissful days of summer, without fail, this next phase cannot be skipped. I call it DE-FERALIZATION. Like children who have been on summer vacation for too long, I find the first few weeks of transition from winter break to being working animals brings out some of the worst characteristics in my favorite equines.
I started the de-feralization in mid-March by bringing in each of the three horses which lived at Cold Moon Farm all winter for individual grooming sessions. Other than a few little whinnies (“I am in here…are you still out there?”), their attitudes stayed mostly calm and I was able to start shedding out the winter coats. I untangled tails and pulled manes, doing the youngster’s in small chunks since she is still not so sure about it and Lee’s during the late March blizzard when we were all stuck inside anyway. I began to see the horses under the hair. I thought, ‘wow, maybe de-feralization won’t be that bad this year.’
Insert diabolical laughter now.
I brought Anna home from the indoor on April 1. While I am SO grateful for having the ability to keep her close to home at a well maintained facility, I was also SO ready to bring her back. I knew that the first few weeks of April would be dicey as far as serious work went, so I was prepared to give Anna a few weeks’ light work upon her return home; hacking, light ring riding as the footing permitted, maybe some work in hand.
Here is a video of what happened when I turned her back out with Lee:
Anna’s first hack at home was with Marquesa; it was the older Morgan’s first ride since last year. Now 22, Marquesa has always been an old soul. Spooking just isn’t her thing; high necked Morgan alertness, yes, but spinning, wheeling, bucking, etc., nope. We thought we would take them for about twenty minutes across the power lines and around the back field, just a short walk to stretch legs.
We didn’t make it out of the backyard. I mean, everyone stayed on, but between the squealing and jigging from Anna and the snorting and blowing from Quesa…well, we considered the safe return to the barn after about ten minutes to be a success.
In early April, I bought a round pen. My ring is only partially fenced and given that Izzy is turning three this year and we might want to THINK about backing her at some point, I figured that a more complete perimeter was a good idea. We set it up mid-ring, straddling the snow which still covered half the arena.
I took Lee out to the round pen on the longe line to start her back into some sort of work. Last year, I was able to hack her out with Marquesa and another rider, which worked really well. But with Anna home a whole month earlier, I could only hack one horse at a time and Lee was relegated to second string status. Even at 19, Lee can be really reluctant to leave the farm by herself when she is out of practice and be cheeky in the ring, and so as a former trainer used to say, “the longe line is your friend.”
To my surprise and delight, Lee was completely civilized in the round pen. I started by just walking her—forced marching for 20-30 minutes with frequent direction changes—and she was so compliant and calm that I ended up just unclipping the line and practiced moving her around with my body language. Compared to the others, I think she has lost the most condition this winter. But at the same time, she is mostly Thoroughbred, and once she gets into work, she tends to come back to fitness fairly quickly.
Feeling overly ambitious, I also signed Izzy up to go to an in hand/ground work clinic with Tik Maynard in early May. I have heard Tik speak and read his articles, which all have impressed me, and I thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. But I knew that Izzy may have forgotten some of her lessons from last year after a winter off, and we had to be diligent about reviewing the basics. In addition, she taught herself a new skill this winter—how to buck—and though the bucks are without any malice and are performed with just the sheer joy of being young and agile and quick, I was less pleased with this addition to her repertoire. My helmet became constantly planted to my head and Izzy tested my determination to prep her for the clinic on an almost daily basis.
Then on April 15, it snowed. Again.
In order to get through the De-Feralization, what is needed is consistency. And between the weather, the footing, and my work schedule, what I didn’t seem to be finding was the one thing most necessary for success.
So this year, instead of getting overly frustrated during this time of transition, I tried to practice a different mantra: We’ve been through this before. We take baby steps. We always get through it, and once we do, the reward is worth the few weeks of challenge. This is perhaps the time of year beyond all other where we must simply acknowledge that patience is also a skill which requires practice. All you can ever do is your best, take small steps, and reward any forward progress.
Instead of being upset with myself that my work schedule wouldn’t permit me to give 110% attention to each horse, I divided my time. I recruited some helpers, who came to hack with me (thanks Julia and Nikki!), allowing two horses to get attention at once. I became satisfied with shorter work sets—even just 15 minutes for Izzy—knowing that a little was better than nothing and in time, we would build on this small foundation.
Now, on the cusp of June, I am finally enjoying truly glorious spring weather, with mostly compliant horses who have a baseline of fitness. De-feralization is complete, and true spring has officially arrived.
Training Horses the Ingrid Klimke Way by Ingrid Klimke
c 2016 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT. 163 pages.
If you have read any of my previous reviews of Klimke’s work (including her updates and revisions to her father’s original texts), it is no secret that I am an uber fan-girl of Ms. Klimke and really idolize the focus, talent, compassion and effectiveness she brings to her horsemanship. The fact that she also is a mother and wife, writes books and articles and seems to sometimes to also take vacations only adds to her superwoman status. So it is with the utmost respect and honor that I say that this particular book was not my favorite out of all of the Klimke collection.
That is not to say that it is a bad book. It just feels rather…unfocused. In less than two hundred pages, readers get an overview of her principles for training, a snap shot of each phase of work (broken down by warm up, each gait, cool down, cavalettis, etc.) and then offers a brief profile of each of her ten competition horses, revealing their specific training protocols based on their strengths, weaknesses and personalities. We also cover her mentors, support team, and preferred tack. It is a lot of content, and a broad range to cover, and I guess based on the title that is what the reader should be expecting.
The problem I had is that, after having read her other books, this one just seems to gloss over the most important concepts. I guess it isn’t possible to take the deep dive into a particular facet of training that we do when the whole book is dedicated to that particular topic; in Cavaletti, for example, Klimke is able to break down the steps to introduce cavaletti to a horse, and then details the systematic increase in demands which one can place on the horse through the use of ever evolving cavaletti and gymnastic exercises.
With all that being said—for someone who is looking for more of an overview to Klimke’s system, this book will certainly grant you that. It is wonderfully illustrated—the woman seems incapable of taking a bad picture—and each photo shows a joyful horse, well presented. Klimke’s tone is one of modesty and humbleness; she is always a student of the horse. Klimke, who was awarded the title of Riding Master by the German Equestrian Federation in 2012, says that to do justice to this status, “I train further, question myself, consider the views of others, and remain open to all riding styles. Anyone who cares to be a good rider must first of all work on herself: on her inner bearing, her general attitude toward horses, her physical readiness (of course), and on giving aids clearly and “with feel” for the horse” (Klimke, 2016, p xiii). In my opinion, this is an attitude which more American trainers would be wise to embrace.
As always, I still took away pearls from Klimke. For example, Klimke’s horses are all turned out every day, sometimes in groups—even her top mounts. It is an important part of their program to maintain their mental and physical health. “To me, it seems obvious that performance horses should be kept in the way that is most appropriate to their species. This means, they get to move freely every day, whether in a paddock or out at pasture. They need social contact or their herd, in order for them to feel safe and well….In my experience, horses that are turned out regularly rarely hurt themselves” (Klimke, 2016, p. 30-31).
Each chapter heading begins with a summary which is excellent in its brevity and clarity; it is like a little nugget which you could read before you ride just to keep your focus sharp, or pin to your computer to meditate on when taking a break from work. For example, in her chapter on “The Warm-Up Phase”, Klimke writes, “Take enough time to warm up and come together with your partner. This goes for horses of any age and is important both physically and mentally” (Klimke, 2016, p.56).
One of the other aspects of this book with I appreciated was the credit which Klimke gives to her own mentors and coaches, all of whom she considers part of her team and a critical key to her success, as well as her grooms, stable managers and equine health support team. She expresses gratitude to and offers credit to her horses’ owners for remaining steadfast through the inevitable ups and downs of the training process, and also acknowledges the support of her family. No one can reach the kinds of lofty aspirations which Klimke does without such a network, and it was quite refreshing to get a glimpse into that world for this rider.
So if you are interested in sweeping overview of Klimke’s approach to developing her horses, this book would be a great place to start. I know that some sections of the book are already out of date (for example, in 2017, Klimke retired one of her rising stars, SAP Escada FRH, due to injury; she describes Escada in the book as “absolutely the best horse I have had under saddle to date” (Klimke, 2016, p. 121)), but for most readers, these factors will do little to detract from the rest of the content.
Lately, my interest in broadening my understanding of various kinds of ground and in hand work has been growing, and I am enjoying learning about ways in which this work could be beneficial to both my training process and developing the relationship with my horses.
In mid February, I had the opportunity to visit Narnia Stables in Ashford, Conn., the home base for trainer Meg Brauch, who was offering a Straightness Training (ST) clinic with lecture and demo. The clinic’s title was “Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse”, and photos promoting the event showed many happy horses in various stages of training. I was intrigued and roped my friend Sally into making the two and a half hour drive down for the afternoon start time.
Straightness Training is a system developed by Dutch equestrian Marijke de Jong. After one short afternoon session, I am far from qualified to fully discuss the system or its philosophies in any great length, but I did take away that it is inspired by the work of classical horsemen like Gueriniere, Baucher, and those of the Iberian peninsula, and that it is intended as a systematic and progressive system that focuses on developing a horse using humane methods.
Introduction to ST
Meg provided a basic overview of the ST system, where I recognized some clear areas of overlap with other, better-known-to me, training philosophies. First off, most of the unmounted work is done in a cavesson. I was quite impressed with the design of Meg’s cavesson. In my experience, finding correctly fitting cavessons is a real challenge; they usually do not conform well to the muzzle or sit evenly around the bones of the skull. The cavessons Meg uses are Baroque inspired and have a piece of padded chain over the nose; I am sure that some people will find this too harsh, and I am sure in the wrong hands it would be. But in truth, the shape of the noseband better conformed to the muzzle than most of the off the rack cavessons out there, and the weight of the noseband overall was much less than a regular cavesson. It had a greater degree of adjustability as well; one of the horses Meg used for demonstration later in the afternoon was an Anglo-Trakhener, heavy on the Thoroughbred blood, and his refined face seemed fit well in the cavesson. This style also has an option to fairly easily add a bit, which is a useful feature.
The ST system is based on its “five pillars”: groundwork, longeing, work in hand, riding and liberty work. The first two steps are done in a cavesson with a single line attached, and in these stages, the goal is to teach the horse how to carry themselves. The work in hand, which we were there to watch specifically, is done in a cavesson with a set of reins clipped to either side, as on a bridle. As horses become more advanced, a curb bit can be clipped to the cavesson along with a set of reins, and the horse is introduced to the concept of a double bridle.
Horses which are trained in the ST system will be introduced to many under saddle concepts prior to actually being backed; the exercises are meant to help develop the horse’s balance as well as to gymnastically work and develop the muscles. For a youngster, ST can help the horse to understand the rein aids and develop lightness. In the end, the horse should become confident, relaxed and supple in their work. Due to the mental and physical demands, ST should not be started before the horse’s third year. Lightness was a pervasive theme, both in the application of the aids and the weight of the horse in the hand.
For the handler, ST teaches a better feel for their mount’s natural asymmetry and body position in the lateral exercises, and also helps to improve their sense of timing. Meg promised that this improved “feel” transfers over to the ridden work.
Now, to really understand the importance of lateral work, you have to also appreciate that horses are naturally asymmetrical. Horses are narrower in the shoulders than the hips, and like humans, are “sided”, meaning one set of limbs tends to be in charge. In our usual handling practices, horsemen do little to improve the situation (when was the last time you led/untacked/mounted from the right or “off” side?).
ST teaches about “eight dimensions of asymmetry”. For me, there was nothing new here, but I really liked the way the concepts were organized. Meg presented the dimensions of asymmetry as follows:
Lateral bending (issues here are usually the easiest to correct)
Horizontal imbalance (horse naturally carries more weight on forehand)
Front legs (Handedness, as in, which leg does your horse prefer to lead with)
Hind Legs (the carrying hind leg is more flexible, and the pushing hind leg tends to be straighter, stronger and less flexible)
Front/back ratio (the wedge shape of the horse which I referred to earlier)
Diagonal (one diagonal pair will be dominant, and usually the pushing hind is diagonal to the dominant front)
Vertical (leaning in on an angle on corners)
Topline (we want the horse to stretch here and be longer and rounded).
In general, a right bended horse tends to be left forelimb dominant and usually has a pushing right hind. Their concave side is their right side. Reverse all of these for a horse which is left bended (which seems to be less common overall).
To improve the horse first requires awareness of the asymmetry on the part of the trainer. All beings are asymmetrical, but through thoughtful and steady work, improvement is always possible.
Use of the Aids in ST
The pillars of ST work which are done on the ground require the use of the handler’s body language and voice, but several other aids are also important. The first is mental focus—Meg used the expression “inner picture, inner feeling”, which basically means that before a trainer begins any exercise with their horse, they should have a sense of what it is they are trying to accomplish. Related to this is the concept of “energetic aids”, which basically is saying that the handler should be centered, grounded and present, with their full attention on the horse and the task at hand. Finally, for several pillars, artificial aids like a long whip (for driving, slowing or reinforcing) or rein (used similarly to the riding reins, with inside/outside and direct/indirect cues offered) are also included. A direct rein influences the horse’s poll while an indirect rein influences the shoulders, almost like having a lasso around the horse’s neck.
The demonstration section of this clinic was focusing on the work in hand, a pillar which comes after a horse already has a basic understanding of the ground work done with a cavesson on a single line, attached to the nose. Basic circle work and an introduction to the lateral movements should be established through ground work before progressing to work in hand, which is done with a set of reins clipped to either side of the cavesson, as on a bridle. During the ground work phase, the handler works on the inside of the horse. But during the in hand phase, the handler will transition to the outside of the horse.
The whip becomes a tool of refined communication, based primarily by its position. It can be used to activate the hind end, or when held in front of the chest, indicates a half halt. Held at the girth, it asks for more bend or forward intention. Pointed towards the opposite hip, it becomes an advanced aid to increase the angle of the haunches in. When kept down by the handler’s side, the whip is in neutral.
Progression of Exercises
In each stage of progression through the pillars, a series of specific exercises is introduced in order. During each exercise, the horse is encouraged to maintain “LFS”—lateral bend, a forward and downward tendency, while stepping under their center of mass with the hind leg.
Standstill: Meg says many folks new to ST work tend to gloss over this exercise, because it seems too easy or basic. But mastering the stand still, in which the horse halts with front feet square, head and neck lowered, while willingly flexing left and right, provides an important foundation. It also gives the horse a first introduction of the cavesson and its pressure, and helps to teach them to center their mass away from their dominant fore limb.
Circle: Usually done only in the walk, the circle is used to help establish LFS. “We don’t tend to do these in trot or canter, because it is hard to go from the circle to a straight line and keep the horse well balanced,” says Meg.
LFS on Straight Line, progressing to Shoulder In
When it comes down to it, what I witnessed at this clinic was the application of highly effective classical and operant training techniques. This is really at the root of most good animal training, whether you are talking about riding horses or training dogs or teaching some exotic zoo animal to engage in a medical exam. ST work is about applying the 3 R’s—Release, Reward, Relax. When the horse makes a move towards doing the thing you want, the handler offers a “bingo cue” (some sort of consistent sound), they release the pressure, and then immediately reward the horse with verbal or physical praise or a treat. There is then a short break to allow the horse to process what he just learned.
It is the timing and dosing of the pressure and release process which is most people’s downfall. Basically, handlers need to AVOID pressure which is held too much, too long, too often, too suddenly or too steadily, and EMBRACE release which is early, often, quickly administered, long and soon. Release more than you take. Through this process, the horse learns to carry the posture on his own.
There are three phases of the training process. The first phase is teaching the horse. In this phase, we are trying to help the horse begin to understand the exercise, and to develop the new neural pathways which will allow it to be performed. At this stage, the movement may lack gymnastic quality, or be in slow motion, similar to how we might learn a new dance step. In the optimizing phase, the trainer focuses on improving the quality of the movement and encourages the horse to work towards self-carriage in the body and mind. Finally, in the improvising phase, the exercise can now be used for a purpose or in a goal-oriented way.
Another way to look at the training and learning process is to understand that in doing any activity, there is the comfort zone (doing what you know and is familiar), the stretch zone (where you are trying something new that is out of your comfort zone but still attainable) and the stress zone (where what you are trying to teach is too much, too soon). Growth occurs in the stretch zone, but not every day can be a stretch day. And when we live in the stress zone… no training occurs.
Meg demonstrated the in hand techniques with two of her own horses. The first horse was a 6 year old Hanoverian gelding who has had a “slow start” in his training progress due to various injuries. She demonstrated that she held each rein through the thumb and forefinger, so the overall contact was quite light. The outside rein should cross the neck in front of the withers, but not be more than half way up the neck. The goal is to work towards holding the reins closer to the withers than the head, so that the horse is ultimately coming forward from the hindquarters and into the rein (similar to riding). However, when the trainer loses quality, they should move their hold closer to the cavesson until the necessary elements improve. The handler’s body should be positioned off of the girth; Meg explained that it is really easy to get out in front of the horse’s shoulder.
This particular horse usually struggles with the stand still, but today demonstrated the position with his feet even and square. Meg emphasized that under saddle, the horse must learn to wait to move until the rider’s cue, and this practice starts here. She encouraged the horse to stretch forward and down using gentle pressure on the front of the cavesson, and then flexed him to the left and right with pressure on the sides.
After a few moments in the stand still, Meg moved on to doing small circles, 8-10 meters in diameter, to encourage the bending of the horse, while still asking for the forward and downward tendency. When she asked for transitions to the halt, the effort is made mostly from the voice. The ultimate goal is to use little to no pressure on the reins in the halt, as the horse will usually tend to come up in the neck and lean into this pressure.
Because changing the bend while in motion is fairly difficult, Meg halted her horse and changed the reins over to the opposite side to work in the other direction.
She then proceeded to demonstrate the shoulder in (be sure to not draw the horse’s nose further in than their point of shoulder) and haunches in (the horse is taught to bend around the whip, which provides the cue).
Next, Meg brought in her 19 year old schoolmaster, Paladin, an Anglo-Trakehner. He came to her due to intermittent front end lameness which had ended his competitive career; through ST work to straighten his body, redevelop movement patterns and correct asymmetrical muscling, the lameness has all but resolved.
Meg worked through all of the same initial movements with Paladin, but then also showed us work in trot and canter. She explained that the classical masters would sometimes introduce half steps in hand before introducing the trot in order to develop balance and strength; in the faster gaits, it is best to do very short bursts to prevent the horse from losing balance. No matter the gait of the horse, the handler should always remain walking, not jogging, to keep up.
Teaching these progressive exercises in the walk and trot with a youngster can help them to understand what is wanted before trying to do the movements with a rider on board. The movements may also be done in the canter, but this requires more collection than a young horse will have; it is better to introduce the canter under saddle first and allow the horse to develop more strength before teaching these exercises in that gait.
When I signed up for this clinic, I was not expecting a full immersion into an organized training system. I am almost always initially skeptical of programs which promote a particular prescripted philosophy, special equipment (ex: buy this halter/video series/magic stick for just 99.95) or come with too many impassioned disciples who all function at only a very basic level. So before I “drink the Kool-Aid”, I like to try to learn a little more.
Straightness Training (http://straightnesstraining.com/) is a pretty comprehensive program. Its founder, Marijke de Jong, has created an ambitious and heavily trademarked/registered system of instruction, coaching, certification and support. Under the “FAQ’s” page on her website are some interesting threads on integrating ST work with “other types of riding” as well as what the difference is between classical riding and Straightness Training. Here, deJong compares the different schools of classical dressage training (German, Spanish, etc.) to the branches of a tree; while the specific approaches and techniques taught in these different schools may vary, they all have the same roots. deJong’s work is drawing off much of the in hand training approaches used by classical masters. She seems to have studied this subject far more deeply than I have ever attempted to, and it is beyond the scope of this blog for me to do any analysis on the connections here.
I think we as horsemen are all enthralled with the idea of having a horse which responds to our aids with lightness and sensitivity and to have the kind of relationship with our horse that is seemingly effortless and harmonious. Certainly in Meg’s demonstration she showed that with time and care, her work on the ground has allowed each of her horses to respond to quiet and soft aids as they worked through their lateral movements. Despite being distracted by outside stimuli and twenty auditors, both horses chose ultimately to focus on Meg, with a minimum of fuss and no force.
I think my major, most important take away from this clinic was a reminder that we must all reward more often and for less effort. It is so easy, especially in dressage or equitation work, to drill ourselves and our horses. In doing so, we fail to recognize the “try”, the little effort the animal or student puts forward to improve, because we are too focused on shaping the response to be what we want in a final performance. But in order to get to that evolved, confident and smooth answer, there are many small, incremental steps of growth and improvement. If we as teachers and trainers do not reward these steps, the progress and growth we specifically seek can be deterred.
Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix by Carl Hester and Polly Ellison
c 2004 Kenilworth Press Ltd. Addington, Buckingham, U.K. 120 pages.
After attending the NEDA Fall Symposium with Carl Hester in October of 2017, I became more interested in understanding some of the philosophy behind his training methods. I came across his book, Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix, and thought the concept looked interesting; Hester would discuss the process of his training through the lens of his own horses, starting with expectations of a four or five year old and progressing through Grand Prix. Hester described each of the horses as not being perfect, since the perfect horse does not exist. Instead, he detailed how he planned to work through their unique challenges.
This concept related quite well to some of the ideas which Hester shared during the Symposium; to wit, to overcome a horse’s challenges one must use their strengths. In the book’s introduction, Hester writes, “Difficult horses can become good horses….it is important not to give up until you are absolutely sure it’s not going to work. If there is a glimmer of hope, it is worth persevering” (Hester, 2004, p. 9). All of the horses he highlights in the book, including his famous Escapado, his 2004 Olympic mount, are in training for the Grand Prix.
The most helpful chapter to me was number two: “Top Dressage Horses—Are They Born or Made?”, in which Hester details what he looks for in a young dressage horse. In particular, he wants good gaits, with emphasis on the walk and canter, a good temperament, and rideability. Many of Hester’s horses were purchased by him, either alone or in partnership, and developed through his program. The man clearly has an eye for a horse, and he coaches that if one can find a quality horse young enough, a top flight horse might well be within the purchasing capacity of many riders.
Throughout the book, I could clearly hear the repetition of themes which Hester is still preaching today. He discusses the importance of not drilling, especially on a youngster. And that horses must be horses—they enjoy turn out and hacking and sometimes will spook, not to be naughty but because it is the prerogative of the species. One great quote was that overcoming this behavior is “…a matter of confidence, which is built up by repetition rather than reprimand” (Hester, 2004, p 43).
Since this book is nearly fifteen years old, it was interesting to Google the names of the horses which he describes and to learn the arc of their careers. Most were sold but had successful show careers through the FEI levels, some stood at stud, and some are now deceased. Reading a slightly older book like this feels like when you find a new TV series several years in; you can quickly scan ahead and find out what becomes of your favorite characters and decide whether you want to keep watching.
Overall, this book is an easy read and I think if you take it for what it is—a quick snap shot into the training system of one trainer—then you will find it enjoyable and some comments perhaps useful. If you are looking for something which is in depth, a robust analysis into a training system for “real life” horses—this book is not that. The horses Hester is working with are genetically blessed and the discussion of each is fairly basic. The struggles they face surely mirror the same ones faced by riders on “normal” horses, but of course, the scale is tipped quite a bit in their favor.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian