18 December 2009

Zenyatta and Company

I hope you have some time, because this is a long, link-heavy homage to Zenyatta and her connections.

Before the 2009 Breeder's Cup, I had never seen Zenyatta run. An ambivalent fan of racing, I had read a bit at The Blood Horse website, but that was all. Frankly, I'm not even sure why I watched the Breeder's Cup Classic, but I'm glad I did.

Everything about this mare is unusual--her behavior and style, her speed, and her training and handling.

When I first saw her behavior, my heart almost stopped. My horses only act that way when they have colic. However, diva that she is, Zenyatta had a well known pre-race routine. Several YouTube videos feature just her pre-race "dancing."

Here she is in the paddock of at the 2009 Breeder's Cup.

And here's an edited homage to her career titled "She's a Freak." (At 3:48 of this, she does a respectable Spanish walk, a move I will no longer call artificial.)

Update: I like this homage much better. Some good conformation poses here: "Zenyatta Starstruck"

As to the Breeder's Cup race itself, I again panicked when Quality Road broke out of the gate while blindfolded. That took my concentration off Zenyatta for a while too. After poor Quality Road's panic attack caused the unloading and reloading of all the horses, I wasn't surprised when Zenyatta broke slowly and galloped awkwardly looking around. I just didn't know she had a patented last-to-first pattern.

If you're short on time, here's HGTV's recap of all of her 14 wins.

My favorite now is her second win, one with a great race call.

But it's also well worth watching--and rewatching--the 2009 Breeder's Cup Classic.

I suppose the racing style and the $5,474,580 in winnings would be enough, but from what I've seen and found out since this race, there's a lot more going on here.

This mare is a darling. Watch her eyes and ears. Observant. Charismatic. She's obviously competitive, but from what I'm reading and seeing on YouTube, she's about as far from being crazy as any race horse can be.

Keeping a race horse keen and yet relaxed is not an easy job, but I suspect her trainer John Shirreffs is a master of this. In one article somewhere, I read that his favorite picture of Zenyatta is of her getting a massage. The then filly was flat out in her straw and her masseur was sitting in the straw with her.

Apparently this sort of relaxation is not unusual in his barn. Here's Life Is Sweet, the winner of the 2009 Breeder's Cup Ladies' Classic (G1), in a video uploaded to YouTube by Shirreffs himself.

I'm impressed by everything I've heard, seen, read so far. Shirreffs held Zenyatta's massive body together as well as her brain. The mare was foaled on April 1, 2004 and her first start was on November 22, 2007. I bow towards California. Shirreffs didn't start Zenyatta until she was almost 44 months old--ancient by American race standards.

Most American race horses start as two year olds, which means they were started under saddle as yearlings--a practice I consider obscene. I don't like the Triple Crown races either. Running three year olds is only marginally better than running two year olds. Horses physically mature at five, folks. This is why I'm ambivalent about horse racing.

So kudos to her trainer and owners for giving Zenyatta some time. Over seventeen hands, Zenyatta was a prime candidate for dire injuries. Instead, as far as I know, she retired clean-legged.

I'll end with my favorite video, another one uploaded by Shirreffs. Mike Smith, Zenyatta's regular jockey, was wearing a helmet camera during a regular work session. This video is--well, just watch it.


I'll wait.

Did you watch it?

If not, here's the link again.

It wouldn't surprise me if die-hard horsemen watch it again. And, uh, again. I'm already past counting.

Great video, isn't it? Kind, competent people. Kind, more than competent mare. Those ears! And if you didn't feel an adrenaline rush when Mike Smith coos, "Come on, big baby girl" and the mare's stride changes, you ain't no horseman.

30 September 2009

Kendell's Leg

Kendell was just trotting around on my OTTB when I snapped these. Most are fuzzy, but as I sifted through them, I realized how consistently lovely Kendell's leg position is. As her instructor, I'm taking total credit for this.

19 September 2009

Relaxed Riders

Kendell on Red after a ride

Erica on Razz during a dramatic strikeoff

20 August 2009

The American Baucher

Tom Bass (1859-1934)

My title "The American Baucher" is not meant as an insult to Tom Bass. Although Francois Baucher (1796-1873) is controversial in dressage circles--to say the least--few people deny his talent. I associated Bass with Baucher because both trained equines to canter backwards and do other circus dressage movements that are unnatural and hence outside the parameters of "classical" dressage. In fact, Bass rode saddleseat and trained gaited horses. So he wasn't a dressage rider at all.

Or was he?

Take a look at the photos below.

June 2014 UPDATE:  This site has much info: http://www.audrain.org/tom_bass.aspx  

This recent video of Edward Gal's freestyle ride on Moorlands Totilas, a Dutch warmblood, inspired me to look up more info on Tom Bass:


Read the comments about Gal's ride. Some people are wowed. Others are appalled.

I'm both.

It's not that Gal's ride is bad. It's not. It's masterful, but it's not classical dressage. It's "modern" dressage, and "modern" dressage is starting to look less and less like "classical" dressage and more like a version of the movements of many gaited horses. Disengaged hocks, lowered backs, tight necks, and obvious front end flash.

But then there's old Tom Bass and HIS gaited horses.

Look at the trot of Gal's horse and then look at the photo of Bass on his gray Columbus. Which horse has more impulsion and better parallelism of shannon and cannon? How many contemporary dressage riders with their deep seat, heavily blocked saddles get the sort of forward movement that Bass is getting from his position on his cutback saddle? Need more proof that dressage masters like Walter Zettl and Paul Belasik are right about the seat being more important for impulsion than the lower leg?

From everything I know, Bass was a natural, a gentle genius. He surpassed the limitations of his time and culture, but for lesser mortals, problems usually creep into a riding system without an emphasis on the classical principles descending from Xenophon to Pluvinel to the other great dressage masters.

It's ironic I suppose that after watching Gal's ride, I immediately sought out photos of a saddleseat rider. But, after studying the photos and the video, which reflects a deeper understanding of the principles of "classical" dressage?

In fact, if Bass had studied "classical" dressage, might I have been able to retitle this entry "The American Master" instead of "The American Baucher." I think so because the gifts and sympathy I see in these photos and read about in his biographical information reminds me of Nuno Oliviera, the man still known simply as The Master.

Brag time.

I once met an old, old man who'd ridden horses trained by a "colored boy down the road" in his hometown of Mexico, Missouri.

I said, "Mexico, Missouri? Tom Bass?"

Old Nolan nodded and said that these horses were the kindest, most responsive he'd ever ridden. This moment was in 1976 and it's still a highlight of my life. I not only met a man who KNEW Tom Bass; I knew a man who'd RIDDEN Tom Bass-trained horses!

I'm still sorry so few people know about Tom Bass. What a remarkable human being.

23 July 2009

The New Improved Razz

Relaxed rider. Relaxed horse. Beautiful.

19 July 2009

The Essential Paul Belasik

How did I miss reading ANY of Paul Belasik's work for so long? Oh well, better late than never.

This compendium of three of his works--Riding towards the Light, Exploring Dressage Technique, and The Songs of Horses is not typical of any genre. Belasik's excellent in his technical analysis. For example, I'll never look at a pirouette or piaffe the same way again, but that's not why I fell for this man's work. This man connects eastern philosophy, western psychology, and mythology to explain the deep connections between the art of life and the art of riding.

What especially struck home with me is that in Chapter 10 of Exploring Dressage Technique, the most analytical and also the most philosophical work in this group, he talks of "Riding as a Meditation." Riding is, he says, "in itself the reward, the path to enlightenment, education, self-development. The gratification is determined internally, as each individual reaches his or her own very unique potential."

OK, as a writing instructor, I winced at the superfluous and technically incorrect phrase "very unique," but everything else expresses my own reasons for riding. As for him, horses link me to "a metaphysical, spiritual, psychological place." I believe in no specific religion. I hold no specific creed. And, like Belasik, I find competition "the Way of Death." Egocentric striving tires me, and it was so wonderful to have Belasik nail down the whys by bringing in Jungian and eastern thoughts about such striving. For me, communicating with the horse, gaining first its confidence and then, with patience, its gracious cooperation is the end in itself.

One of the first things I tell my students is that I do not want to teach anyone whose goal is to show and win pretty ribbons and bring home silver trophies. As Belasik says, "Learning to ride is not learning to compete." Riding--whether at the Grand Prix level or at a walk-trot level--is/can/should be a meditation.

I've waited a long time to find Paul Belasik, but I quickly added him to the LIST, one that contains only a few names, names such as Seunig, Oliveira, Podhajsky, and a few others.

25 May 2009

More on Ears

This innovative earwear courtesy my creative riding students Kendell and Erica.

24 May 2009

All Ears

Some comments left in response to bridleless riding videos on YouTube reminded me that too many people are ignorant of horse body language, specifically their eloquent ears.

Too many people still think pricked ears are desirable. For example, I was at a Saddlebred auction many years ago at the invitation of a would-be owner who pointed to a mare in the ring and said, "What spirit! Look at that noble expression!" To me, the mare's forward ears indicated tension, even terror. Her ears were snapped forward as if she saw in front of her a lion in full crouch. A horse with both ears pricked ears ain't thinking about its rider.

When I'm working in a ring or enclosed area, I want ALL my horse's attention on me. In the field or on the trail, I still want part of my horse's attention. My old Arab stallion used to delight me on the trails because he'd always have one ear forward and one ear back. Watching--or rather listening--where he was going while still being attentive to the rider was one of his invaluable traits.

But, alas, if too many people like snapped forward, worried ears, too few appreciate the position showing relaxed attentiveness, utter submission. I heard a neophyte complain that the Lipizzaner stallions were disappointing because, while they were obviously well trained, their ears were "all floppy."

The only thing that's more dear to me than attentive swept back ears are floppy ears. I remember seeing one of the Spanish dressage team's Andalusians come down the centerline at the end of a test. This passage was probably the best I've ever seen, and the horse was so relaxed his ears were flopping in rhythm. The goal of dressage is for a calm horse to mimic the movements of an excited horse, and I don't think I'll ever see a better example than those ears swinging freely with each powerful stride.

Of course, sometimes glorious submission gets horses into real trouble with ignorant people. Many years ago I had the use of a wonderful Arab gelding as a school horse. The owner had him for sale, and I was around when a potential buyer came out. The would-be buyer asked to bridle the horse herself, which I thought boded well for her savvy. However, it was soon obvious she was unfamiliar with a snaffle bridle. Seeing her fumbling with the bridle, the gelding kindly lowered his head, swept back his ears, and opened his mouth. As he stood their trustingly, she dropped the bridle and punched him square in the nose. Simultaneously, the owner and I yelled, "What did you do THAT for!!" Self-righteously, she said, "He was going to BITE me."

An equine saint, the gelding was forgiving. I picked the bridle off the ground, slipped my index finger under the crownpiece, and dangled the bridle in front of him. He reached down and took the bit by himself. With one finger, I slipped the crown over his sweetly reversed ears.

If I'd had horse ears, mine would have been pinned flat against my head as I stared at the poor ignorant girl who punched one of the kindest horses the planet has ever seen.

I love horse ears and all they tell us.

04 May 2009

More on Early Horse Domestication

Science Daily has several more articles on archaeological discoveries in the Ponto-Caspian region, steppe country now including some of Russia, as well as the countries of Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Romania. The area is unsurprising considering the strength of horse culture in this area over the centuries.

But "Archaeologists Find Earliest Known Domestic Horses: Harnessed and Milked" pushes the history of the domesticated horse back quite a bit:
The researchers have traced the origins of horse domestication back to the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan circa 5,500 years ago. This is about 1,000 years earlier than thought and about 2,000 years earlier than domestic horses are known to have been in Europe.

I did giggle in horror a bit when I saw the illustration of an animal that looks like a Przewalski horse with a leather loop in its mouth. The current incarnations of these creatures are about as intractable as any wild animal can get. My neighbor, a former zoo worker and fine horsewoman, said the stallions are especially fierce. I wonder if the people of the steppes actually did breed domesticated horses starting with this stock:

I wonder if they've gotten DNA to support the domestication of these creatures. I'm just skimming the articles, and I'm no archaelogist, but I wonder if other varieties of equids were lurking around. Right now though, the only support I have for this from "Mystery Of Horse Domestication Solved?," another Science Daily article:

Based on ancient DNA spanning the time between the Late Pleistocene and the Middle Ages, targeting nuclear genes responsible for coat colorations allows to shed light on the timing and place of horse domestication. Furthermore the study demonstrates how rapid the number of colorations increased as one result of the domestication. As well, it shows very clearly that the huge variability of coloration in domestic horses which can be observed today is a result of selective breeding by ancient farmers.

Of course, people have reverse engineered horses to reconstruct the ancient Przewalski and get back their consistent coloration.

If ancient horsemen started with this little equid, I'm in awe of them. The Kazakhs are still amongst the toughest horsemen in the world, but I wonder how many would-be horsemen died and how many generations of equids were eaten before one person stayed on and the equid agreed to be ridden.

A bit more on the Przewalski here.

20 April 2009

Razz--Not Quite a Rescue, but Close

In May of 2005 I agreed to go along with a friend who wanted to see a purebred Arab gelding that needed a "good home." One guess who ended up with a new horse.

The horse was living with an old mare in an enclosure that included automobile carcasses and hogwire--some up, some down, some with sharp points. The owners were caring people who'd received him as a gift when he was a yearling. They'd even laid out over two thousand dollars to repair him when he'd punctured a knee in 2004, but caring doesn't make people horsemen. Luckily, they recognized they were not up to dealing with Razz. In fact, they said he was almost impossible to catch, or lead, or even hold onto.

I found that out right away. It took the owner quite a while just to snap a lead onto Razz's outgrown halter, and when I took the lead rope he jerked free so fast I ended up face down in deep, fluffy manure. Most people would have said, "Crazy Arab" and left. But his eyes told me he was basically kind and intelligent and willing to learn.

His registration papers backed up that. Razz, registered as Sunsaba, was in fact line-bred to *Witez with a bit of Bay Abi thrown in as well--good working stock.

So, a few days later, Razz, then six, arrived at my place totally untrained and completely without manners. Luckily, he proved to be a quick learner.

Within a month, the horse that wouldn't let anyone lead him much less pick up his feet was much more amenable to working with people.

By August, he was already on his third month under saddle.

And Lion had found a playmate that also liked to run--summer, winter, whenever.

Razz's still not a beginner's horse, but he's more than kind and he tries to be tolerant. In fact, he'll stand like a statue to be mounted, but once up, his rider needs a quiet seat or he'll still become tense and confused.

Here's one of my favorite photos of Razz. By June of 2008, a couple of my teenage students were developing those nice quiet seats. When Erica dismounted, she said, "That was actually fun." I already knew that from Razz's attentive ear position. We're seeing relaxed trust more and more often from him now.

In fact, the horse that used to be nearly impossible to catch is now nearly impossible to get rid of. Here's one last shot of him "helping" my husband clean stock tanks:

My ReRun Thoroughbred

I like the idea of rescue organizations, but I'm also a conformation and pedigree snob, so I gravitated to ReRun. They rehome Thoroughbreds. More accurately, they rehome horses that were, in their past lives, Thoroughbreds. To prevent these horses from returning to racing, ReRun returns the registration papers to the Jockey Club for cancellation.

Since I wasn't looking for a breeding animal, the lack of actual papers wasn't important to me at all. Finding a well-bred, well-conformed, good-tempered horse was. And ReRun happily supplies pedigrees, race records, and detailed info about the animals they have.

Of course, being picky, I did a lot of looking.

I looked for months. Then I finally saw a photo of the gelding Life Goes On. Seeing smooth elegance and angles indicating great athleticism, I called and tried to adopt him from ReRun KY on the basis of this one photo:

Of course by the time I phoned, he'd already been adopted. I thought, well, someone in TN just got a good looking horse. Over the next few months, I looked at horses on the ReRun site without seeing another horse that grabbed me. So around six months later, I called to ask the person running the KY chapter to chat, and she asked me if I was still interested in the gelding I'd liked months ago. She said the husband of the woman who'd adopted him had fallen ill and she was returning him. I jumped at the chance to get him.

When the horse returned to ReRun, I got a call telling me he was severely underweight and most likely riddled with worms. Understandably livid, the ReRun person told me that the horse never would have passed his six month mandatory ReRun vet inspection and would have had to have been returned sick husband or no sick husband.

I wanted the horse anyway, but I was braced for a walking hat rack. Here he is right off the truck from KY:

Many wormings and much food later, Life Goes On, now known as Lion, once again looked like the horse I'd fallen in love with. Six months after he arrived, I sent this in as his first vet inspection photograph:

I love this horse. Not only do I find him exquisitely beautiful, I find him delightful in movement and character. While he LOVES to run, he's gentle enough under saddle to use as a lounge horse for children. I knew that the woman who lovingly raced him for five years took him home between meets and hacked him around her farm. I didn't know she obviously had more than a slight knowledge of dressage. When my neighbor got up on him, she discovered he was already quite adept at some low level movements. Here he is in leg yield:

Even his idiosyncrasies intrigue me. At play, he runs and runs and runs, and typically he squeaks when he's about to make the leap to hyperspace. I already knew this about him the first time I decided to try a canter on my trails. Most OTTBs run hot, so I cued with more than a bit of trepidation. When I heard him squeak, I looked at the expanse of trail in front of me and thought, I'm too OLD for hyperspace. Without much hope, I put my shoulders back and sat deeper. To my great relief and surprise, Lion settled into an easy, wafting canter. A horse that wafts--what more can anyone want?

Of course, he does have his standards. Trying to touching his right ear is still a problem. I've gotten used to taking his bridle apart to get it on him. Or, more usually, we just ride him in a halter.

But, if he has an excellent opinion of himself, he earned it. A horse with 42 starts--9 wins, 7 places, 4 shows--has a right to some standards of his own.

I still spend way too much time staring at his pedigree.

According to my research, Lion's by the same sire as Anne Moss's fabulous Helium, the gelding she rode sidesaddle to a USDF Silver medal. There's an article on Anne and Helium here. When I read that Helium squeaks, I smiled.

And, oh yes, my little avatar of a bay horse under About Me on the left of this page? Yup, that's Lion wafting.

19 April 2009

Memories--Colter in His Prime 1977

Colter's sire was National Top Ten in Park in the class won by *Bask. So people assumed Colter would be a Park Horse too. He had the movement, but his temperament was more Western Pleasure or maybe even Lead Line. He would have been glad to move out had people taken the time to explain what they wanted, but instead he more likely got the fire extinguisher treatment--certainly one way to get a horse to show "presence." When I got him, he had a broken rib from going over backward in a bitting rig and scars up both sides of his mouth, probably from the same experience.

When I got him, if was also terribly obvious he'd been mechanically collected with a curb bit for seven or more years. He was, in other words, stiffer than the average board.

As he rode my stallion during this March 1977 clinic, I also remember Dominique saying, "The old man is a little stiff, yes?" Indeed he was. But despite his stiffness and tension, Colter was still one of the most gentle and kind horses I've ever met.

I still clearly remember this moment. Dominique was relaxing, swinging his legs and saying, "Ah, another crazy Arab stallion!" Meanwhile, Colter was just quietly watching the other stallion then working in the ring.

By mid-summer, Colter wasn't nearly as stiff, and, instead of leaning into the full double of a park horse, he was yielding to a simple snaffle.

Of course, I'm really not big on using any sort of bridle if I'm riding for fun.

Memories--The Horse of a Lifetime

In the mid-1970s, a friend asked me to look at an Arabian stallion she was considering for her mare. I looked, told her I liked him, and thought nothing more of it until the phone rang many months later. The stallion's owner had leased him out, moved out of state, and was extremely worried--with good reason. I checked on him and found him about three hundred pounds underweight. When I reported this, she offered me time payments on a price that was a fraction of what she'd paid for him.

He sired a Reserve National Champion, several Class A Arabian regional winners along with Anglo-Arabians, colored part-breds, and many other nice horses.

More than that though, he was a fine friend for the eighteen years that I owned him. I just wish I had a photo of him with the Brownie troop. When they came to the farm to earn their Horse Lover's Badges, I selected the one horse I trusted to be perfectly mannered with a giggly, wiggly bunch of elementary school girls--my breeding stallion. I still smile when I remember him standing head down in the middle of his pen with a brush-wielding girl on each leg and still more on his head, neck, and tail. It was his idea of heaven. Mine too.

COLTER (Res. Nat. Ch. Afari X Rieza)
Foaled March 1965--Died January 1, 1995

Memories--The Mare Who Taught Me

Lemon and me in 1974

I found this little mare in 1971 at the military stable at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She'd been for sale for a year without any takers. She wouldn't longe, but she would buck, bolt, refuse jumps, and generally behave badly.

On the advice of others, I asked the guru of Fort Leavenworth his opinion of her. Master Sgt. Roland R. Richmond (ret.), former head farrier for the US Cavalry, said, "Not a mean bone in her body." When I then asked him if he'd shoe her for me, he said, "Too old to get killed by a horse" and walked off.

Young and intrigued, I bought her and renamed her Twist of Lemon. She quickly taught me that intelligent, generous horses become calm, eager learners when rewarded for good behavior. She also taught me that punishments and attempts at "control" typically backfire. Together, we both learned a lot, although I learned more from her than she ever learned from me.

Six months after I bought her, Sgt. Rich walked by and said, "Shoe your mare. Two p.m., Friday." I've never had a higher honor in my life.

Update: 4 August 2015

I should have added that before Sgt. Rich started he said, "Been watching. We'll do it your way." That meant that no punishment was involved. Not even any yelling. When she cooperated, she got verbal praise and rubbing and then Sgt. Rich and I would have a cup of coffee before he continued.

We went through three pots of coffee and he didn't finish until six p.m., but by then Lemon had figured out what we wanted. Sgt. Rich charged me eight dollars, and Lemon, the terror other farriers had thrown and hogtied, earned the last slot of the day, the one a tired farrier saved for a horse with perfect manners.

07 April 2009

Learning to Ride As an Adult

The full title of Erika Prockl's book is Learning to Ride As an Adult: A New Training Method for First-Time Riders. So far, my only complaint with the book is the title. This little volume is also quite suitable for people who, like me, have been riding for many decades. Prockl uses simple diagrams and instructions on how to use a physio-ball--Pilates ball, Swiss ball, yoga ball, whatever--to help a rider learn balance, muscle control, and position for riding a horse.

Now I have an excuse to sit on an exercise ball while I watch TV. This's certainly cheaper than buying one of those super-expensive horse simulators I've wanted for so long.

I admit it. I never really outgrew those coin-operated horses outside K-Mart.

A Book Worth Reading

Here's German veterinarian and professional rider Gerd Heuschmann in the 2007 English edition of his book Tug of War: Classical Versus “Modern” Dressage:

I do not understand how, just because someone is a horse enthusiast, he or she is allowed to mount a horse without having any previous education whatsoever, and calls himself or herself a “rider” from that very moment on. Imagine this approach applied to the sport of hang gliding or diving! And, such disciplines to not involve another living individual creature that, on the one hand, is very strong, yet on the other, very delicate and sensitive. (123)

The original 2006 German version of this book carried the provocative and easily translated title Finger in der Wunde.


13 February 2009

A Rant Moved from My Farm Site to This Obscure Blog

"Lessons? Why? It's Just Like Sittin' in a Chair, Isn't It?"

Do you train people to ride horses or horses to be ridden? If so, how do you react when someone who has revealed an ignorance of ANY type or school of equitation says, "Can I ride your horse?"

Are you a casual rider with little or no formal schooling? Have you ever asked someone who lives and breathes horses, "Can I ride your horse?" Ever get an evasive or downright hostile response?

For the trainers, I suggest this line by long dead British horseman Colonel M. F. McTaggart: "I can guarantee that a horse is perfectly schooled. I cannot guarantee that anyone else can ride him."

For the casual riders, I suggest pondering another McTaggart gem: "Most people do not ride; they are conveyed."

The suggestion of LESSONS leaves many non-horsemen perplexed. While otherwise informed and intelligent, too many are totally unaware of the spectrum of aids and cues, theories and schools, all of which focus on how to get horses to do as we wish.

Many tell me they don't want lessons because they "just" want to ride my horses for "fun." As if I ride because it makes me miserable?

Typically, these folks just don't know that experienced riders use subtle aids and cues. Furthermore, they simply don't know what could happen if they were to make the wrong moves. For example, lean forward and clutch the reins on Lion. He's a model trail horse for those with a basic dressage or western seat, but he also raced for five years. Consider jockey position, then guess what he might do if someone went into a crouch and took a strong hold on the reins. He still LOVES to run and would probably hit 35 miles an hour within a couple of strides.

How could that lean and clutch happen? When something unexpected happens--for example when a horse spooks at a piece of plastic--instinct curls surprised, frightened people into the fetal position to protect their bellies. Unfortunately, this's a good way to invoke a runaway even on a horse that wasn't a professional racer. British riding instructor Heather Moffett refers to this reaction as the "fatal crouch."

Instincts do not make us good horsemen. For most of us, it's learning to override our instincts that makes us good horsemen. We learn to relax and stay with the moment and the movement. Easily said, not easily done.

Horses are prey animals and hence prone to sudden defensive movements. Hot-blooded horses like Arabs and Thoroughbreds can turn this into an art form. I still remember Razz suddenly lurching about fifty feet down a hill when I was on a trail ride. To my surprise, when I finally pulled myself upright--with my abs, NOT the reins--he immediately dropped back to a walk. He trusted my assessment that whatever frightened him didn't frighten me, so he relaxed.

So my conclusion is that most people who ask "Can I ride your horse?" have simply never ridden a hot or highly trained horse. In short, many think lessons are unnecessary because have "ridden" dull-sided, dead-mouthed automatons, the type found on dude strings. Others have been lucky enough to have been hauled around by someone's saintly packer. Or maybe they once put a quarter in the mechanical horse outside K-Mart.

For whatever reasons, all too many people think that riding a horse is simpler than riding a bicycle. After all, on a bicycle, a person has to pedal, while on a horse all a person has to do is sit there. It's just like sitting in a chair, right?

Uh, no. It's not. But how do you tell someone who's never really RIDDEN a horse?

I keep trying to find the perfect analogy. So far, this is the best I've found for the "Can I ride your horse" question:

"I've flown United, Southwest, and many other airlines. I love to fly. Can I take up your Cessna (or Stearman or Tomcat)? I mean, flying, how hard can it be?"

Imagine photo of ambulances and/or flaming wreckage here.


Please bear in mind, most of these people have graduate degrees and otherwise show sense, intelligence, and reason.

"How hard can it be? You keep one leg on each side, kick to go, and pull to stop."

"Oh, I took some lessons when I was a teenager [thirty years ago], so I don't need any more."

"I assure you, I connect well with animals. We'll get along fine."

"When I was a kid, I rode every summer at my uncle's ranch. I know horses."

"The counselor at my Girl Scout camp [maybe twenty years ago] said I was a natural."

"I only want to go on a little trail ride. That's not asking much, is it?"

"Jay Leno said the idea of riding lessons was ridiculous." [Leno did. I watched the program.]


One of these "How hard can it be?" people visted me on the weekend of the Rocky Mountain Dressage Championships. After arriving, she went with me to view the upper level championships. I was sighing at the level of expertise, but she, knowing nothing, was bored. I mean, circles and some funny slow trotting, how hard can it be?

The next morning, I put her on a longe horse. Within minutes, she was gasping at the difficulty of balance and timing at the trot. That night, we went back to the dressage championships where the lower levels were being judged. After one longe session, my visitor was clutching my arm, saying, "How are they doing that?! That's IMPOSSIBLE!"

I facetiously told her it was done with mirrors. Inside joke. Horses indeed mirror their owners and riders, but this is beyond the scope of this rant.


In the early 1980s, shortly after I first started taking on students who weren't friends or neighbors, I got a phone call from a mother who wanted riding lessons for her daughter. Her daughter, she said, was "an expert western rider" who now wanted to learn English as well.

I probably should have been concerned when the woman showed up with a seventeen year old girl, not a twelve year old, but I wasn't. I prepared my longe horse and from the ground did a basic safety orientation with the young woman. Everything seemed OK.

Then she mounted the horse. Within seconds, I could see she was a total beginner and shortened the longe rein. The poor girl looked fit enough but was incredibly clumsy even with the horse at a slow walk. With the mother hovering at the fence, I asked the girl where she'd ridden. She said she'd had two whole weeks at a dude camp a year before.

I gulped and continued a beginner-beginner lesson. After a few minutes, I thought things were going a bit better, so I asked the girl to grasp the neck rope and try to balance in two-point/galloping position. With my horse barely moving, the girl lost her balance and fell backward, crashing onto his croup, causing him to flinch forward about two feet. The girl slid off his rear and landed hard on her back.

Luckily, she was not injured. But her mother started ranting that this was my fault because her daughter was "an expert western rider"--she actually said this again--and if she "had the reins, this wouldn't have happened." I thought to myself that if she'd had reins, the horse might well have gone over on her even though he was bitless, but merely said that I didn't think I was a good fit as a teacher for her daughter.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when they pulled out of the driveway, and I went into the house to make a list of things to ask potential students in the future.


Around the same time that the "expert western rider" showed up, a young man came down our lane on a borrowed horse, a Half Arab gelding belonging to my first student. (The student's brother had without permission loaned his friend her horse, but that's another story.) This young man was extremely frustrated because he couldn't get the gelding to go where he wanted. Knowing the pony had become utterly pushbutton, I asked him what cues he was using. The young man looked at me and said, "Cues?"

I explained the basic principles and he looked like he'd been hit by lightning. He'd ridden broncs for fun in high school and had wrangled at dude ranches. But he still had no idea that horses could be TRAINED to respond to subtleties.

I got on the pony, cantered a figure-eight with a simple change, halted, and backed a couple of steps--all on a loose rein. At this point, the young man wanted to know HOW I was doing this.

All instructors should have a student like this at least once. He was incredibly athletic. As a former bronc rider, sitting a horse was no problem at all. He just wanted the basics of equitation and some theory, so he took only about six lessons from me, but by then he looked better than many riders ever do.

But that's not the best part of this story.

Quite a while later, I ran into him again, and he told me he and a friend had visited the ranch of a Paso Fino breeder and he'd asked--you guessed it--"Can I ride one of your horses?"

When the breeder said no, he responded with "Oh, I understand. Your horses probably work off totally different cues than the ones I know." Hearing the magic words, she smiled, told him her cues, and put him up on one of her horses. He said he had a wonderful ride.

A wonderful ride. On a horse trained in a different school. This is still one of the best things I've ever heard.

Then there are those of us who have worked at riding and realize we are still limited. A long time ago, I had a delightful conversation with a gaited horse trainer. Since I knew little about training gaited horses and he knew little about dressage theory, we ended up explaining our systems.

When I explained how I used my legs, seat, shoulders, and abs to stop a horse, he said, "Do that on one of mine, and it'll bolt."

When he explained his method of using his hands, I said, "Do that on one of mine, and you'll probably have ears in your teeth."

He ended up giving me a brief lesson on one of his horses. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I fretted the whole time, trying to keep my legs away and my hands in a position they'd never occupied before. The horse was beautifully schooled for saddle seat. I wasn't.

In short, there's no one "right" way to signal a horse to do something. Aids--natural pressures from hand, leg, seat or artificial pressures from whip and spurs--inspire universal responses, but these can be blunted or extinguished when a rider fails to reward the the horse. Cues, the conditioned responses, can be anything, but they need to be understood by both horse and rider. For example, I love telling my students about the highly individualized anti-theft cues installed by the Bedouins. For example, an individual mare might be conditioned to put forth her best speed only when the rider touched her right ear and yelled, "Allah be praised!!"

So my recommendation to anyone who wants to ride someone else's horse is to describe the type riding you've done and and then follow the lead of that young bronc rider and weave "What cues do you use?" into your request to ride.

If the horse owner is a good horseman, this question shows a level of awareness that could start a dialog that'll eventually get you on a horse. On the other hand, it might be a good idea to back away slowly if the horse owner says, "Cues?" If there's anything more worrisome than an untrained rider, it's an untrained horse owner.

01 February 2009

Got Milk?

Horse Play

Once again, here's my purebred Arab gelding, the most curious, playful horse I've ever owned.

Several years ago, I put a hula hoop on the ground and backed up to film him. By the time I turned on the camera, he was already in action. Those sounds? Horse teeth crunching plastic. That's why this's three seconds long.

25 January 2009


I've been a fan of Dick Francis novels for ages. I rarely read fiction anymore--my love of fiction ended with the glorious works of the 19th Century--but I do have a weakness for horse-related fluff. And over the years, I relished the growth of style in the Dick Francis novels. At his mature best, Francis could even handle sex scenes deftly, and his formula works were delightful treats. As one of my equally horsie lit/crit friends once said, his novels were even more wonderful because, a year on, one could read them again with almost equal delight.

And yet I picked up Silks, co-written with son Felix, with some trepidation because Dick Francis was born in 1920. I worried about how much of him would be in this novel. I fear it's not much.

I'm still reading with enjoyment, but my lit/crit training has kicked in uncomfortably. I'm feeling the need for editorial comment. I want to edit clumsy heaping of fact where it's not needed and rewrite some nagging telling where a few whip strokes of showing would urge the plot forward.

What has really bothered me though is the perfunctory use of horses in this novel. I'm so used to the depth of Dick Francis's knowledge and love of horses that I read his work expecting to hear hoofbeats, smell the sweat, and feel the abiding love of the horse.

This evening, however, I reached the scene where the narrator and his horse take a bad fall in an amateur race. The narrator describes the fall well, and, since it was obvious the narrator survived, I flipped the page worrying about the horse.

The plot moved forward several months without mention of the fate of the horse.

I was stunned. Then I felt actual anger at the narrator, a fictional character. This is NOT the sort of person--fictional or otherwise--I want to know. The narrator OWNED this horse. Had this been one of many mounts of a professional jockey, the lack of concern would have been understandable. But an amateur jockey who fails to detail the fate of a horse he owns--ugh.

A few pages later, the detached narrator at least ASKS after the horse while in hospital, but only in passing. I wanted details. I kept turning pages, thinking, great, at least the horse survived, but, because of this lack, I didn't give a flip about the narrator's back injury or the central mystery. I wanted the concise vet report Dick Francis would have woven in without stalling the story an iota.


So this is different from the Dick Francis novels I've enjoyed for so many years. It's quite likely that son Felix will carry on the family business and carry it on admirably. If he's as diligent as his father, his style will smooth out and his pace quicken. Over the years, I enjoyed Dick Francis's growth as a writer. Early on, he sometimes started slowly and showed a few clumsy strides, but even his awkward moments showed class and a promise of closing speed. And at his best, he came through in grand style.

Perhaps his son Felix will improve his style. That's doable. This is a decent journeyman effort. While this Francis novel is often stilted and in need of another rewrite or two, it is enjoyable formula fiction. I just wish Felix had his father's passionate love of horses. That's what is lacking in Silks.

13 January 2009

Price Downturns -- Not Just for US Housing

Here's one of the lead stories at TheBloodHorse.com today: "Keeneland Opening Average Plummets 45.9%":

The results were grim, but not surprising, as Keeneland opened its January horses of all ages sale in Lexington during a time of worldwide economic downturns. The gross revenue Jan. 12 plummeted 44% from the auction’s first session in 2008 while the average price dropped 45.9%. The median price suffered the most damage, falling 50.9%.
Not surprising, indeed. But this sale shows the extent of the downturn since this is an upper-end racing stock sale:

The 202 horses that sold grossed $11,945,900 and averaged $59,138. The median was $27,000. Last year, 195 horses were sold during the first session for a gross of $21,325,900 and an average of $109,364. The median was $55,000.
So this is not where mom and dad go to buy a nice show hunter prospect for little Emily.

However, with high-end warmblood prices still holding up fairly well, I'm actually hearing some show people are starting to venture into the mid-range TB sales looking for show horse prospects.

And many sites, such as TheHorse.com, now have lists of free Thoroughbreds.

Free horse--an oxymoron if there ever was one.

I need to get one of those T-shirts with this text:

I do NOT need another horse.
I do NOT need another horse.
I do NOT need another horse.
I do NOT need another horse.

03 January 2009

For Riding Instructors

Anyone who reaches riding using the principles of dressage would do well to read both Lounging the Rider for a Perfect Seat: A How-To Guide for Riders, Instructors, and Longeurs by Benedik
Learning to Ride As an Adult: A New Training Method for First-Time Riders by Prockl.

Benedik doesn't believe anyone has a perfect seat, of course, so the title is a bit misleading.

In a way, Prockl's title is also misleading. And I would argue that her thesis is a bit iffy too. She contends that children are relaxed and natural on horses. This has not been my experience. I've started several girls under ten and found them to be among the most fearful and tense creatures I've ever met. I don't have any students under ten right now, but I suspect the exercises Prockl suggests adults do on a yoga ball would be of great benefit to a great many child riders too. So I wish Prockl had used a title that suggests the main topic of her book: learning to sit well through the use of an exercise ball.

02 January 2009

Current Reading List

I'm just getting started here, and I just realized that I neglected a primary portion of my life when I didn't list "reading" as an interest.

Of course, I don't consider reading an interest. It's a necessity, a joy, the gateway to everything else.

Here's what I'm currently reading that's horse-related:

Carriage Driving: A Logical Approach through Dressage Training by Bean and Blanchard

The Circle of Trust: Reflections on the Essence of Horses and Horsemanship by Zettl

Lounging the Rider for a Perfect Seat: A How-To Guide for Riders, Instructors, and Longeurs by Benedik

Learning to Ride As an Adult: A New Training Method for First-Time Riders by Prockl

The Truth about Horses: A Guide to Understanding and Training Your Horse by McLean