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.
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.
I had the occasion to attend the US Eventing Association (USEA) Area I Annual Meeting out in Holyoke, MA on January 7, 2018. I try to make it every year to attend the event organizer’s meeting, and getting to stay to hear the guest lecture each year is an added bonus. I was quite enthused to learn that Canadian event rider Tik Maynard had been asked to speak at this year’s meeting. Recently, I read a piece Tik wrote for Practical Horseman about the ground work training he had used with his Retired Racehorse Project mount, Remarkable 54. I found the article well written and thoughtful, and had a sense from it that Tik was an educated, thinking horseman. In his presentation, which he called, “7 Big Picture Ideas to Get Along Better with your Horse”, he did not disappoint.
My overall impression of Tik as a horseman only improved upon hearing his introduction—the son of a show jumper and a dressage rider, he attended college in his native British Columbia before embarking on a quest for absolutely top of the line horsemanship education by spending nearly two years apprenticing with riders such as Ingrid Klimke, Johann Hinneman, Anne Kursinski and David and Karen O’Connor. The work was hard and sometimes he didn’t measure up—in fact, he was asked to leave Hinneman’s barn for “not being good enough”. He worked hard to spend time with some of the best in different disciplines, even though eventing became his main passion. At the O’Connors, he had his first exposure to natural horsemanship, which completely changed the way in which Tik approached horse training.
This experience inspired him to do a working student position in Texas with a western rider who specializes in training cow horses using natural horsemanship techniques. I may be getting the exact timeline wrong here, but you get the general idea. In working at this facility, Tik says that he didn’t learn so much about riding— he learned a lot about horses. He became more interested in the behavioral side of horses—how they think, how they respond, and how they process training.
Through his practical education, Tik developed the perspective that all trainers have a philosophy which is the result of the unique combination of their personal training in technique and theory combined with their own instinct or horse sense. Each trainer’s philosophy will be unique to them, which he thinks is a good thing. It is sort of his premise that a student becomes a sum total of their teachers, and every experience has something to teach us, even if what we learn is what doesn’t work well. It is only once a trainer has a solid foundation and philosophy of their own that they can begin to use their imagination to, in Tik’s words, “do something better than it has ever been done before.”
Tik’s personal philosophy would seem to prioritize a horse which is engaged in the learning process. He talks about “The Look”, the moment when the horse looks at the trainer with both eyes and ears focused, seemingly saying, “What are we doing today?” He emphasizes a difference between communication and control in training. And though he was told that there was no way that he would be able to combine natural horsemanship training with developing competition horses at the highest level, he has not allowed such negativity to dissuade him from his path.
In his presentation for the Area I Meeting, Tik highlighted seven concepts which he has found to be important in working with his horses in training.
Taming versus training. Tik argues that there are horses being ridden and shown which are barely tame, never mind trained. For example, when the horse is showing even a slight fear reaction to certain stimuli, or grossly overacts to a small stimulus, these can both be signs that the horse is not fully ok with what is going on. “It is like you have this horse simmering with energy just below the surface,” says Tik. “The horse reacts to the sound of a twig snapping, but that is not the cause of the horse’s tension.” Tik gave as an example of one of his horses, Carollina, who needed to be taught to really think forward.
“There are lots of ways to communicate with horses, but they only have two main ways to show how they feel—either more anxiety or more relaxation,” says Tik. “Too often people learn to compete before they learn how to ride, and before they learn how a horse thinks.”
Start with something you can Your goal may be huge (compete at Rolex) but to get there you must learn all the skills which come before. When training, start with the skills that your horse can do well—even if they are quite basic—and build from there. Tik used the example of teaching a horse to handle a bank. Start with: can my horse look at the bank? Get closer to the bank? Look across the bank and realize that there is someplace to go? “You must be patient,” says Tik. “For example, almost all water problems with horses are the result of someone pushing too hard with the horse’s first experience.”
When working with a horse which has lost confidence, it is important to take a step back and do many small things successfully before revisiting the thing which is hard. “People often get into trouble because they skip steps,” says Tik. “There is still an attitude out there that you ‘have to win’. You need to know that what you get into is something you can get out of. Do not have a battle. Back up to something you can do, and then repeat it.”
Make your session with your horse like a song. When working with a horse, your training session should contain moments at different levels of intensity. The warm up is gradual, and then you may progress to a new skill or lesson which is higher intensity, before the energy gradually comes down towards the end of the session. “All moments are not created equal,” says Tik.
Horses can only learn when they are relaxed. Tik says if there is a scale of tension, a horse must be under a level three in order to learn. “You need to be polite, and do little polite things to help the horse be more invested in you,” says Tik. “If you touch the neck on one side, touch the horse on the opposite side at the same time. Approach a crosstied horse with the same care as a hard to catch horse.”
Tik tries to end each training session by dismounting in the area where he rode, facing away from the barn. He then loosens the girth and might remove the bridle, and waits there until the horse lets go and takes a deep breath.
“Rule number one is the person is safe at the end,” says Tik. “Rule number two is the horse is safe. Rule number three is that the horse is more relaxed at the end of the ride than at the beginning.”
Make your horse’s world neutral.
There are stimuli which will attract your horse (positives) and those which will repel them (negatives). The trainer needs to shift the horse’s energy towards where they want it to go to. As an example, Tik spoke about acclimatizing his OTTB, Remarkable, to the coliseum in preparation for their freestyle performance at the Retired Racehorse Project. The ring was full of banners, which worried the horse. So Tik led the horse towards the banner, and had an assistant feed Remarkable a small treat from the opposite side of each banner until the horse began to relax.
Trainers need to make themselves be more interesting than anything else going on. This means that the lesson being taught must be more interesting; trainers must learn when and how to be big with their actions (body, waving a flag) and when to be more subtle. Which leads really well into Big Picture Idea #5….
Stop at the top of the bell curve.
As a horse progresses through their training, they will get better with a new skill and then often start to get worse—this is a sign that they are bored, frustrated or similar. Tik reminded the audience that “repetition is the mildest form of punishment”, so a better approach is to get to the top of the exercise and then stop, even if the horse gets there quickly. Continuing to repeat the exercise once the horse has already gotten the point of it for the day will mean that they are likely to end their lesson at an energy level higher than a 3 (see Big Picture Idea # 3).
Be a problem solver. Think.
Be creative. Seek help. Think laterally. “The more you do it, the better you get,” says Tik.
“Almost everything we do with horses is about communication or motivation.”
Tik says that the best trainers learn to think like a horse, and they also are aware of how they want the horse to be responding to them. “Dressage horses think about the rider the whole time, but for jumping horses we maybe only want them focusing on the rider during the turns,” says Tik. “Then they need to focus on the jump. So the horse needs to learn how to smoothly shift their focus.”
What are the Olympics of Everything?
Tik joked with the audience, “what if there were an Olympics for cross ties, for leading, for being caught, etc?” His point is that no matter what kind of interaction we have with the horse, we can always work to make it better. It is upon these smaller steps which big goals are achieved. “Have your end goal in mind but always stay in the present,” says Tik (seems relevant to so much in life, no?).
In listening to Tik’s presentation, as well as his responses to audience questions, I was struck by his calm demeanor. He seems humble and authentic. He did announce that he is working on a book with Trafalgar Square, scheduled for release in June 2018—I suspect that this text will be one to add to the library.
I am cheering with my whole heart and soul, screaming really, my throat becoming raw, jumping up and down, urging the beautiful bay filly to keep surging forward. She is stunning—raw power, gleaming coat, the crooked stripe on her forehead and bright yellow of her jockey’s silks distinguishing her from her older, more sedately adorned rival. They are in a tight duel—they have led the pack since leaving the starting gate—and now as they crest the top of the stretch, my favorite has started to pull out in front. I am yelling and kicking and riding my own ride down the stretch, as though my life depended on it, as though by sharing my own energy I can help her to cross the finish line in front.
I am in my parent’s living room, hundreds of miles from Belmont Park in New York, where the Breeder’s Cup is being held. It is October 27, 1990 and I am 14. My cheers and encouragement are heard only by my mother and my cat, who quickly left the room as soon as she felt the pulse of my frenetic and overly wired energy. Until that summer, we had lived just outside of Saratoga Springs, NY, and I had spent many blissful August days standing track side, admiring Thoroughbreds, learning about pedigrees, and cheering for my favorites. I dressed as a jockey every Halloween, wearing handmade pale yellow and purple silks. I kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about anything Thoroughbred, each article I found about horse racing carefully filed and labelled in a series of big red books which lived in my closet. On major stakes race days, I listened to the call on WGNA AM radio, religiously watched every Thoroughbred race televised on NBC, and in the age of the VCR, dutifully recorded the Triple Crown series every year, a true disciple of the sport waiting for a return of the king who would once again wear the Triple Crown.
I am watching the 1990 Breeder’s Cup Distaff, a race for champion fillies and mares aged 3 and up. The race was largely billed as a showdown between the race’s defending champion, Bayakoa, the six year old phenom and two time American Champion Older Female Horse, and Go for Wand, who had already been voted the recipient of the 1990 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three Year Old Filly. It was Go for Wand who I was pulling for—and with just about 100 yards left in the race, it looked like she had it. She had a nose in front and was still pushing forward.
And in a split second, her forehand dropped, her neck rolled, and she flipped over, throwing her jockey Randy Romero to the ground before standing and trying to limp her way down the track.
And in that same split second, as surely as I had ever known anything in my whole fourteen years, I knew that I had just watched a horse sign her own death certificate on national television. Bayakoa went on to win; Go for Wand suffered an open fracture to her right cannon bone.
My screams of enthusiasm became screams of horror, and I felt something come from deep inside my chest which I had never felt before. I thought my insides were actually going to come out like a scene in Poltergeist— I was screaming and crying and shaking and wanted to throw things. I was so, so, so angry and on the verge of losing control. My mother came running, turned off the TV and tried to understand what had happened. But I just couldn’t speak.
I know now that what I had felt that day was rage. The flame burned so intense and so hot that after the emotion quelled, I realized that it had taken from me any desire to ever watch a live horse race again. In one fateful moment, I went from being a devoted fan of the sport to someone who could no longer watch a horse race without first knowing that all of the horses made it back to the barn at the end.
Refusing to watch has prevented me from seeing more contemporary horrors like Barbaro break his right hind leg in the 2006 Preakness, or Eight Belles fall at the end of the 2008 Kentucky Derby, the result of the same exact type of fracture as Barbaro but in both front fetlocks. But not watching has not prevented me from hearing about these horrible tragedies and then once again replaying the fall and death of Go for Wand where it is seared into my memory.
This might not be a popular opinion right now, but I have felt the same way about upper level eventing for years. I have been an event rider since 1997 and have organized at least two USEA horse trials per year since 2006. But I am tired of trying to defend the sport when it feels like every time there is a major international contest, one of the participants does not come home. I have never competed at preliminary level or higher, and I never want to. I am in no way a part of the upper level eventing community; I can barely even be called a passing fan. But I am a member of the greater eventing community, and so the loss this past weekend of the talented Thoroughbred cross gelding Crackerjack, and subsequent online civil war about both that specific situation and the greater questions of safety in the sport of eventing, affects me too.
In recent years, I have spent a lot of time ruminating on what is fair for us to ask our equine partners to do, and how far we should push them. I am sure I still don’t know the answer. Horses are amazing, powerful, strong and yet so fragile. People will offer trite clichés when a horse or rider dies in the course of sport such as, “well, at least they were doing what they loved.” But these are hollow and empty words, and are just a way to fill the void left when a vibrant, athletic and enthusiastic spirit departs us in a shocking and sudden manner. Does anyone really take comfort in them? I doubt it.
People also like to point out that horses have a propensity to harm themselves even in what seem to be the safest of environments; everyone (including me) can tell the story of a horse fatally injured at pasture or in a stall. But can we agree that there is some sort of difference between losing a horse through a freak barnyard mishap and an accident in competition? I think so.
It might seem like a stretch to believe that one incident can change someone from loving a horse sport to hating it. So if I am honest about my feelings regarding Thoroughbred racing, the seeds were there before Go for Wand’s death. I had seen horses go down before, and their memories still haunt me. In fourth grade, I wrote a short story about one, Foundation Plan, a dark bay colt foaled in 1982, who died at Saratoga while I watched from the rail. Seeds can sit and wait for the right set of variables to present themselves so that they can grow into a fully formed thought or emotion. Maybe value-driven emotions need to germinate for a while before they can come to flower. When the conditions are right, your true beliefs will appear before you in their full intensity.
In an October 29, 1990 New York Times article titled, “Breeders Cup: Track Life Goes On After a Day of Death”, writer Steven Crist notes that that year’s races claimed the lives of three horses and caused the forced retirement of a fourth, Adjudicating, who finished the Sprint but was found to have a repairable fracture later that night. From the article:
“Go for Wand’s trainer, Billy Badgett, was inconsolable immediately after the death of what he called the “horse of a lifetime” but spoke about it yesterday morning. “She had never been challenged that way,” he said. “She just tried too hard.”
Earlier in the piece, Crist notes: “Casual fans, who had come to Belmont on a rare outing or tuned into the national telecast of the $10 million racing card out of curiosity, were left seeking explanations, while industry insiders tried to explain that this was a horrible concentration of a rare aspect of the sport.”
Twenty seven years later and not much seems different. While immediate connections grieve, the greater community recoils in horror. And an industry is left trying to pick up the pieces.
Anna and I finished our 2017 show season the last weekend of August at a close to home recognized USDF/USEF show, held at Longfellow Farm in Nottingham, NH. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the show organizers really worked hard to try to make the show a special experience for competitors. We each received a goody bag with magazines, lip balm, a box of sugar cubes and a gift certificate to a web site I cannot afford. There were real flowers in the port a potties. They had a mini trade fair and fresh food. Tons of my friends were there, riding, coaching and grooming, and the whole thing felt a little bit like an end of summer picnic where we were all trying to absorb the late season sun and fun.
As I was setting up my equipment, I listened to the women at the trailer next to mine go through their own preparations. At first, I wasn’t sure who was riding and who was coaching, but ultimately determined there were two rookie riders doing their first Opportunity classes, a conscientious horse owner, and one extremely patient trainer. The riders’ nervous energy was palpable as they struggled to pull up their new full seats, bemoaned the lack of pockets in same for sugar cubes, and valiantly figured out how to tack up their mounts while still remaining clean. A gentleman wearing a camera stood nearby, wisely far enough back from the action so as to not get caught up in it but close enough by to be showing support. When it came time to mount, neither could manage to do so off the top of a 5 gallon pail, the only mounting block available. So their trainer offered each of them a leg up.
Compared to these two, who as it turned out were riding in my ring, directly after me, I was the epitome of calm. I methodically went through my usual preparations, putting on the white base layer, the choker which fits a little too tightly, the hairnet which always leaves an indent on my forehead secured under my gray velvet helmet. My hand me down Pikeur jacket was an expensive purchase for its original owner; I acquired it for just $30 and spent an additional $35 spent to tailor it, though it still doesn’t feel like it fits me right. It is just a bit out of style and the collar has faded in the sun, which I’m sure no one notices but me. I felt no nerves, no worries. I tacked up Anna, mounted off the top of my own upturned 5 gallon pail, and headed to the warm up.
Anna and I performed Third Level Test 1 for the fourth time this season, and got yet another 58%. I somehow mistimed my warm up, leaving me a bit shortchanged in terms of the preparation, but at the end of the day I really don’t think it would have mattered all that much. While our performances have progressively improved, the scores have not. We have been rocking those 50’s (it sounds like a dance party, which would be a whole lot more fun): 57,55, 59, 58. Close but not quite there.
I do appreciate the comments from the judges. Judges have a challenging job; they must sit for hours, running “tapes” in their mind which include the purpose of the level and the expectations of a movement at that level, and then they translate these ideals promptly into a succinct statement which justifies their assigned score. I have sat and observed judges and scribed. I have graduated from the USDF “L” learner judge’s program. I have spent hours judging at schooling shows, watching many, many tests in which there was very little dressage going on, trying to figure out how to offer feedback which will be perceived as helpful but not overly negative. Judges are usually really trying to help the riders they are watching.
But that day at Longfellow, as I held my yellow sheet on which the judge noted “capable horse who is obedient in changes and must be rounder and better on bit and connected”, I just felt defeated. Like, what is the point of this? Dressage is such a dumb sport, to get all dressed up in these ridiculous uncomfortable penguin suits and go to shows where they put flowers in the port a potties and then we go and ride these redundant patterns, over and over again, hoping that for the FIVE MINUTES the judge sees our horse, we can meet some mystical expectation of “dressageyness”. Why am I wasting my time and energy doing this? Why did I spend an hour to bathe and braid my horse and load equipment into my trailer and then ship down here? For a 58%?
I have been teaching riding since I was eighteen years old, over half my life. I sure thought I knew everything when I first started, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to understand that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I have at least five former students to whom I taught the absolute basics of how to put a horse on the bit, which have now ridden to Grand Prix and finished their USDF Gold Medals. There are probably another five who are riding at Prix St. George or Intermediare I. Meanwhile, I am over here still splashing around in the dressage kiddie pool, unable to get my swimmies off.
In the Chronicle of the Horse’s August 7 issue, there was a great article about an amateur rider named Elizabeth O’Connor. This spring, she finished her USDF Gold Medal riding a one eyed off track Thoroughbred which she trained herself. To say that the pair had overcome adversity to achieve this result is an understatement. It is a story meant to inspire, to remind readers that one doesn’t have to have the fancy warmblood and that with hard work, grit and determination, one can get to the big goal.
But what if that isn’t really true, most of the time? What if hard work and determination isn’t enough? When do you decide that maybe the judge’s comments are correct, and it is time to pack up and go home before the Dressage Police show up and throw you out?
I was still feeling pretty defeated when I brought Anna to the beautiful Chesley Brook Stables in Dover, NH, to ride with Verne Batchelder on Labor Day. I was tired emotionally and physically, having just ridden the two day 60 mile ride at GMHA with my Thoroughbred, Lee, finishing in the remnants of Hurricane Harvey on Sunday. Verne quickly picked up on the fact that I seemed…down.
A former classroom educator and lifelong equestrian, Verne is probably the best coach I have ever worked with in terms of getting the maximum performance out of Anna. He has seen me ride different horses, and he knows both me and this horse well. As professionals, there are certainly times when we need a kick in the backside but there are also times when we need a boost. Verne reminded me that sometimes the biggest complement that a teacher receives is when their student exceeds them. He also pointed out that I am doing Third Level on a somewhat lazy horse whose genetics do not automatically set her up for the job. Anna is trained. 58% is close. We are not in the 40’s.
“We are not going to become the masters of Third Level,” proclaimed Verne. “We are going to keep going. We are going to get this pony to FEI.”
I don’t know if we will or we won’t, but that is almost irrelevant. Everything Verne said was just what I needed to hear. I have made a conscious choice to own my own horses, to do my own training, and to commit to the process and animals I have. Giving up when you hit the hard spots can sometimes be the right choice, but at other times you have to just keep plugging away with the faith that with enough persistence, even the roughest of surfaces wear smooth. If my goal was simply to get to Grand Prix, or to finish a USDF Silver or Gold Medal, I could do that….but the fastest route would be a totally different path than the one I have taken. I haven’t chosen to lease a schoolmaster, or to buy a big mover, or even to devote my training energy and tack time 100% to dressage. And for these reasons, I have become (in my opinion) a more robust equestrian.
When I returned to my trailer at the Longfellow show, I was untacking and unbraiding Anna, who hungrily mowed down the grass of the field we were parked in. My neighbors returned, elated, victorious; they had finished their first ever dressage tests at a rated show. The horse owner saw me and said, “wow, I saw your test, and your horse was amazing! It was such a great ride!”
“Thanks,” I smiled, knowing even without having seen the results that it was probably just another 58%.
“We actually rode right after you in the same ring,” she continued, flushed with excitement. “And when we saw you cantering on the diagonal, and then doing one of those changes, we totally panicked, because that wasn’t the test we knew! Your horse is just beautiful.”
I guess I didn’t really hear her then, but in retrospect I appreciate the comments more now. Why are we doing this silly sport, this art, called dressage? It can’t be just for the score…because the score only represents one moment in time. You have to do it for the day to day victories, and for the incremental improvements which show that your horse is progressing. My horse does flying changes. And she half passes. And she is starting to understand the double bridle. We may be working on many elements still, but there are many others which she does well. She received 7’s on her walk pirouettes; Verne thinks they should be 8’s. My horse is a Third Level horse.
So while other people may be diving into the deep end, don’t mind me. I’ll just be over here in the shallow end, gradually creeping my way into the deeper water. A little better than marginal, but not quite yet sufficient.
Motivation, or the lack thereof, is something which we all have to deal with from time to time. When it comes to pursuing my riding goals, fitting riding time into my busy schedule, and/or doing all the various chores related to maintaining my horses and farm, lack of motivation is something which I have only rarely struggled with. In fact, skipping a ride for even valid reasons (pouring buckets of rain, celebrating a holiday) or shirking on a duty (not grooming my retired horse every day) usually causes me to go into a state of self-flagellating guilt.
Until this spring.
This spring has been tough on me for reasons wholly unrelated to my horses. The truth is that there is some pretty heavy “life” stuff going on, which I will get through, but the going is pretty deep right now, and I am getting tired of slogging. Enough about that but suffice it to say that this issue has taken a TON of life energy to manage and it has left me feeling depleted, insecure and not confident.
In addition, for the past five years, I have been dealing with on again/off again knee swelling and pain which has defied a causative diagnosis but which has responded well to draining and steroid injections. Usually it happened to one knee at a time and then the joint stayed quiet for months to years in between flare ups and treatment. This January, both of my knees decided to gang up on me. There was the “bad” one and the “worse” one. This time around, my doctor decided to schedule an exploratory arthroscopy to try to get some definitive answers. While all the “pre approvals” and pre-operative appointments were scheduled, the pain in my knees just escalated. My knees and calves swelled. Riding went from being non painful to bearable to misery at anything other than the walk. Before my surgery, doing really normal people things, like putting on pants and socks, was nearly impossible to do without pain. So you can imagine that giving proper leg aids was also a challenge. I felt useless and ineffective on a horse.
Being in pain stinks. Chronic pain becomes like a mantle that you can’t quite put down. You can numb it, you can suppress it, but it never really goes away. You don’t sleep as well, you don’t eat well, and you start to weigh your actions in terms of whether the pain they will incur is worth the outcome. Example: is it worth climbing the stairs one more time to get a sweater? Or would I rather just be cold today?
So it would be easy to label this pain as the cause for my loss of motivation. I tried to keep going, but I found that increasingly I would let excuses slip in to justify not riding.
“It is too cold.”
“It looks like rain and I don’t want to get my tack wet.”
“The footing is too muddy/snowy/icy/dry/uneven.”
“I have no one to ride with and my horse is going to be upset to leave the group.”
Or I might manage to ride, but only stayed on for thirty minutes before being “done”.
I struggled to set any type of goals for the 2017 season at all. I blamed it on not knowing what the outcome of the arthroscopy was going to be, and therefore how long I would be out of commission. But in reality, I was feeling overwhelmed by the effort it would take to actually DO any of the things which I could imagine doing. You know, things like actually hitching the trailer, putting tack in it, and going somewhere with a horse.
I had had some tentative plans to enter a few early season distance rides with Lee. I even got so far as to put one entry in the mail. But I scratched just days later, after having a really bad weekend in terms of knee pain. This was a perfectly acceptable reason for not doing the ride. But the underlying truth was that I couldn’t stomach the idea of doing all the work to get ready to go to the ride, loading/hitching the trailer, or getting up super early to be there on time. The ride itself was the least of my worries.
WTF was wrong with me????
Apathy ap*a*thy (noun) Lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern
Synonyms: Indifference, lack of interest, lack of enthusiasm, lack of concern, uninterestedness, lethargy, ennui
My Facebook feed is dominated by horses, dogs and cats, sprinkled here and there with a few posts about children or nature. On any given Sunday, dozens of people I know have been out and about with horses in tow, attending clinics, dressage and jumper shows, schooling cross country, attending trail rides and more. They post their pics and rave about how wonderful the day was and how much fun they had. This spring, I would just look at these posts and think… “huh, that seems like a lot of work. Good for them.” And I would stare out my kitchen window at my four horses and sip my coffee.
I did the basic chores. The horses were groomed, fly sprayed, shod, and had their spring vaccines. I went to get additional hay to carry us through the season and ordered grain. I sent the trailer for its spring tune up and inspection. I laundered winter blankets and scrubbed and stored winter shoes. I started transitioning the horses to grass turn out.
I rode Lee and Anna four or five days per week. Lee hacked or longed. Anna did light dressage schools, hacked, and practiced wearing a double. Izzy went for walks on the driveway and learned how to stand on the cross ties and wear a fly hat. Marquesa was groomed and ridden by friends. It was all done by rote.
I tried to forgive myself for feeling this way. I tried to be patient with my body, which seemed determined to make me miserable. I tried to set super small goals each day (like, today I will do ONE extra thing that needs to get done). I tried, with all of the morale I had left to muster, to not completely stop moving. I worried that if I did that, I would never get moving again.
Coming About: A nautical term, used in sailing to indicate that the bow of the boat will start to turn through the wind
Synonyms: Helm’s Alee
I had my knee surgery on May 23. After being in so much pain for so long, the surgery wasn’t much worse. Unfortunately, the procedure hasn’t yielded any definitive answers but the overall cleanup which occurred (along with yet another drain/injection of the other knee) has left me feeling better than I have in months. I am still not allowed to ride, but I have had some students coming up to keep Lee and Marquesa going. I might try to put Anna on the longe line later. We’ll see.
While I have been on lay up, I have had plenty of time to think and analyze and assess. And what I think I have come to is that how I feel is how I feel…and it is okay. Maybe I don’t have huge performance goals for the season with my horses. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy them and keep moving forward. Sometimes, your body and soul just needs some time to heal. That is where my life energy is focused right now.
I set a few small goals for myself for the period during which I am going to be laid up: 1) re-read The New Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke 2) work on setting up a website for my farm 3) write a few blogs. I have done some work on all three.
Last Saturday, I worked at the Central New England Region Show Jump Rally as the course designer and a judge. The weather was pretty much perfect—sunny, slight breeze, temps in the mid to upper 60’s. The courses rode well and the riders seemed to have fun. I was surrounded by friends, students, former students and parents. Several of the riders were trying to qualify to compete at the USPC National Championships later this summer and it was exciting to see them ride up to the challenge. I actually had fun. I started to remember what that felt like.
Tues May 30 was Izzy’s birthday. I took a few conformation photos of her so that we can compare her in one year’s time. She has been coming into the barn independently for grooming and handling daily. She makes me smile whenever I enter the paddock with her friendly and inquisitive nature.
Slowly, I can feel some of my motivation coming back. I can guarantee that I won’t be taking the world by storm this year. But maybe, just maybe, I can get moving in the right direction again.
With Anna, I hope to make it out for some lessons with Verne Batchelder when he is in town, and maybe make it to one dressage show. With Lee, maybe I can do some further exploration of my local trail network, or ship up to Tamarack Hill to ride with Denny, or to Pawtuckaway State Park to ride with friends. Maybe we do a competitive ride, maybe we don’t. I can guarantee you that Lee doesn’t care. I want to introduce Izzy to the trailer, do some basic in hand work, and improve her behavior with the farrier.
This is progress. These are actual tasks I can see myself accomplishing. There is hope.
I am usually a results driven person, and many of my personal goals have revolved around competition. But as Denny (Emerson) says frequently, at the end of the day, no one cares about how you did at a show except for you, and your mother (and she only cares because she wants you to come back in one piece). Perhaps the theme for this season will be to learn to enjoy the journey and to find a balance between the process and the result. I hope that by looking at my goals from a different perspective, I may be able to make progress towards them without starting to feel overwhelmed, apathetic or detached.
In this way, I will try to Come About. As with turning a boat, it won’t happen immediately and I may have to fight the tides. But so long as I keep pressure on the tiller, I should see this ship turn.
I might be the world’s slowest blogger but I suppose better late than never! This blog is the summary of my notes from a lesson I took with my dear friend Jen Verheran, who visited us here in NH in early March on what turned out to be the most frigid weekend of our entire winter. Jen is an accomplished rider and trainer, as well as the founder and principal at Cadence Coaching, Inc. Jen is also a fellow Connemara lover, and I was really interested to hear her thoughts on Anna. We were able to squeeze one ride in together around the sessions she did for the UNH Equestrian Team.
If you follow my blog, you will no doubt recognize that Anna is not known for being the most forward thinking of mounts. While she is pretty willing to do whatever is asked, she does not naturally possess a high degree of “forward intention”. I showed her lightly at Second Level last season with decent scores, and she currently schools most of the Third Level movements. But impulsion is always the variable which seems to be lacking, and coming up with new ways to inspire and motivate her is a real challenge. I don’t frequently get the opportunity for feedback from ‘eyes on the ground’, either, and I was interested in Jen’s honest opinion in regards to where Anna stood against the expectations for Third Level.
Jen has a lot of experience with Connemaras and Connemara crosses, having owned several during her career. While the breed is known for being quite versatile and athletic, they are not typically big movers. Despite being half Trakehner, Anna seems to primarily display the traits of her Irish ancestors. Most principles of dressage training come from the German school, which favors warmblood type horses; the German training philosophy emphasizes riding the horse actively forward into the hand. This is an excellent approach, and it works really well on horses which either naturally go forward or who are easily able to be motivated forward. It does not work so well when you have a horse whose response to nearly any driving aid is…meh.
I will sidebar here to note that Anna has been this way since the get-go. She isn’t desensitized. She was never sensitized to begin with. The very first time I carried a dressage whip with her, she didn’t respond in any way. Not negative, not positive…just non responsive. You can really wallop her to no effect. So louder or harder leg or whip aids just do not work. I have never met a horse like her in that regard.
Jen told me that in working with her Connemaras, she took a lot of inspiration from the techniques of the French school. This training philosophy favors Baroque and Thoroughbred type horses. While these two varieties of horse might not seem similar at first, they both are types which seem to develop more correct forward activity when they are ridden first into a steady balance. Baroque type horses tend to be better at collected movement than they are at moving with ground covering strides, whereas Thoroughbreds can cover ground but tend to be heavily downhill. Asking either of these types of horse to go more forward, without first establishing better balance, is usually an exercise in frustration for all involved. Specifically, the rider needs to do exercises which encourage the horse to better use the loin area just behind the saddle until the horse feels that they are moving within their own balance. Only then can the rider expect greater forward energy.
Jen introduced me to a series of exercises geared towards loosening Anna’s body, as well as lateral movements specifically to improve the softness of her loin area. After a basic walk/trot/canter warm up, I returned to an active medium walk and put Anna into a shoulder in, then shortened stride and rode a turn on the forehand. We then did a variation on this, where I put Anna into renvers (haunches out), and then rode turn on the forehand again from this position. While it felt a bit ‘backwards’ at first, this exercise helped increase Anna’s suppleness pretty quickly.
From there, we moved onto the trot and began working on a series of transitions between trot and walk on a twenty meter circle. During the trot strides, the focus was on keeping the trot bouncy; rather than just moving more forward, it was about creating more spring. Once Anna’s trot started to develop a more consistent degree of spring and energy, I began to go large. We then rode a sequence of movements, starting with a ten meter circle at the top of the long side, into shoulder fore going straight ahead, then establishing counter flexion and leg yielding in from the rail, finishing in shoulder fore. This exercise was completed all down one long side, and it was super at keeping Anna focused. The frequent transitions helped to keep the trot lively and the connection clear.
Jen suggested that I ride Anna with minimal to no bend, especially in the canter, because of her tendency to bend more in the neck than in the body. Anna is super compact, and like most horses, her neck is her most flexible area. But when the neck overbends to the inside, the opposite shoulder pops out. By riding her in a straighter alignment from poll to tail, it is easier to narrow the space between the inside hind and outside fore. This further allowed me to adjust the position of her head at the poll. I noticed the benefit of riding this way most clearly at the canter, which is the gait at which we have had the greatest degree of challenge in terms of keeping steady connection. As I practiced this over the next few months, I have seen a huge improvement in the quality of the canter in general. It also was a theme which came up during a clinic I took with Jan Ebeling in April (more on this in a future blog, I promise!).
Jen told me that she wanted to throw as many exercises at me as possible so that I would have several new tools to use to improve the quality of Anna’s movement and connection. I was impressed by how much softer, rounder and steadier Anna became through the course of our ride (did I mention that it was maybe 18 degrees??), and she developed both lipstick and soft eyes and ears. Without ever doing a single “forward” transition, Anna had become much more willing and supple off the leg, and had developed a much increased ‘hot’ response to the forward aids.
Jen recommended that I continue to play with the exercises which she offered for the next month or so, and if they seemed solid at that point, it would be time to add greater adjustability within the movements and gaits. The goal of the work is to continue to improve her balance, so that she is able to engage the hind leg better and develop connection with a soft lower back.
Jen is such a positive and enthusiastic coach, and she really helped me with some fresh eyes on Anna’s training program. Of course she lives on the West Coast, as all my favorite teachers seem to be as far from NH as you can get and still be in the US! I asked Jen if she thought that introducing the double bridle would be appropriate, and she encouraged me to go ahead and try it; some horses do simply go better in the double, even with a light curb contact (as it turns out, Anna seems to be one of those horses, too…more on this later as well!). Finally, she encouraged me to change my mind set about Anna; instead of thinking, “she will go Third level”, Jen told me to start saying to myself and others that Anna is “working at Third Level”. By thinking of her as a Third Level horse, I will come to each training session with a different attitude and set of expectations, which will more than likely help Anna to continue to step into the role.
Jen’s lesson was a perfect bridge between some of the concepts and techniques which we have worked on with Verne Batchelder in the past and those used by Jan Ebeling at our session in April. It is always nice to see the pieces connect together!
In the downtime between our two semesters at the University of New Hampshire, I always try to tune up a few school horses or work with some of our newer herd members to get to know them a little bit better. Increased tack time is always good for the soul (even if the cheeks end up a little chapped from the cold!) and I appreciate the opportunity to work with different horses. There are so many lessons to be learned.
I think school horses are simply some of the most amazing horses on the planet. They tolerate all manner of riders and need to decipher their aids. The riders who sit on them are, by definition, students, which means that those aids may lack refinement, finesse and sophistication. It is the exceptional school horse that can absorb all of this without ill effect, and it is my opinion that they deserve having one consistent person work with them for a period of time every now and then. The horse and rider have a chance to connect more deeply, and if the rider is experienced enough, they can help to break through any blocks or defensiveness that the horse may have installed in an effort to absorb some of the confusion in the aids.
During the recent winter break, I worked with three horses which are used in our dressage-only classes: Fiona, Otto and Tino. Despite all being dressage specialists, they each require a different kind of ride to elicit their best performance. Riding each horse helped to remind me of details which I then applied to my usual dressage ride, Anna.
Fiona is a chestnut Thoroughbred type mare who has been with our program for several years at this point. Of all the many horses I have tried out for the program, Fiona is by far one of my favorites. She is “my type” of ride; slender, athletic, a little sensitive, and of course, a mare. I always enjoy reconnecting with her during our breaks.
It has been almost one year since I last sat on Fiona, and I was a bit disconcerted at first by how much more defensive she felt this year than last. By “defensive”, I mean that her initial reaction to any soft contact was to brace and become hollow, and she was also reluctant to actively reach with her hind legs. It was my sense that Fiona was protecting herself, but the question was, from what?
I started by re-checking her tack, which by and large looked ok. She was definitely due for a re-shoe, so we had that taken care of. I then started a program which encouraged Fiona to begin to reach through her entire topline and stretch into the connection. While this idea is a key principle of dressage, it seemed to me as though she had a little bit lost her faith in that concept.
I very rarely warm up a horse at the trot completely off contact (although I always start with a ten minute or so free walk on a loose rein). But with Fiona, I had to break my own rules. First, Fiona absolutely needed the walking in phase; if I had a shorter than usual period of time to ride her, this was not an area where I could cut corners. Once I moved on to the warm up trot, I didn’t shorten my reins at all, instead allowing Fiona to warm up while carrying her topline wherever she felt like she needed to with a completely floppy rein. I didn’t ask her to align her shoulders and hips or even do more than the most basic of soft bend in the corners. I kept all of the turns sweeping and wide and changed direction regularly. After a few minutes like this, I very, very tactfully shortened the reins until I had a delicate, soft, pushing-toward-the-mouth contact, and I stepped Fiona into a canter.
For this horse, at this time, it is the canter which does the best job of loosening her up and encouraging her to let go. The left lead seems to be more comfortable for her than the right, so I usually started there. I never forced her to connect but instead encouraged it. In the canter, Fiona is more willing to reach underneath herself with the hind leg while also allowing the rider to maintain a soft, steady, elastic feeling in the reins. But the nanosecond that the rider gets greedy and holds too much in the rein or blocks with the seat, Fiona hollows again. The rider must practice patience.
I went through this slow, gentle warm up with Fiona every single ride. It honestly would take ten minutes of walking and twenty of trotting and cantering before she started to feel even remotely soft or fluid. If you pushed her harder before then, she would quite literally stop, or kick out at the leg—a sign that the question was ‘too much’. It would be easy to label her as being resistant (“this horse won’t connect”) but I think it was much more an example of ‘this horse can’t’. She had been blocking her body to such a degree for so long that every exercise session was only dedicated to unlocking her muscles again.
By the end of a ride, Fiona was loose, supple, forward and through. She stayed soft in the jaw, chewing the bit and generating the “lipstick” that we like to see in a dressage horse. Her responsiveness to the aids improved dramatically; Fiona at the end of a ride was like a completely different horse.
Fiona is not as young as she used to be, and she tends to be hard on herself out in turnout, so my sense is that all of these factors, plus her inherent personality, are simply starting to add up in creating this level of “block” in her body. I think the lessons which I took away from working with Fiona this winter were 1) that the rider can always be more patient 2) sometimes you have to throw your usual “rules” out the window and experiment to figure out what works best—the horse is always right! And of course, riding Fiona reinforced a rule that we always can be reminded of: force will get you nowhere.
Otto is a wonderful little petite Ferrari of a horse, who joined our program late this summer. He is trained through Third Level, and having seen him go a few times, I just knew that I would enjoy riding him. As I work towards bringing Anna up to Third Level, I thought it would be helpful to take advantage of the chance to ride a schooled horse through some of those movements again.
Otto is half Arabian, and he has a tremendous “go” button. I made the mistake on our first ride of carrying a dressage wand; it was so not needed! The students had told me that he gets heavy in the hand, and I had personally observed him tending to tuck his nose in towards his chest and get stuck in the kind of power trot that is flashy to watch but not much fun to ride. While still a connection issue, this is at least a different variety than the one I am used to dealing with!
Otto came to us wearing a Baucher bit. Many people mistakenly believe that this bit uses poll pressure in its action, but this is not the case. In fact, if you put your fingers under the crown piece and then have a friend apply pressure on the rein, you will feel that there is no poll action. A Baucher does raise the bit slightly higher against the corners of the lips and holds it steadier in the horse’s mouth; it seems to appeal most to horses which dislike any kind of fussiness in the connection. In my experience, though, most horses just lean on it, and that is what I felt in Otto. My colleague helped switch out the Baucher for a basic jointed loose ring, which gives him more to chew on and definitely helped to improve the softness of his jaw.
The biggest key with Otto, and horses like him, is that you have to take a leap of faith and give the rein when you want to take. On the days when I would get on Otto with an agenda, and maybe too much tension in my muscles, I could feel him tend to take a bit more feel on me in return. This is the start of that inevitable cycle of pull and tug—you pull on me, I tug on you. I remember my mentor from many years ago, Beth Adams, saying, “It takes two to pull.” So whenever I felt that weight increasing, I pushed the rein forward towards the corners of Otto’s mouth. Sure, he sometimes accelerated, and then I would circle or leg yield (or both!) and take advantage of the energy to help Otto become better balanced and engaged through the use of my diagonal aids.
Otto was simply so much fun to play with. We did a million transitions within and between gaits, worked the half pass in trot and canter, and played with his flying changes. The entire time, I kept thinking, “give”. The softer I stayed, the softer Otto stayed, with a more correct neck and improved connection.
This lesson was especially helpful to bring forward onto Anna, who is sort of the opposite in terms of her connection issues—she tends to be above the bit and lacks thrust. On her, finding the right blend of steadiness in the rein (to encourage her to connect) versus give (to encourage her to stretch) is tricky. Riding Otto reminded me that I can always offer Anna the opportunity to develop better roundness by my becoming a bit more elastic and giving for a few steps. When I apply this concept, it is nine times out of ten that Anna softens back. Funny how that is….
Tino is by far one of our most elegant and well bred school horses, and we are lucky to have such a lovely animal in our program. It actually hadn’t been my intention to work with him over the break, but when he is out of work, he becomes a bit sassy for the crew to handle, so back to work he went.
Like Otto, Tino has been shown through Third level, but he has much bigger gaits, and these can make him quite challenging to ride correctly. The sheer power of his movement can throw the rider far out of the saddle and off balance in the trot, and I think it is because of this that most of his riders hesitate to send him correctly forward. When this happens, Tino gets stuck in a “passage trot”, which is of course horribly incorrect and not good for his muscling and long term comfort levels.
Tino has had some excellent schooling in his past, and I wanted to make sure that I did right by this horse. I took some video of him and sent it off to a trusted friend for some feedback. She supported my initial instinct, which was that Tino needed to come more freely forward and respond to the rider’s leg aid by reaching forward and under, rather than higher and loftier. As with all my rides, I started each session with Tino with ten minutes of a marching free walk, and then warmed him up in the trot and canter while encouraging him to stretch through his topline and reach forward into a soft contact, all without dropping his shoulder or getting too heavily onto the forehand.
Tino’s canter is pretty gosh darn amazing. It is rhythmical and cadenced, and I found that using forward and back adjustments in the counter canter during the warm up phase really helped Tino to loosen his topline, making more correct movement in the trot easier afterwards.
Once he was warmed up, I did a lot—and I mean a lot—of lateral work with him, working on getting a more correct and sharper response to the leg aids. We did shoulder in, travers, renvers and tons of half pass. As the strength of his topline returned, we added in more work with adjustable gaits, and I encouraged him to lengthen his stride, then come back to a shorter yet still reaching step. I also played a lot with his changes; they are easy for him, and as my “consultant” said, “I have yet to meet a horse who was hurt because of doing the flying changes. If they are easy, they are fun for him.”
I am thrilled with the progress Tino made over the break. He is a powerful, athletic animal, and thankfully he is generally good natured and doesn’t use any of those qualities against us! That being said, I think he is a really challenging school horse for riders to figure out. To get the best work from him (as it is with any horse), the rider must ride forward. And once Tino is really going forward, you have A L O T of horse underneath you. That is pretty intimidating– but SO much fun.
Riding Tino reminded me what it is like to experience the talents of an animal who is simply bred to do their job. The “movements” are easy. What is important to remember, especially with a horse like Tino, is that when the quality of the gaits decline, we have forgotten the purpose of dressage, which is (simply put), “to enhance the natural gaits of the horse”. There are certainly moments when the horse is learning a new movement during which they may lose quality, but we need to remember that if this becomes the norm, it is time to take a different tack in our training.
On an even more basic level, riding Tino reminded me that I have to stay back with my upper body. I have always had a tendency to tip forward, left over from my hunter/jumper days, and on most horses I get away with it. On Tino, if I tipped forward, I immediately felt off balance due to his big movement. I also had to make sure to keep my eyes up and forward, for the same reason. With great power comes great responsibility, grasshopper—in this case, the responsibility to maintain one’s own position.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian