Thursday, July 30, 2009

Observations about horses from Herman Melville 1849

Forgive me for appearing to take the easy way out, but I was reading these quotes and couldn't help but nod my head in agreement with a man long dead. I hope he is with the horses that he held in such high esteem. He was obviously a very astute man. Rare for that day and age.....

"Among all the sights of the docks, the noble truck-horses are not the least striking to a stranger. They are large and powerful brutes, with such sleek and glossy coats, that they look as if brushed and put on by a valet every morning. They march with a slow and stately step, lifting their ponderous hoofs like royal Siam elephants. Thou shalt not lay stripes upon these Roman citizens; for their docility is such, they are guided without rein or lash; they go or come, halt or march on, at a whisper. So grave, dignified, gentlemanly, and courteous did these fine truck-horses look - so full of calm intelligence and sagacity, that often I endeavored to get into conversation with them, as they stood in contemplative attitudes while their loads were preparing. But all I could get from them was the mere recognition of a friendly neigh; though I would stake much upon it that, could I have spoken in their language, I would have derived from them a good deal of valuable information touching the docks, where they passed the whole of their dignified lives." ~Herman Melville, Redburn. His First Voyage, 1849

"There are unknown worlds of knowledge in brutes; and whenever you mark a horse, or a dog, with a peculiarly mild, calm, deep-seated eye, be sure he is an Aristotle or a Kant, tranquilly speculating upon the mysteries in man. No philosophers so thoroughly comprehend us as dogs and horses. They see through us at a glance. And after all, what is a horse but a species of four-footed dumb man, in a leathern overall, who happens to live upon oats, and toils for his masters, half-requited or abused, like the biped hewers of wood and drawers of water? But there is a touch of divinity even in brutes, and a special halo about a horse, that should forever exempt him from indignities. As for those majestic, magisterial truck-horses of the docks, I would as soon think of striking a judge on the bench, as to lay violent hand upon their holy hides." ~Herman Melville, Redburn. His First Voyage, 1849

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is it REALLY dressage?

Dressage means "training". We hear that phrase all the time now from people in specialties other than Dressage. The reason we are hearing this really has little to do with people actually believing that "dressage" has anything to do with the kind of training THEY are doing with their horses, but some BNT (Big Name Trainer) that is respected in their specialty said it, so they are just giving in and saying it too. It is kind of a slight, actually, since it is usually said in the context of "okay, not that dressage stuff again--here we go--yes, yes, dressage is the foundation of all riding...I know, I know, blah, blah, blah."

How did we get here? I think I can answer that question. As Dressage (the specialty) has developed here in the United States, and has gained a more mainstream understanding, more and more people have come to understand that the dressage principles DO apply to all primary training of the horse, no matter what the horse will specialize in as it progresses through its physical and psychological development.

And here is where I believe we get the misunderstandings, and hence, the eye-rolling dismissiveness. So let's try this. Let's compartmentalize the training of the horse away (or apart) from the specialties. Let's call the basic training of the horse just that. BASIC TRAINING. The basic training of the horse (and rider, for that matter) should be the same, no matter what s/he will specialize in later in their development.

The principles of this basic training should be the same as those applied in what is dressage. We (Dressage people) call it the Training Scale. The basic elements of the training scale are:


In other words--it is NOT DRESSAGE (yet). Those principles are the only correct path of BASIC TRAINING. It is the only set of principles that will lead you to having a horse that can specialize into any discipline they are physically and mentally capable of. Even for horses that will ultimately BE Dressage horses.

For the sake of argument, let's agree for a moment that Dressage is a specialty or discipline, just as Stock Seat, Western Pleasure, Hunt Seat, Polo, Jumpers, Gymkhana, Reining, Cutting, etc. etc. etc., are specialties or disciplines.

The basic training for all these disciplines should follow the same principles listed above and the same training scale (sequence and methodology of those principles)--to a point in their training where their specialty dictates that the horse acquire a different or specialized posture or level of tension (not the bad tension, but the good tension needed for movement at speed). That is why we call them specialties! And that is the point at which you listen to the horse to decide what his future path will be.

But let's define the goal of basic training a little more specifically.

I believe that a trained horse should be able to move in balance and relaxation through all the figures and movements through the third level movements in found in competition dressage tests. This means that the horse should be able to travel rhythmically (regular four-beat walk, two-beat trot, three-beat canter) on straight and bending lines down to the arc of the 10meter circle, change direction without losing balance under the rider at walk, trot, and canter (including single flying changes), go freely and willingly forward (suppleness) allowing itself to be molded by the seat/leg/rein aids (contact), have a spring in its step that coincides with its natural ability and conformation (impulsion), can shorten and lengthen its stride in all gaits, can move laterally in balance away from and into the direction of the bend, can come to halt and move from halt freely and confidently, and can halt/reinback straight and rhythmically/trot on. (straightness and the beginning of collection).

This addresses the elements of the BASIC training scale and allows the horse to move into its specialty with enough athletic development to be the best they can be in their specialty and as much as possible, prevent injury. At the very least, the horse will be a joy to ride, whether you use an English saddle or a Western one.

So here is my point to all this. I think we (dressage people) should stop calling “it” dressage until after third level, when it moves into the specialty phase of training. Let’s call the “lower levels” basic training. What say you?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Competition Riding vs. riding for "fun"

There I go again...putting "fun" in quotations. Hey, for those of you that ride, you KNOW why that is! LOL For those of you that don't, riding is fun in the same way that a serious visit to the local gym is fun. It is hard work. Even when you aren't riding, horses are work; you clean the stall and paddock, you maintain the barn area, you groom the horse, you carry feed and hay and tack, etc.--it is physical (well, except for those of us that pay to have all that done for them). But even those of us that pay for all the extraneous physical work, there is no getting around the physical aspect of the riding itself. And all of you who don't ride, who are thinking "what do you mean, physical....the horse does all the work; you just sit there", I laugh hysterically, and then say, "let me give you a lesson sometime". (Seriously, I would love me) But I digress.

In spite of the work, riding is exhilerating. It allows you to run faster, jump higher, and be more graceful than you ever thought possible. It allows you to dance, and allows for an unspoken yet deeply personal partnership with another species. It allows more than a communication--it is a connection and understanding that is more profound than anything else I have experienced.

If I sound like I am waxing poetic, well, so be it. It is the truth.

But this relationship does not come easily. It is like a marriage, in that it requires commitment, empathy, patience, forgiveness, flexibility, persistence, focus, firmness, gentleness, and understanding. And no one thing is more important than the other. They are all absolutely imperative. Some say that it is too bad that horses can't talk, but I am thinking it is a good thing. Not only are the 911 lines not overburdened with complaints of abuse because Silver didn't get his dinner at 5pm sharp, but seriously, it forces us to find a way to make ourselves understood on a deeper level than merely speaking louder and louder at our partner.
This is riding, whether you compete or not.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as "competition riding", but that phrase is a covert insult (and well-deserved) to people who take any means or trick necessary to get an "appearance" for the show-ring. This rarely works at all, and never works for long. Head-sets are a perfect example. There is no principle of good training/riding involved in repeatedly yanking on a bit or applying artificial devices (think drawreins, chambons, gogues, tie-downs, etc.) to get a horse to lower its head and neck and "tuck his nose". This doesn't address (and, in effect, detrimentally affects) the rest of the body. That is only one example. There is a very long list of others.

I believe the reason for the existence of horse shows is to exhibit correct training. It is not a place to find out how much you think you know, or to overface your horse to gauge how much you are lacking. It is a place to show off what you and your horse absolutely know and have talent for compared to an ideal standard. It is the have prepared your horse and yourself; you know the routine and the qualities behind it and the reasons for it so that will get you the best outcome possible that day. You are compared against the preparedness and talent of other horses/riders, so set yourself up for success.

Get the best instruction available to you, prepare your horse and yourself AT HOME, get it right consistently and solidly beforehand, and then go show what you know! That is when it is the most fun--notwithstanding all the additional work it is. LOL

Competition isn't for everyone, but I do believe it is important. It will develop goal-setting, sportsmanship, teamwork, organization, timing, scheduling, and time-management, in addition to the qualitites mentioned above in the fourth paragraph (about the relationship with your horse). This is important in life in general. If parents knew what life-skills could be learned from horses, they would be pushing their kids into quality lessons from the second that "I want a pony" is first uttered.

I am a better person for having horses in my life. I am more well-rounded, more worldly, more empathetic, more accepting, more confident, more fit, communicate better, and am more of a leader than I think I ever would have been without them. I am also a better learner, and a better teacher because of them. And I know how to love.

So, no matter what your age or circumstance, take a chance. Get out and learn to ride from a quality instructor, include competition at some point, and keep learning. Riding is a lifetime commitment, but it is a commitment I couldn't live without.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I just had a great ride on my horse, Bogart. Of course, all my rides on him are wonderful, but it has been over a month since I have ridden him. I did not take him to Alabama with me when I was teaching at Valley View. A friend/student/fellow instructor of mine leased him for the month while her young horse was in training with another friend/fellow instructor of mine. If it sounds like musical horses, it kind of was...but in a good way!

Franzi has a young horse that was being started under saddle for a couple months by his breeder, and Franzi was just about to bring him home. Sandy's horse is well-started and she has been showing him successfully at training and first levels for the past couple years, and was starting the serious lateral work with him. My horse, Bogart is a great schoolmaster, and knows all the lateral this arrangement worked out very well. Franzi just had a baby (human) 7 months ago, and needed to get back into riding shape before her just-started horse came home. Sandy needed a horse to polish up on her aids for the lateral movements and to feel them on a finished horse. I needed to keep my horse in work for the month that I was giving lessons and clinics in the TAG (Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia) area. So it was a win-win situation for everyone.

It has been a very long time coming in my area, but I am grateful for the network of professionals that I am associated with. Sandy and Franzi are just two of the many fellow professionals that I work with on a freelance sort of relationship, both in Florida and in the TAG area...we cover each others' lessons if/when one of us is out of town; we consult with each other about horse or student challenges and issues; we share triumphs, both personal and professional; and we genuinely like each other. I have been espousing this philosophy for years, and now, more and more trainers/instructors are finally learning that we are all in this together, and it is much better to support each other than to gossip and backbite each other. There is enough work out there for all of us, and most important--the standard of instruction is finally starting to reach a higher level generally. I like to believe that this is all part of the fabric of advancing the quality of riding in general, and dressage specifically. And no matter where you are in your journey of riding, you always need lessons, you always need "eyes on the ground" at least part of the time, no matter how "good" or experienced a rider/trainer/instructor you are.

Fading (though not gone) are the days when one took lessons from the teenager next door because she had a horse and had won some ribbons at the local show. I hope that the economy doesn't allow this progress to be lost. It is very easy to "give lessons for some extra money" just because you own a horse, and the general public (read: moms and dads of little girls and boys who are clamoring for a pony) doesn't have a clue about how to go about finding a qualified instructor.

author's edit: Here is one way to find a qualified riding instructor-click on this link- and click on the link on the left of the page that says "find an instructor"--this is the American Riding Instructor Associations official website and list of certified riding instructors. Be sure to also click on the top tab that says "instructor certification" and then click on "certification levels", so that you get a clear picture of what you are getting in your potential instructor.
When you contact your potential instructor, be sure to ask lots of questions to make sure that they offer what you (your son or daughter) are looking for, and ask for the instructor's resume. Then set up an appointment to watch this instructor teach a lesson comparable to what you are looking for (beginner on school horse, beginner on own horse, inermediate on school horse, intermediate on own horse, etc.).

The biggest reason for that is that there is no licensing or certification requirement for "horse trainers" or "riding instructors" (although how this has escaped the claws of government has totally baffled me when almost everything else requires licensing and certification, if only for the revenue it generates for the various government agencies). The only basis of education proof we have is voluntary certification through many different entities. A few of the ones that I know of are the United States Dressage Federation, the American Riding Instructor Association, the Certified Horsemanship Association, and the Horsemanship Safety Association. I know there are many others, and it would be difficult at best for the parent who knows nothing about horses to even find out information about these entities, never mind wading through and deciphering the validity and scope of the certification.

I am certified in dressage through the highest level of the American Riding Instructor Association (ARIA), and in my opinion (and many others') it is the best general instructor certification that is available in the USA, and is recognized by many countries internationally as well. But how is the layperson supposed to know that? It sounds good, for sure, and it is! But again, how does the person that has no basis of knowledge know? It is a leap of faith, for sure.

But bottom line, certification IS A GOOD THING. It benefits the general public, and it benefits the instructor. It does give a certain level of confidence to the potential student/parent that the instructor has at least demonstrated a standard level of knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge to their students.

Next blog will be about competition vs. riding for "fun". Try to guess why I put it in quotation marks. :-)

Saturday, July 18, 2009


I am good at compartmentalizing, and my patience is a perfect example of that. Let me explain.....
I have the patience of Job when it comes to training horses. I ask much, but accept any shred of correctness with lavish praise. But ask me to wait in line at the grocery store, and I seriously consider not eating dinner that night.
Explaining the minute details of what it means to be "in front of the leg" to a student may put me 'way behind in every other thing I have to do that day, and I will happily adjust my schedule, but having to deal with "customer service" over the phone for an issue with my computer will make me want to scream, and throw the computer in the pond.
So am I a patient person, or an impatient one?
I once took some film (you know, that stuff that you had to have developed when you took pictures with a camera from the dark ages?) in for said developing to a place that said "ONE HOUR PHOTO" right on the side of the building, and when the clerk took the film, he asked when I wanted the pictures back......and was surprised when I looked at him like he had three heads and said, "what do you mean?". He asked again if I wanted to come back "later" or tomorrow. I said, "look here, it says on the building 'one hour photo'...I am coming back in one hour. Patience is NOT my virtue".
But that isn't exactly true, because I DO have infinite patience for some things....just not for ALL things.
And what should be the limit to one's patience? There comes a point when it stops being patience and it becomes being taken advantage of. I have been taken advantage of a lot, and on many different levels. I try not to be taken advantage of more than once in any given way, but there again--when does it cross into cynicism, or general suspicion? But I digress......
I wonder what other people's definition of patience is?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bogart comes home today

Sandy G. just called and I am going to meet her to pick up Bogart. I am glad that she had the opportunity to lease him, but I am also glad that he is coming home. I will write more about this later today, after he is home......(to be continued...)

Bogart looks great! Gary (hubby) has been mowing the pasture a LOT since it's been raining all month, and the grass is thick, green and knee deep! Bogie is in heaven. He thinks. LOL I am looking forward to riding him. I only got to ride once while I was at Valley View, on a great trail ride, so I am looking forward to getting more time in the saddle. I won't ride him today, though...he got his shots on the way home, since Sandy and I met for the switch at the vet's office (Sandy was there to get a pre-purchase done on a horse for one of her students--hope everything goes as expected--he is a really nice horse!). I will ride Bogie tomorrow afternoon.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The New Blog--sort of...

Yes, this is a new blog, but I have blogged before. I used to have a blog on AOL, but then they did away with the blogs--I think they actually merged with the Google blogs, which is cool. :-)
I didn't save any of the blogs from before, but they were old news anyway, right? LOL Lots of new and exciting things are in store for IRIDE and all the people and horses associated with us.

I will blog as much as I can, but it is never as good a blog as when people who read it comment on the original posts, and I certainly welcome we go along, there will be plenty of content on which to comment, I am sure, and I have a LOT of friends and acquaintances with strong opinions, but we wouldn't be dressage riders if that weren't true, now would we?

I just returned to Florida from my home in north Alabama. I have lots of work there, with more and more riders interested in taking lessons from me, hosting clinics that I teach, judging dressage schooling shows, and being a guest instructor at an AWESOME girls equestrian camp called Valley View Ranch Equestrian Camp for Girls. Their entire program is amazing--check out their website at

I had a lot of fun, and the facility is a great venue for holding special events! The camp director, Nancy Jones, along with the entire staff is very supportive of new and different events, and we are planning to conduct a new program which I developed called the Riders, Trainers, Instructors (RTI) Program--an intensive, 3 day program which combines theoretical and practical application of training techniques in a format that provides the participant with a wide range of instruction, training application, business development, and networking opportunity in a condensed, intense course. Horses are provided, instruction and materials are provided, and evaluation as well as resources are provided. It is a very ambitious schedule, but we realize that time is money, especially in this economy. For anyone that is interested in the program, there is more information on the official IRIDE website at

This program is in the development stage right now, so the specifics may change somewhat, but the format and the main thrust of the program will remain the same. We are also looking for input, suggestions, and additional dates will be added. There is an application process, and a limit of ten participants per session, so please send in your inquires soon!

Now, for news from here in Florida, my student Austin Harrelson just returned from the Florida State 4-H Show where he placed third out of 29 competitors in dressage with a score of 67+%! Congratulations, Austin!! Now that I am back, we will be concentrating on putting together a USDF junior/young rider team, so if anyone is interested here, just let me know. I am very excited to get back to teaching my regular students as well!

I am scheduled to judge a dressage schooling show at Atlantic Crossings here in Vero Beach on July 25, and will be giving lessons to two new who owns a Haflinger, and one who lives here in Vero Beach and will be taking lessons on Bogart, my schoolmaster.

On August 6 or 7, I return to the Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia (TAG) area to judge a schooling show on the 8th, and then teach a clinic on the 9th at Kimberly Wallace's Fairhaven Farm in Coosa (Rome), Georgia, and then a couple days off and then teaching the RTI Program at Valley View Ranch on Aug. 13-16th, and somewhere in there a group from Birmingham, AL is interested in having me teach a clinic as well. Sounds like a whirlwind trip, but I am up for it! :-)