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.
Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View by Ulrike Thiel
c 2013 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 225 pages.
Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View is an intellectual read, part study of equine biomechanics, part reflection on training philosophy and part treatise on the essential need to commit to the classical principles in all work with horses. Author Dr. Ulrike Thiel is a clinical psychologist, therapeutic and able-bodied riding instructor, and dressage devotee, and in this book she blends her education, experience and scientific analysis together in a manner which synthesizes a complex topic into a manageable narrative.
What Thiel does extremely well in this book is providing analogies, visuals and exercises which can help a rider to understand, in human terms, what a horse is experiencing under certain circumstances. Through these means, Thiel helps the rider to have better empathy for how much most horses are willing to offer to us, despite muddled communication, improper balance and a host of other challenges. She conscientiously takes the reader through the learning process which a horse and rider must undertake, including overcoming the predator/prey relationship by gaining a horse’s trust, confidence and respect.
Once Thiel has laid the framework for developing the horse/human relationship through mutual respect, she then delves deeper into the concepts espoused in classical dressage training, comparing the horse’s progression through the exercises to the process of learning to ski for a human (among her many hats, Thiel is also a certified ski instructor). Throughout, she emphasizes the fact that horses will forgive the mistakes of humans, but those mistakes must first be acknowledged to be rectified. The consequences of failing to correct training missteps or rider issues can result in permanent physical damage to the horse.
After painstakingly laying out this foundation, Thiel turns her analytical focus to what she calls “modern” training methods—rollkur, hyperflexion, or low, deep and round (LDR). These controversial training methods have been promoted by several high profile European dressage stars (including Olympic medal winners) and Thiel takes direct aim at the methods, their perpetrators, and the FEI for not wholly condemning their use. To write this book and publish it in her native Netherlands must have taken supreme courage, as one of the most famous proponents of hyperflexion has been two time Olympic gold medalist Anky Van Grunsven, who is a house hold name in the country.
It seems clear that Thiel’s motivations are truly to promote humane horsemanship and training methods, in spite of the risk of drawing what surely is sharp criticism. “The excesses associated with equestrian sports are in the crossfire of criticism…Ultimately, the question we all need to ask is whether the well-being of the horse is being considered as he is used in sports, for pleasure, as a therapy animal, or for other purposes…As it is so often when money, power, and competition play a role, ethics and human assumption of responsibility are left by the wayside” (Thiel, 2013, p. 209). Further, “I think the horse awakens different needs within humans. The horse can be used as a tool to fulfill our desire for power and success” (Thiel, 2013, p. 214).
I would recommend Ridden to any horseman who is interested in better understanding why the classical training methods have endured for centuries, and why this approach is still the best way to train the horse to be the most they can be. I hope that most equestrians that consider themselves to be true horsemen are willing to constantly put themselves under the microscope, asking what they can do better. Reading this book and taking time to honestly reflect on its content should allow for that opportunity for growth.
I applaud Thiel for being brave enough to write this book, and for taking the time to combine intellectual and emotional rationale—left brain/right brain balance—to advocate for why adherence to classical training concepts is essential for equine well-being.
From Birth to Backing by Richard Maxwell with Johanna Sharples
c 1998 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT. 148 pages.
From Birth to Backing provides a glimpse into the training philosophies of Richard “Max” Maxwell, a UK based horse trainer whose methods are strongly influenced by Californian ‘horse whisperer’ Monty Roberts. The text is logically arranged into age-appropriate chapters, with an overarching theme woven throughout that each step is essential and must be taken in sequence. Therefore, Maxwell’s methods are useful to consider even if you are working with an older animal whose performance requires taking a step (or two or three) back.
Maxwell takes readers through his step by step process, which begins with an overview of imprinting a foal, to introducing basic handling, to developing respect and trust in humans, to ultimately accepting the introduction of equipment and a rider. While his methods are grounded in the philosophy of Roberts’ “join up”, there are no gimmicks here—no special halters, patented flags on a stick, etc. All the methods and techniques which Maxwell describes could be executed by any educated and conscientious horse owner, using equipment they already own.
Maxwell is clear to emphasize throughout the book that to be the trainer of a young horse requires confidence and consistency; he recommends seeking outside help if the natural behaviors of a youngster trying to figure out the correct answer will be intimidating to the handler. However, reading this book is still helpful for those not able to undertake the whole process themselves, for understanding the importance of both a clear methodology and calm, consistent handling could assist the owner of a young horse in selecting an appropriate trainer to establish the basics.
What readers may appreciate the most about this book is that the layout is quite intuitive. Not only is each chapter focused on the particular skills most appropriate for a certain age range, but within each chapter, shorter segments help to break down the content into easy to comprehend chunks. The text is filled with ample illustrations which help to reinforce the main themes.
While most of the concepts put forth in this book are familiar, one which I found rather unique was that Maxwell does not believe in using a lead horse when starting to hack out the youngster, as he feels that the horse should look exclusively to the rider for their confidence and safety. Maxwell says, “Very often, riding out with an older horse is an emotional crutch for the rider rather than the youngster. In my experience it doesn’t actually work that well either—I’ve never found that having an older horse there will stop a young horse bolting or misbehaving if he wants to” (Maxwell, 1998, p. 113). Instead, he proposes taking your youngster out on solo hacks, and exposing them to as many potentially frightening stimuli as possible, preferably while the horse is still learning their balance under a rider—that way, their resistance will likely be minimal and their confidence in the rider increased from the very beginning.
Overall From Birth to Backing is a fairly easy read, and its concepts clearly articulated and illustrated. One of the amazing things about publishing is how quickly a text can start to feel stale, and at almost twenty years old, this book’s photos could use an update. However, this should not take away at all from the essential message of the book: establish a trusting relationship with your horse from the very beginning, and from there nearly anything is possible.
The New Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke
c 2006 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT 208 pages
Accomplished horseman Ingrid Klimke has updated this classic text of her late father with great success. It has been years since I read the original, and I took advantage of being laid up while recovering from knee surgery to review the updated edition.
As she did with Reiner Klimke’s Cavaletti for Dressage and Jumping, Ingrid has refreshed the text and in particular the illustrations for the modern reader. I especially enjoyed images of a 5 year old Windfall, the Trakhener stallion who went on to represent the US at the Olympics in eventing, and several of a young Damon Hill. Many of the photos included in this updated edition are of Ingrid and her students riding three, four and five year olds; it is clear that the overall quality of animal in her stable is quite high, though, and so it was almost discouraging to see how wonderful these youngsters looked compared to how “normal” ones do, even at an older age. However, it is important to have a clear picture of what it is you are trying to achieve, and these photos certainly represent this ideal well.
As is Klimke’s hallmark, the book takes readers through a system of progressive education for the youngster starting with being brought into the “yard” right through to their first season of competition. While Klimke reminds readers that each horse is unique, and training must progress at an individual rate, it also seems clear that her horses progress fairly steadily and consistently. When an animal is genetically gifted with three good gaits, a willing temperament and a natural aptitude for the work, it is naturally going to be easier to develop them in the sport horse disciplines. I think it is important for those of us riding more “average” horses to bear in mind that some of the aspects of the process which come smoothly to Klimke on her string may necessarily take longer for the rest of us.
With that being said, The New Basic Training of the Young Horse still offers readers an in depth review of important concepts related to the training scale and those exercises which help to develop them, as well as entire chapters devoted to the horse’s basic education, longeing (on the line and free), cavaletti work, jumping and cross country skills. This sequence offers readers a glimpse into the progressive system which Klimke uses to develop her own horses; she emphasizes that youngsters should be trained on the flat, over fences and in the open before choosing to specialize in dressage or show jumping, if they show an aptitude here.
There are a few particular nuggets which I found especially meaningful. In fact, the text opens with a copy of a letter written to Ingrid by her father, in which he says, “We want to understand the nature of the horse, respect his personality and not suppress it throughout his training. Then we are on the right way” (Klimke, 2006, p.11). I think this is a meaningful mantra for all trainers and riders, regardless of their specialty. I might post it in my barn.
Klimke reminds us that “the aim of basic training for the young horse is to use a systematic method to create a solid foundation for future specialization in a given discipline…we want the young horse, with the weight of the rider on his back, to stay in balance and outline while retaining his natural movement” (Klimke, 2006, p. 16).
In her section on longeing, Klimke states “Correct longeing is as important as correct riding and requires a lot of experience and intuition” (Klimke, 2006, p. 38). I personally feel that longeing well is almost a lost art; I see far more incorrect, unsafe and unproductive longeing than the alternative, so I especially appreciated her further comments on this subject in this chapter. She also reminds us that “the quieter the trainer and assistant(s), the calmer the horse will be” (Klimke, 2006, p. 51). It can be hard when you get frustrated, but horsemen must learn to cultivate this type of mental calmness in themselves if they hope to achieve it in their horses. Klimke goes on to elaborate on the importance of longeing in helping to warm up the muscles of a young horse’s topline, as well as taking the edge off, prior to mounted exercises with the rider.
The next several chapters dissect the training scale and the application of its concepts to the basic training of the youngster. In particular, Klimke reminds trainers that “all exercises and movements should be ridden on the longest possible contact (with poll flexion) to improve the horse’s ability to work through the back” (Klimke, 2006, p. 67) (italics are the author’s). This is a truly classical response to those riders and trainers who choose to force a young horse to work with an extremely flexed poll and short neck.
Another quote which I thought was particularly important was in regards to making mistakes as a trainer. “It is unavoidable that we sometimes push the horse too hard; no trainer is perfect. However, experienced riders acknowledge that they are solely responsible for their mistakes. It is important to make the best of each situation” (Klimke, 2006 p. 71-72). And as with helping children to learn how to behave, “the horse should be rewarded for all exercises done well and ignored for the ones that were not” (Klimke, 2006, p. 72).
I found the chapters which focused on the basic ridden training to be an excellent, clearly written review of the fundamental concepts related to the training scale. Klimke details many basic exercises, including the proper use of the aids and the common mistakes made by horse and rider, as well as defines essential concepts, phrases and movements. She emphasizes the importance of cavaletti work in the basic training of a horse, saying that it offers an opportunity to overcome problems in all phases of training.
Klimke introduces the youngster to fences first with free jumping, proceeding to grids and small courses. I will admit that her progression is more ambitious than what I would be up for, but even spread out over a longer period, it certainly provides a clear framework for the process of training over fences. She also reminds readers that “jump training in the first year should only be done if the horse is willing” (Klimke, 2006, p. 152).
What I found especially refreshing about this book is Klimke’s emphasis that the basic training should be the same for all horses, regardless of their future discipline. In general, I believe that this is the most appropriate philosophy. Regardless of the rider’s discipline of choice, the horse that has a broader base of training will be more confident, more experienced and will be more likely to suit the needs of a future owner. I do not believe that specialization of a young horse (or young rider) provides them with the best foundation for future success.
Much like Klimke’s other written work, I think that The New Basic Training of the Young Horse should be required reading for any serious trainer or rider of sport horses.
c 2012 Trafalgar Square North Pomfret, VT, 187 pages
I first read an excerpt of Jochen Schleese’s book, Suffering in Silence: the Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses, in an old issue of Dressage Today magazine. The segment provided there included information regarding the natural asymmetry of the horse, detailing how this condition develops, and how this asymmetry impacts saddle fit. I was struck by the technical precision in the writing and the clear passion which Schleese had for the subject. I immediately ordered a copy of the book to review in more depth.
Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler and Saddle Ergonomist, and Schleese Saddles are known as being “ergonomically correct” for female riders. In this book, Schleese goes into a great deal of detailed explanation regarding the how’s and why’s of his theory of saddle fitting. In particular, he highlights the personal research he has done into the differences between male and female pelvic anatomy, and how this can impact each gender’s relative position in the saddle. What was even more interesting to me, though, were his thoughts on the ideal fit of the saddle to the horse.
I have struggled to find the ideal saddle fit for two of my own horses; one is a distance horse who has completed two 100 mile competitive trail rides, and the other is a Connemara cross who does mostly dressage (each has their own tack). In the past, I have had certified saddle fitters adding pads, shims and all manner of other manipulations to make saddles fit. After experiencing years of frustration, I began working with someone new, who identified some basic issues, such as an inappropriate tree width, as being part of my problem. Still, the process of finding a correctly fitting saddle can make someone feel like the princess and the pea.
Schleese emphasizes that a well fitting saddle for the horse must be a priority, as this variable, more than many others, can influence a horse’s long term soundness. In this book, he describes the horse’s saddle support area, with detailed discussion of the muscles, ligaments and tendons involved. Schleese uses clear descriptions as well as outstanding illustrations and diagrams to help the reader to see and understand where the saddle should be placed, the interaction of the saddle, girth and the biomechanics of the horse, and the importance of clearing the equine scapula. I can’t say enough about the quality of this discussion, and I think it is something which every horseman should read and absorb. I simply haven’t seen it done better, anywhere.
I have since learned that Schleese is somewhat of a controversial figure in the saddle fitting/making community. There are some who feel that his “saddles for women” theme is just a gimmick to sell saddles; one saddler I spoke with said that if you want to sell saddles in the modern market, they “all better fit women”. Schleese also is a proponent of rear-facing gullet plates, a design which is counter to the principles espoused by the Society of Master Saddlers, a large certifying organization based in the U.K. However, there are many other saddlers who consider Schleese’s work to be inspirational; one local saddler says that his work is in fact what inspired her to become a certified saddle fitter.
With all that being said, I don’t consider this book to be a sales pitch, but rather the outcome of one man’s passion for promoting greater awareness of the critical importance of saddle fit for horse and rider. The text is clear and accessible to any conscientious horseman, the book is incredibly well illustrated through diagram and photograph, and many additional resources are provided where readers can learn more.
I was so inspired by reading this book that I have actually reached out to Schleese’s company, Saddlefit 4 Life, and we will be hosting a seminar with him at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program on September 20, 2017. Visit www.equine.unh.edu fore more information.
Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors by Jo Struby
c 2013 Rose Dog Books Pittsburgh, PA, 94 pages
As a professional riding instructor, I always keep my eye out for new resources and reference materials which can help me to improve the quality of my work. Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors, by Jo Struby, was reviewed in a recent issue of Eventing USA, the publication of the US Eventing Association, and it caught my eye. Ms. Struby used to teach at Wetherbee Farm in Boxborough, MA, and while I am sure she doesn’t remember it we had several conversations while I was in high school. Struby is a former vice president of the former US Combined Training Association and also holds an M.A. in Education, which both have clearly influenced her perspective as an instructor.
This book is not intended to be read from cover to cover, though certainly one could do so. Instead, Struby envisions readers to use the book as a reference. She is specifically targeting instructors and teachers of horsemanship, stating in her forward that she hoped her book would fill a gap in the available literature by addressing the art of teaching horsemanship, rather than the specifics of riding and horsemanship itself. In this book, Struby has compiled over sixty “teaching tips”, which she originally wrote monthly and sold by subscription from 1996-2000.
Struby’s tips are arranged by category, ranging from philosophy of instruction to curriculum and lesson organization to teaching tools and techniques to student needs and desires. Instructors looking for insight or inspiration in a specific category can easily utilize the table of contents and locate short, succinct blocks of reference material on a given subject. Struby is clear that she is not intending to create a text book, and the format of the book feels very much like a collection of shorter articles than one longer, cohesive reference book. I believe that she was successful in achieving her aim.
The content in each of the segments is of decent quality and shows Struby’s background in the field of education. Her material addresses students’ unique learning styles and motivations, as well as how these can influence their progress as horsemen. For me, though, the delivery was sometimes tedious to process for several reasons. There are pervasive grammar and typographical errors throughout the text which impeded comprehension and lend an air of poor quality execution to the book. It is also completely text—visual learners always benefit from quality graphics and I feel there is no reason to not include them in any book.
I don’t have a sense that this book went into a widespread printing, and I had to contact the publisher directly to get a copy. For the motivated instructor, I think it is worth taking the effort to pick up a copy to use as a reference in order to better apply educational concepts to riding instruction. It is too bad that readers must be prepared to wade through some of the editing issues and somewhat low quality of production in order to access what is in reality quality content.
Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse by Paul D. Cronin
C 2004 University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville 274 pages
Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse was originally given to me to review for possible use as a text in a course I teach at the University of New Hampshire. I had high hopes for the book, as author Paul Cronin is a well-respected protégé of the late Vladimir Littauer and also the longtime director at Sweet Briar College’s riding program. The content of the book is geared towards the riding and training of hunter/jumpers and is well organized. Unfortunately, it is also dry and dense, with dated images, and will simply not be read by the Millennials I am now responsible for educating. If you tell me that you have a Millennial-aged student who will actually read this book….I frankly don’t believe you.
I started reading Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse back in 2014. I finished it late in 2016. I was stubborn and determined to get through it. It is simply not a page turner.
As a rider/trainer whose interests tend more towards dressage and eventing, I still find a great deal of helpful inspiration in understanding the training systems used by those who are more oriented towards hunters, equitation and jumpers. In this book, I do think that Cronin clearly and progressively lays out the elements of his system, which is geared to develop the position, controls and schooling of the horse used in forward seat riding. But starting as early as the introduction, I started to take issue with what I perceived as his derogatory tone towards the classical dressage system and his belief in the superiority of what he calls the “American hunter seat”. I think I had a hard time letting go of this perceived slight throughout the rest of the book.
With that being said, I found much to agree with in the book as well. I appreciated his emphasis on the importance of correct and progressive work on the flat to prepare horse and rider for over fences performance. For example, Cronin points out that “it is not accurate to refer to the short gaits with hunters as classical collected gaits. That is a concept that has a special meaning in educated classical dressage riding. The hunters are not collected and on the bit but are connected and on soft contact” (Cronin, 2004, p. 33). This sentence is contained in his chapter on “Position and Controls”, in which he details some of the differences in theory and objective between what I would call classical dressage theory and American hunter seat theory.
Another theme in the book which I appreciated was Cronin’s direct acknowledgement that all horses and riders have their “niche”; not every horse needs to be trained to the highest levels, because not every rider aspires to ride to them. “Not all horses and riders will be able to achieve the advanced level of control not do they need to in order to experience safe, enjoyable riding” (Cronin, 2004, p. 46). He further expands this concept in other chapters, including “Evaluating and Selecting a Horse” and “The Philosophy for Schooling in the Modern Hunter/Jumper System”.
The last half or so of the book is the description of a systematic and progressive series of “schooling periods” which takes the horse successively through seven stages of training. Each phase includes key concepts and exercises to be attained during the schooling period, important concepts to keep in mind and pitfalls to watch for, as well as some sample plans for workouts and training sessions. The most important theme is “systematic progression”. Each step is to be taken in turn, not sooner, not later. A serious trainer could absolutely use this series to develop a young horse or retrain one who had inconsistencies in previous work.
My sentiments towards this book softened as I read through the chapters on the schooling periods. It is clear to me that Cronin is a classical trainer in the style of American forward seat riding, and believes firmly in consistency, patience and slow, steady, horse-oriented progress. I was able to draw more connections between his concepts and those common to the training of dressage and eventing horses in these chapters than the others (mind you, this was all in year three of reading the book).
Overall, this book really is a good source of information, even if it is written in an “old school” style which makes it a bit dense. For a reader who is able to thoughtfully digest any of the classical texts on horsemanship written by the old masters, this book would certainly ring true and fit right into that library. Unfortunately, for the average modern reader of horsemanship books, I am afraid the terminology used throughout the book is too uncommon, the text too dry, and the photos too dated to make it a useful reference. I suspect that most ambitious modern riders who purchased this book have left it sitting on their shelves amongst the others which they have never quite made it around to reading. If you are looking for an easy read on progressive horsemanship—this isn’t your book. If you want to delve into a systematic progression for the training of hunters and jumpers, and enjoy really taking the time to understand the heritage left by Littauer (who went on to influence so many of the great American horsemen of the 20th century), then this text may be worth the time to plod through.
** Bloggers note: If you like the featured image at the top, it is sold as a decal here.**
Paddock Paradise: a Guide to Natural Horse Boarding by Jamie Jackson
C 2006 Star Ridge Publishing, Harrison, AR, 122 pages
Paddock Paradise has been in my library for a few years (please see previous book reviews in which I confess to being a book hoarder). I have come to believe that the ideal horsekeeping situation is one in which the animal can come and go as they please, rather than the model which is conventional in most boarding stables where horses are turned out for a period and then returned to their box stalls. Here at Cold Moon Farm, my horses are out 24/7 with access to run ins. I was interested in this book to learn yet another different perspective on the subject.
Author Jaime Jackson is an advocate for natural horse care practices, from boarding to foot care to feeding. His work has been inspired by personal study of wild horse behavior and ecology, as well as his own experience. In Paddock Paradise, Jackson provides readers with some background as to where his ideas originated, outlines a model for the ingredients of a Paddock Paradise, and concludes with a successful real world implementation of his system.
Jackson outlines a “day in the life” of a wild horse herd, covering in some detail topics such as herd dynamics, the search for water, food, salt licks, and shelter, as well as the role of predators in determining the herd’s habits and behavior. He emphasizes that their search for food keeps herds nearly continuously on the move, and that the overall quality of their forage is poor. Jackson also observed the condition of the wild horses’ feet and concluded that their nomadic lifestyle, covering all manner of terrain, assisted in keeping their feet even and strong.
Inspired by his observations, Jackson began to brainstorm a model for domestic horse keeping which would “create a living space that suits the equine mind” (Jackson, 2006, p.63). Jackson compares the conventional model for horse keeping to an “equine internment camp” (Jackson, 2006, p. 13); in contrast, he has named his alternative system “Paddock Paradise”.
“The beauty of the Paddock Paradise model is that, through a unique fencing configuration—adaptable to most if not all equine properties—and strategically applied stimuli, it “tricks” the horse into thinking he’s in wild horse country, “paradise” in other words. Instead of resisting natural movement, he willingly engages in it. Through stimulated natural movement, he becomes healthier, and this is our major goal.”
–Jaime Jackson, Paddock Paradise, 2006, p. 63
Jackson’s book provides a basic outline as to how a farm manager could convert their property to be a “paddock paradise”. My (extremely) short synopsis is that one would take the existing paddock and install a line of electric fencing on the inside, about fifteen feet away from and parallel to the perimeter. The space in between fences becomes the “track”. The next steps include scraping away most grass and then installing any of a number of “features” which will motivate the horses to move around the track. The features one chooses to install may be influenced by the existing terrain, amenities and resources available, but the ultimate goal is to use “Paddock Paradise as a means of getting horses out of stalls, conventional paddocks, and other modes of close confinement that simulate “predator” environments that are so harmful to the mental and physical well-being of horses” (Jackson, 2006, p. 68).
The entire notion of Paddock Paradise is a bit revolutionary, and I can’t say that I am 100% on board with all of the conclusions regarding domestic horse care that Jackson has drawn from his self-study of wild horses (one example is his suggestion that horses are best fed a mix of grass-type hays and unsweetened oats in small quantities, as this most closely mirrors a wild horse diet). However, I do fully applaud his ability to look at the conventional beliefs regarding domestic horse keeping through a different lens. Just because something is “the way we have always done it” does not mean that it will forevermore be the best technique. Taking our “business as usual” ideas and holding them up to a lens to assess whether they can sustain the scrutiny, to me, is never a bad thing. We don’t have to embrace every new idea or notion, but certainly keeping an open mind to possibilities can allow us opportunities to integrate bits and pieces into the systems which we are accustomed to.
Jackson released an updated edition of Paddock Paradise in 2016. His website expands on some of his ideas regarding natural horse care and provides examples of “real world” approaches to creating Paddock Paradises in a variety of different climates and topographies. I was surprised to recognize after reading this book how many references I have come across to facilities with a “paddock paradise”, or people seeking same. It would appear that in certain communities, Jackson’s “revolutionary idea” has inspired further creative thought.
I would recommend this book for people who have an open mind to alternative perspectives on horse management and to people who already embrace holistic approaches to horse care—but also to those who are pretty secure in their beliefs regarding conventional techniques, so that they can better examine them and look for areas to more closely align our human expectations of horses with the inherent “equine nature” which they all possess.
C 2016 Trafalgar Square Books, North Pomfret, VT, 199 pages
Heather Sansom’s new book, Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks, is not the type of book I would normally pick up. Over the years, I have seen a multitude of different work out plans geared towards equestrians, and I have not ever done one of them. As an instructor, though, I am always on the lookout for new ways to help riders connect with better awareness of their own bodies, as well as exercises which they can use to improve their overall suppleness, strength and muscle tone. Work out plans might not appeal to me—but they certainly do resonate with some of my students.
Sansom is a certified personal fitness trainer and an equestrian coach through Equine Canada, as well as a Level 1 Centered Riding instructor. She merges her fields of expertise to manage her business, Equifitt.com, and offers fitness and conditioning coaching to all levels of rider. In Fit to Ride, Sansom shows that she clearly understands the unique demands which equestrian sport place upon a rider, and I found her book easy to read and absorb.
Sansom leads the book off in chapter one with a short essay on the critical importance of rider fitness. She reminds readers that, “the rider influences the horse in ways beyond most people’s immediate perception, and the way a rider uses her body greatly impacts the way the horse is enabled or blocked from using his….the relationship is biomechanical. Since there are feedback loops…going in both directions (rider to horse, and horse to rider), both species can impact one another….working together with horses is a lifelong quest for harmony” (Sansom, 2016, pp 2-3). This is a theme which I frequently preach in my own teaching, and it was heartening to hear the refrain offered from the perspective of a fitness professional.
One of the challenges for the human equestrian athlete is that riding alone rarely allows us to develop sufficient straightness, suppleness and stamina, the “Holy Grail” of rider fitness, according to Sansom. Unfortunately, “the horse’s imbalances and strain issues correspond very closely to physical patterns evidenced in his most frequent rider” (Sansom, 2016, p 4). It is therefore incumbent upon the thoughtful horseman to develop sufficient body awareness as well as fitness in order to allow the horse to develop to their fullest potential. “In all disciplines, the goals are to enable your horse to understand what you ask and be physically fit to perform it, and then for you to stay out of his way so that he can move in ways his body is designed to move to perform the task” (Sansom, 2016, p 5). And according to the author, many non-equestrian fitness programs actually focus on strengthening the human body in ways which will prevent, not enhance, good riding.
Enter Sansom’s nine week fitness plan, one which she says allows “you [to] return to basics and do a physical “foundational reset” that will improve not only your enjoyment of your ride but also harmony with your horse” (Sansom, 2016, p 6). The progressive exercises all have both basic and advanced modifications to address individual rider needs, and are designed to fit into a busy equestrian’s lifestyle (the recommended timing is three 30 minute sessions per week for nine weeks). Each week’s exercises find ways to address the common needs which all riders have for balance, symmetry, suppleness, cross-body coordination and awareness, as well as stamina, core strength and flexibility. As the weeks proceed, the plan adds in additional discipline specific exercises. The entire plan is meant to meld with and be a complement to other fitness activities that the rider might already be doing.
Sansom understands that riders mostly want to ride, and that supplemental exercise activities are meant to be a chance to “get out of the ring” so to speak. She mentions that “many times, I find riders with a problem avoid fixing it” (Sansom, 2016, p 15) and that “people who need the stretching the most often have the least patience for it” (Sansom, 2016, p 81)—both things I see as an instructor on an almost daily basis. If you have tight hamstrings, locked ankles, rolled shoulders—the only person who can do the work to make the problem area better is you. “Just trying a new exercise to the best of your ability has benefits,” says Sansom (p 15). This is no different than introducing a basic suppling exercise to your mount; they might not make it to the wall in the leg yield, but the horse will no doubt still receive benefit from attempting the exercise. Sansom certainly does her best to make a persuasive case for why riders will benefit from her nine week plan.
From my perspective as a riding instructor, though, the real highlight of Sansom’s book was in chapters two through four, a section titled, “Training the Rider’s Body”. In Chapter 2, “Good Training is About Building Balance”, Sansom breaks down in clear detail the components of flexibility, core strength, strength and balance, and stamina, areas which all riders must address. She includes anatomical discussion supported with excellent, clear visual depictions to help readers understand the how, what and why of each type of fitness. In Chapter 3, “The Important Core Muscles”, Sansom goes into greater detail regarding the specific muscles which help to control the rider’s body while in the saddle. In this section, I was able to draw many correlations between her work and that of Hilary Clayton for horses. Again, this chapter is exquisitely illustrated, helping to show how the various muscle groups overlap and intersect with each other and with the skeleton of the rider. In Chapter 4, “The Differences Between Riding Disciplines,” Sansom helps readers to understand how she has grouped disciplines which might seem quite different (roping and eventing, for one example) based upon the type of fitness required of the rider.
Overall, Fit to Ride in 9 Weeks is an equestrian fitness plan that has been made as palatable as possible for the skeptical rider. Sansom explains exactly what the rider can hope to gain by completing her plan, provides options for many exercises to accommodate individual rider strengths and weaknesses and provides superb illustrations throughout the book (including models demonstrating the exercises themselves). For me, it is worth the read for Section 2 alone, and I think this is a book which should earn itself a place on any serious instructor’s shelf.
The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders by Heather Cook
c 2009 Storey Publishing (North Adams), 231 pages
The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders is a super easy to read and well organized book which represents the most comprehensive summary of the concepts of “sustainable practice for horse care, stable management, land use and riding” in one place to have crossed my desk. Depending on your previous level of knowledge on the subject of eco-friendly horse management practices, this book might alternately be too basic in some areas or too detailed in others. In either case, though, you are likely to find references to supplemental sources which can direct you to more information.
I have long maintained that the equine industry needs to get on board with more sustainable management strategies. Too many farms are overstocked, with destroyed paddocks/turnouts, unsightly and unsanitary manure piles and out of date protocols. This book helps take the reader through the steps necessary to establish a different paradigm, whether starting a farm from scratch or working with facilities and layouts already in place. Cook does an excellent job of balancing general guidelines with more specific detail. For example, each chapter concludes with guidance to be considered for various climate regions in the US and Canada.
Some of the strategies covered in this book include techniques for “harvesting” water from rainspouts for use as wash water or for irrigation (which, interestingly, is illegal in Colorado); several methods of composting manure; selection of sustainable and healthy building materials; reducing the use of fossil fuels, and reclamation of muddy paddocks. In addition, there is an extensive resource list compiled in an appendix which is clearly divided into sections such as green energy, grant sources, recycling, trail riding resources, helpful government and non-government organizations, etc.
This book really is a “must read” for anyone who is interested in being a good steward of their land, or in providing guidance to someone else who is in that role. The onus is on all of us as concerned and conscientious citizens to do a better job of implementing management practices which consider the local and regional environment. A healthy farm means healthy horses.
Blogger’s Note: Cover image is taken from Sustainablestables.com, another great resources for assistance and tips on better horse and farm management strategies.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian