Essays of an Equestrian

I wasn’t always the saavy dressage rider that I am today (LMAO). I had to start somewhere. This story tells of one my “somewheres”.

Long ago and in the beginning of my foray into dressage, my girlfriend and I entered a large show with our two quarter horses. My horse at the time was old enough to both vote and drink but he was still sound enough and willing. We had both been to local shows and had decided to go to a big show, just for the heck of it and as something to do in the summer. Well not only did we pick a big show, we picked one with Olympic qualifying events. This show also offered training level classes as well as a dressage seat equitation class so we figured we’d enter into those.

In order to get better you must surround yourself with tougher competition, right?

 

 

 

From the beginning it proved an adventure. We packed up just about everything we owned for the trip which was long enough to warrant an overnight stop at a relatives farm. After we unloaded the horses from “the tampon” (our nickname for my long red horse trailer) we put the horses into stalls and made sure they were comfy cozy. But when we went to unhook the trailer, the landing gear ceased working and the wheel was stuck in the down position. We ended up having to remove the wheel and had to use a car jack to jack it up and down.

That should have been a sign for us, but in our excitement we were oblivious to the warning.

The next morning we jacked the trailer back onto the truck and loaded the horses up. My old truck did the best it could fully loaded with passengers, a heavy steel trailer, hay, two horses and equipment. When it had to pull up a steep hill I could swear I heard it cough. The day was going to be hot, and the trip to the show grounds found us switching the air conditioning on and off depending on whether we were going up hill or down.

We pulled into the show grounds and immediately realized that coming to this show may have been a mistake. The set up was spectacular with huge white tents next to multiple show rings. The barn was brand new and looked more like a palatial estate than a barn, and it came complete with a huge fountain in the entry.

My barns never had fountains.

Many of the people roaming around the grounds wore dresses and sported designer dogs and big floppy hats – the type you would see at Churchill Downs on Derby day. There were V.I.P. dining cafes and it was all topped off by the British announcer on the P.A. speaking the Kings English.

We had parked the trailer and settled the horses before we made our way to the secretaries stand to register and check in. The secretary had a line in front of her which had apparently made her cranky. Very cranky. When our turn finally came we approached the secretary who seemed to be a thousand years old. My girlfriend and her husband stepped up to the desk first.

The next part seemed to happen so quick. I’m not really sure of what was said but before I knew it there was yelling and lots of it on the part of the show secretary. My friends tried to talk to her and with the passing of some time and more yelling they were finally done. As they turned to leave my girlfriends husband decided to show his displeasure with the show secretary. Please understand that he was unfamiliar with the horsey set and protocol and so this woman meant nothing to him other than being rude to him. He decided to end their encounter by being rude back. Real rude.

So he turned to leave but instead bent over, backed up a step, artfully placed his buttocks on the secretaries desk and tooted the butt bugle. It was loud and it was bold and there was no mistaking what it was, and the secretary had a front row orchestra seat.

I had been looking down at my paperwork waiting for my turn when I heard it. I know I winced and thought “Please God, please don’t be what I think that is”.

But alas it was.

My friends dashed out in a hurry. I was still waiting to check in. I tried to pretend that I didn’t know them and I had not realized what had happened and that I hadn’t heard the butt bugle. But the jig was up when she saw I was from the same home town. I tried to smile awkwardly and was as friendly as I could manage.

Amazingly, the passage of gas seemed to have mellowed her some, and she finished my paperwork quickly and quietly. I’m astonished nothing more ever came of it.

This event also should have been a sign to me, but in my excitement I was oblivious to the warning.

I decided to do my best to preserve whatever dignity I had left from that point on, but that was not to be.

We returned to the trailer and began our routine to get ready. I was going to do my best to fit in so I wrapped ole quarter horse legs in brand spanking new white polo wraps and then began my warm up.

In retrospect it was like covering a car dent with a bumper sticker.

My girlfriend also started her warm up when we heard the familiar British voice on the PA announcing that due to the heat, jackets were waived. Cool.

Time for the first class. I went trotting in, all happy and focused, ready to give a spiffy halt at X. Instead, I was met with a whistle. I hadn’t expected it, and just sort of continued on to X and halted all snazzy like. I bowed, and again a whistle.

I looked to the judge hut and saw an elder man lift to his feet. Then he began to yell at me with a thick German accent. I couldn’t understand what he was saying and watched him then walk annoyingly over, scolding me to take the wraps off my horse.

Oops.

(Looking back, it would have been the perfect moment for comedian Bill Engvill to tell me “Here’s your sign”.)

I exited the ring and someone took the horses wraps off. I regrouped as best I could and came trotting in again, red faced, and managed to pull off an almost snazzy halt at X.

The rest of the test was uneventful, and I plodded through, looking no where near as glamorous as any other horse on the property.

Truly, I was the red dot on a black wall.

Next, my girlfriend. She came trotting in all snazzy and focused ready to give a spiffy halt at X. She too was met with a whistle. She too had no idea why.

She looked to the judge hut and once more an elder man lifted to his feet. Then he began to yell at her in a thick German accent. She couldn’t understand what he was saying and we watched him walk annoying over, scolding her to take off the stock tie, that when jackets are waived, you must also take off your stock tie.

Oops.

(Bill Engvill now gives out “sign” number two)

She exited the ring and someone took her stock tie. She regrouped as best she could and came trotting in again, red faced, and managed to pull off an almost snazzy halt at X. The rest of her test was uneventful too.

The class over it was clear neither one of us were going to place. Nope, not among all the fancy schmancy horses in this fancy schmancy show. We were truly two red dots on a black wall.

After she was done we just kind of looked at each other and busted out laughing. In the absence of dignity, there was still humor.

We entered the next class and at some point each of us went off course. And of course, once more the whistle blew.

I had the feeling that if the judge could he’d run us off the show grounds.

Except for both of us going off course, the rest of our tests were uneventful. Neither of us placed.

In the dressage seat equitation there were only the two of us in the class. The poor judge had the choice of me or her. You could tell it killed him to have to place either of us first. I ended up in first and won a trophy dressage whip. Months later, a fancy schmancy glossy booklet got mailed to me, and there inside was my name printed as the big bad winner of the equitation class. It felt absurd.

As we walked back to the trailer I turned to her and said “Okay, this is our story. We came here and it was a big class. We did good and held our own. In the eq class we got first and second out of ten. In the other tests we scored high 50’s and low 60‘s. Deal?” She turned and said “Deal”.

We bummed around for a few hours and then packed all our crap back up, looking again like the Beverly Hillbillies as we pulled out after once more jacking up the trailer to hook it up.

Two red dots on a black wall.

(Or would that be two dressage rednecks on a black wall? Here’s our sign!)

 


Show season is here again. We’re happy. Well you might be happy. As for me I don’t have the energy to do laundry much less run the marathon which is the essence of a horse show.

Think of it this way: you put in all the hours riding your horse and riding him well. You remember that “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect” so you’ve been riding your horse in a manner to develop him, without force and using every ounce of skill and technique you can muster.

Now, what do you do for luck? Not just luck IN the show ring. Luck GETTING TO the show ring. Ever notice that no matter how well you prepare, or how experienced you are, the most inane thing could turn the show from a good show to a bad show? I‘m talking about “Murphy‘s Law“ in showing.

Let’s begin with the day before the show as well as show morning.

Good Show: You get to the barn to prepare. Beautiful trip with no traffic. Have lots of time to get the things done. Warm weather so you can safely bathe your horse. Truck already washed and gassed up. Your new diet has worked and you’re feeling supple, stretched and athletic. Dunkin Donuts coffee especially tasty this particular morning.

Bad Show: You woke up late. Can’t find your keys. Dog has “accident” on rug. Vehicle won’t start or tire looks flat. Rainy, cold day and looks like it will stay that way. Spill Dunkin Donuts coffee on way to barn on both you and your light gray velour truck seats.

Good Show: You ride your horse. He is suitably not perfect. You are happy as you’ve learned if the ride the day before the show is not so good, that the show ride will go well. It’s just always been like that so you’re confident. Bathe horse, both you and horse are very happy. Still good on time because he easily trimmed up prior to his bath.

 

Bad Show: Horse seems off. Ripped out part of mane or tail on unknown something. He’s cranky. You’re cranky. Loud thunder outside. You’re picking his feet when you remember that you forgot to wash and gas up truck. Decide just to gas it up on way home as it’s raining anyway. Too cold to bathe so you have no choice but to brush for an hour.

Good Show: You braid him up in twenty minutes. Horse stood like statue, braids are perfect and your fingers aren’t cramping. You put him in a nice, new high necked sheet and return him to his freshly bedded stall. He stretches and pees. Life is good.

Bad Show: It’s taking forever to braid him. He just won’t stand still. Braids end up looking like mutant growths. Fingers hurt as well as your ankle because while braiding you stepped off the upside down bucket by accident. Put new sheet on. Break nail trying to pry open new Velcro on sheet.

Good Show: Clean your equipment, pack in into neatly organized tack room in trailer. Pack hay and a bucket. Go over list in your head a few times, confident that you’ve remembered everything. And you have.

Bad Show: Equipment very dusty and you’ve forgotten your towel/sponge at home. Improvise with a dusty towel you found in your tack box. Go to get hay. Realize “string” on bale is actually “wire” this time. Takes half an hour to find something to cut the wire. You pack your stuff in truck or trailer. You double check and are happy you remembered to pack your bridle.

Good Show: You wake up ten minutes early and relax to a cup of coffee. All your things are already packed in your vehicle. You shower and slick your hair back into a neat bun. Spray hairspray and put on baseball cap. Jump into your vehicle, pausing to get Dunkin Donuts coffee.

Bad Show: You wake up half hour late and are running around trying to remember everything. Your nerves cause a lengthy trip to bathroom. You rush a shower then jump out. Can’t find hair spray nor a baseball cap. Spend another half hour looking for keys. Stop at Dunkin Donuts even though you’re so late because you really, really need that coffee or you‘ll forget your bridle.

Good Show: You get to barn and check on horse. All is perfect, not even a single shaving in his tail. He’s bright and alert and has eaten well. You hook up trailer on first shot. All lights and hookups work. Get horse from stall, put halter on as well as wraps. Load horse on trailer easily. Can now pull out as all equipment packed night before. Bridle is there. Day is sunny and 68 degrees. High temp of the day will peak at 77.

Bad Show: Still cool and rainy. Winds have picked up. You can hear distant thunder. You get to barn late and must rush around trying to get it all done like a NASCAR pit crew. You’ve broken a sweat and are filthy dirty already. So is horse. Neck on sheet has slid down so braids full of shavings and dust. Horse seems cranky and so are you. Trailer just won’t line up and you manage to dent the trucks bumper. Finally, after you’re soaking wet you’re hooked up. Trying to pull out of mud, your tires splat mud at friend who was checking your lights. She then tells you one side of the trailer lights are out. You go to put horse on trailer. Horse won’t load. Must pack bridle after loading. After twenty minutes of horse not loading find a wasps nest. Glad for first time it’s 52 degrees. Look for bug killer spray ten minutes. Finally, no more wasps or nest. Load horse in “only” fifteen minutes.

Good Show: Nice easy trip. Arrive ten minutes early. Park in a nice spot, not too far from office, bathrooms or food area. Horse comes off trailer nicely, settles in well. You go to check in with office, all paperwork runs smoothly. You return to sit by trailer with show program and cup of coffee. You have two hours to relax until you tack up.

Bad Show: Accident causes traffic. Arrive one hour late. Park in bad spot, far from office, bathroom or food. Rainy still, grass muddy. Will worry about that later. Horse comes off trailer sidewise, slips, falls to one knee. You go to check in with office and it takes time due to show secretary fighting with person in front of you. While you are waiting horse gets loose from trailer. You run out to grab him, dog nursing puppies bites you in ass. Find horse, see that lead line snapped near the clip. Bend over to grab horse by halter just as he swings his head up and clocks you square in the nose. Wipe away blood from nostril. Retie horse to trailer. Return to office, draw entry number 13.

Return to trailer, look in tack room. Realize there is no bridle.

I have come to believe that there is an invisible vortex in every pasture my horse inhabits. It’s a gateway to another dimension  which comes and goes mysteriously. When its portal opens it will suck up a horse, simultaneously stopping time for a moment. After annihilating whatever the horse is wearing the horse passes back through the portal, none the worse for wear.

This other dimension is filled with single bell boots, twisted shoes, bits of halter leather, and the tattered shreds of what once was a sheet or blanket. Just like some people attract paranormal activity my horse attracts this pasture vortex.

There is no escape from the vortex. Resistance is futile.

It was Christmas Eve and I had just presented my horse with his treasured gift. It was a new winter blanket colored in bright pink and blue plaid. It was beautiful. I recall lovingly placing the blanket upon him and smoothing it gently as I admired the hot colors. Surely this was the prettiest blanket I had ever seen.

I kissed his forehead and put him back in the stall with a nice pile of fresh hay. The next day was Christmas so the horses would stay in and not be turned out until the day after. The morning after Christmas was cool and breezy and the horses were especially fresh when they were finally turned out.

It was that morning that a vortex struck.

A few hours later we heard a commotion in the pasture and went to look. The scene was one that I had never before seen nor dreamed of seeing. The thirty acre pasture had somehow managed to have white polyfill fluffs dispersed everywhere as if it there had been a winter’s polyfill snow. As it blew around in the breeze the horses were having great fun, like children after the snowstorm. There were horses with white polyfill tipped ears and noses. One big piece was being chased by an Arab gelding whose tail flagged to its snorts. Others had it entwined in their manes or tails and seemed content to look silly. There was so much polyfill it looked as if it had managed to reproduce.

In the center of it all was my bay Thoroughbred trotting the trot that I dreamed of one day getting under saddle. Dragged behind him was a tattered trail of fabric, some bright pink and blue plaid, some white polyfill. Yet more was of indistinguishable color. It formed a surprisingly long tail and reminded me of the movie Independence Day, when Will Smith’s character came in dragging the alien tangled in his parachute.

There was so much it would have been impossible to travel the thirty acres and collect all the polyfill. It turned out to be no problem as by the next morning, the vortex had struck once again and taken all of it away. Not a single fluff could be found.

I have since acquiesced to the fact that my horse is a divining rod who attracts the vortex and I have resigned myself to constantly having to replace items. I always buy the same color gummy bell boots so I don’t have to worry about pairs not matching. I use nothing but leather halters. Whether it is a fly sheet, regular sheet or blanket, I know I must buy multiples, and I’ve already told stories about all those missing “chuze”.

I have found out one secret though. The very expensive blankets must have some sort of minor force field as they seem to fight off the vortex for a little bit longer.

The bright side is nothing lasts long enough to get dirty so I don’t really have to worry about washing blankets. The vortex sees to that.

Somewhere in the vortex lives a little pasture gnome with a bell boot hat, tattered leather clothes and white polyfill hair who sits on a twisted horse shoe throne.

As I transitioned my ex racehorse to a riding horse I came across an interesting problem. It occurred only in the arena, and it was the seeming inability of my horse to pick up the right lead.

 

I tried every skill I knew to get my horse to pick up the right lead, but to no avail. However, what really perplexed me is that when out trail riding, if I asked for the canter without indicating any particular lead that a good 80% of the time, my horse would pick up the right lead. It should be mentioned that out on the trail, I would most often ask for a center on a wide straight trail. I began to think that the phenomenon was due to the fact that my horse had been a racehorse, and here in the States, the horses run on the left lead going counter clockwise and then at the top of the stretch for the straight away, switch to a fresh lead, the right lead.


I saw a connection.


I went to several instructors and clinicians, some of which rode FEI levels. They were all very nice people, and some I really liked. They would try all sorts of things. They’d get on and try to use their position. They would try with side reins and lunging. Some tried force and when they did I knew I would never go back to them.

 

But all of it was to no avail. No matter how hard these people tried they just couldn’t get him to make the connection. Despite his continued reluctance to pick up the right lead at the canter in the ring, he continued to pick it up on the trail.


I found myself repeating to each subsequent instructor the oddity of not picking up the lead in the ring but usually picking it up on the trail. Probably they didn’t believe me when their own attempts didn’t work. More than once I was told the horse must have some lameness or soreness issue, and when I asked why then he was able to pick up the right lead on the trail, they could offer no reason why.


It was about this time that I applied for a symposium with a world renowned clinician, a person who seemed to be highly regarded in magazines and on various posting boards and whose methodology included using exercises rather than force to develop the horse’s training. I liked the way that sounded so I was hell bent on going.


However, I did not get into the symposium because my horse had this lead problem, but I did make it into a subsequent clinic a few months later.


My first ride in the clinic found me warming up with this man’s gentle coaching. I really liked his style. When it was time to canter I explained my right lead dilemma to the clinician. I explained that since the horse would choose to pick up that lead on the trail, I was certain that lameness or soreness was not the issue. I told the clinician that the best guess I could offer was that the horse didn’t realize that he had a choice as to leads.


Then this clinician did the most amazing thing. Although having been an Olympic coach, the author of books and maker of videos and a recognized Master in the sport of dressage he listened to me. He listened to little ole amateur me, and he believed me.


Then he told me what to do. He had me trot off then began to issue commands in quick succession. Trot a few strides turn left, trot a few strides turn right. Trot and turn NOW. I was making the turns like 90 degree turns. This repeated again and again. Trot, turn left, trot, turn right, and on it went. After about the tenth time of doing this he told me to turn right and  CANTER.


As if by magic, the right lead canter was there.


Just like that. It was just that easy. I was blown away.


We did the exercise again and again it worked every time.

It must have been with each shift of direction the difference of my weight coupled with the change in my leg position told the horse, in a manner he could understand, what I wanted.


From that day forward, getting the right lead was never again an issue.  Even in counter canter he waits for my cue, so I have no trouble with that either.


All that time riding. All those frustrated instructors and all that money. In the end all it took was a little exercise that no one seemed to know except for this one man.


The man’s name? Walter A. Zettl.


When next I’d run across one of the other trainers the first thing they do is ask me how I was doig with that pesky right lead. When I told them it was no longer an issue, they would have this defeated look on their faces. Some I had to show as they were skeptical.


Like I said before, these weren’t bad people. They weren’t jerks for the most part. But they had never before learned this way to solve this particular problem and I can’t really fault them for that.


From that day forward I became a student of Walter Zettl’s. I’d look forward to each clinic like someone might look forward to a Hawaiian vacation. I’d be excited for months before. I was getting proper education and my horse developed well and couldn’t be a happier partner. I had chosen my religion.  I would learn to use exercises to develop my horse’s training and force would have no place in my training program.


I learned that done right and with attention to the training pyramid each exercise builds upon another to achieve dressage’s various movements. And when one is steadfast to this method progress occurs without damage to previous training and it happens just like that.

Since the dawn of the time wherever there appeared the footsteps of man, the hoof prints of the horse were beside. Since time immemorial, horses and other equines have been there for us in multiple capacities.

First, we hunted and ate them. Some of us still eat them now. We have used them to pull our wagons, carts and coaches. We have put them into wartime use and untold millions of them have thus suffered, left in bloody messes on some battlefield to die. They have mined coal for us and journeyed across deserts and over mountains where only goats should travel.

They have pioneered the wilderness for us, and delivered our mail. They’ve earned us income and have fed our families through this income.


We have raced them, throwing them away when they couldn’t race to our satisfaction any more. We have whipped them, spurred them, cranked and yanked them. We have starved them and we have abandoned them leaving them to die. We have used them for medical research and have farmed medications and anti-venoms through them.

They have given us status, so much so that Kings and Emperors have ridden them for tribute and parade. We’ve shot them from helicopters and we’ve transported them in cramped quarters to their final demise. We’ve roped them and tripped them, and captured them sending a bullet across their withers. We’ve taken away their land and culled them cruelly offering excuses in the same breath as we issue a commemorative stamp.


We bring cold inhumane treatment, maiming and killing for the creature who would work for us until they drop.


And yet somehow, they still seem to like us, and we proclaim to like them too. We humans have a strange way of showing it.


Throughout history and continuing on to this day, we have used them up and spit them out, discarding them. They have been both essential and they have been expendable.


As far as partnerships go, they have been a far better friend to us than we have been to them. No other animal has so affected the history of mankind as the horse and perhaps no other animal has paid so heavy a price.


But now the time of our soiled betrayal of the horse must come to an end.


Now, given the fact that we consider ourselves civilized we are compelled to begin to act civilized, and so shall no longer forego the best interest of the horse for our own ego and profit.


This requires us to become mobilized and self aware. We must look outward and at the same time inward.

A serious reevaluation of all our practices, in every discipline is in order.


I ask all equestrians to now sit back and think of their day to day practices. Think of how you ride your horse and the cues and equipment that you use. Consider the bit you use and when you jerk on the reins the discomfort that bit will cause. Consider when you use the spur into a horses belly if you’ve used that spur sparingly or impatiently.


Consider if you as a rider could accomplish the same goal with your horse, but in a new manner, one brought forth with education, and with technique instead of force.  Consider if you’ve hired a professional to ride and train your horse if perhaps your horse’s soul and spirit is the better or worse for it. Reevaluate every professional and watch what they do, and how the horse reacts.


For not only is each horse a living, breathing, feeling noble creature, it is a soul. And in our dealings with each of these souls we should consider if we are doing our partnership and friendship justice. We must consider if perhaps another path is the one bettered followed.


We must be self aware.


It is with like thinking that 41,000 horsemen have signed the petition to ban rolkur and hyperflexion from warm up arenas. So what does the FEI, the international body charged with equine preservation do? They say instead that abuse, in small doses, is fine.


Some would see FEI’s actions as a positive yet small start. I do not see it that way. It is beyond my comprehension that there are influencing pressures driven by money, prestige and greed that would override the FEI’s promise of commitment of preserving the best interest of the horses that compete in their events. The FEI must uphold their own rules.


Yet rather than upholding their very own rules (Article 401) which define and ban abuses such as rolkur and hyperflexion, the FEI has in effect determined that abuse for short periods of time is permissible, in the name of more dramatic and exaggerated horse movement.


This is insufficient.


We must continue to make our voices heard and speak for the horse who cannot speak for itself. We, as a civilized society, must finally act civilized.


I would also ask of you something further. In addition to examining the actions of the FEI I would ask you to go even further and examine your own practices and every aspect of what we do ourselves.


With open eyes I have evaluated my own equestrian history and have come to realize that I am not proud of some things I have done. This I cannot change, but I can change what I do from now on.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”  ~Mahatma Ghandi

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The good will of the horse is like the scent of a rose. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.