Essays of an Equestrian

Miscellaneous

I received a comment in reply to my previous post “At What Point No?” and felt it necessary to post. It tells a fuller story of an elite athletes decision to say “No” as she was concerned for her horses welfare.

I cannot imagine how hard it would be for many of us, given the chance to ride in the Olympics, to just say “No”. Kudos to Ms. Ikle for being able to.

“I don’t know what criticism had to be endured (the team trainer resigned, don’t know if it was in protest or what), but here’s a report on why she withdrew from the Hong Kong Olympics:

The Swiss Equestrian Federation has withdrawn its dressage team from the 2008 Hong Kong Olympic Games following a statement by its top dressage rider, Silvia Iklé. Iklé announced that she will not take her 14-year-old gelding Salieri CH to the Games, nor would she allow her second horse, Romario, ridden by teammate Veronika Marthaler, to compete. Iklé cited the humidity, distance and time difference of Hong Kong as reasons not to take her horses.

In a press statement, Iklé said, “Participating in Hong Kong would place extraordinary stresses and strains, exertions I do not wish to impose upon my horses.”

After Iklé’s statement, the Swiss Equestrian Federation decided to withdraw the entire Swiss dressage team from the Games, pointing out that, without Iklé, the team would be weak.

Swiss team trainer Jurgen Koschel has resigned as a result of the Swiss Equestrian Federation’s actions.”

I wish to thank Alli Farkas for the whole story!

As an equine blogger I, and a bunch of other people, spew on and on with all that “horses being a partner” stuff.

I would like to bring up for your consideration the next logical part to that way of thinking. And more importantly if that next step isn’t feasible or logical, consider that it just might all be a bunch of bull.

Any thinking person, open to shifting sands, must be willing to acknowledge that at certain points in their life, their logic shifts and their way of thinking changes.

So what methods or belief we held as truth twenty years ago is something we’d never do today. We’ve evolved. Think of all the dubious things you’ve done with a horse twenty years ago and say that you would do it ALL today. For most of us (myself included) the answser is an unequivocal NO.

So today we are far more attentive to and wanting to “listen to the horse”. We preach of being a partner in the equine dance between horse and rider, blah blah blah.

But now what? What next?

Okay, so now we ride the horse. We work him day in and day out, trying to perfect ourselves and in turn, perfect the horses way of going.

We practice rhythm and our timing of the aids and the application of them. We do everything we can short of lighting candles, putting on Asian mood music, and praying to any entity who will listen in order we the Ying to better ride Yang.

We achieve equine nirvana and we begin to show. We advance quickly at first, and we’re able to place well too. If we’re lucky and we’ve spent enough time and money we start to show with the big boys.

Then one day things become a little harder. But we’re doing so well showing and we’re leading in points even if it’s just a small lead. We find ourselves in the position that one bad show with low test scores can be the difference between Yes and No. We have become serious and competitive.

So we push. We look for shortcuts. With a world watching (except maybe some FEI stewards because they can’t do a damn thing about it anyway) we MAKE things happen as opposed to the loftier mantra of allowing things to EVOLVE.

We have become that which we once loathed, though often we do not see it.

And often there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ve developed ourselves and our lives around showing and winning especially if we’re a trainer. Winning gives us prestige and prestige gives us money. And we need that money. We have to pay the farm rent or mortgage, pay the sky high prices and fees of showing and be able to (in lieu of spending our own money) convince someone else to either buy a horse for us to ride or allow us to ride their horse and to pay us for riding their horse. And we have to keep them convinced because at any time that person can wave buh bye and move on to the person who is doing the winning if we aren’t.

Everything depends on winning. EVERYTHING.

Pressure mounts and so does the pressure we put upon our horses. Some of us try and cheat a little when the horse starts coming up sore because coming up sore is just something that happens when you MAKE it happen instead of allowing things to EVOLVE.

People start to notice and begin to say things. Then some of them get mad at you and begin to say things on the internet. Global conversations begin with you as the topic and you find yourself being blamed for the demise of dressage as we know it and in some circles, the holocaust too. We become the subject of videos and of conversations about said videos.

We step up and defend ourselves yelling for anyone to hear that will listen stating how much we love our horse and how much education we have. Of course we love our horses because we speak nicely to them and feed them carrots and bananas when we’re not contorting them in bizarre, unrecognizable positions.

Our education with some of the top folks in the world has taught us that we are more knowing than others as to what the real deal is, what the realities of living in this world entails in the horse world. We give ourselves the excuses we need, we give those same excuses to the world and we speak of how much more we know than every one else.

We have become that which we once loathed.

It’s apparent to others that now we’ve lost our way. Somewhere, at some point, things went askew.

How do we keep that from happening?

Remember at the very beginning I asked what the next step was? Well this is the point in the equation of things that the question must be both asked and answered.

My answer: The horse must always be the driver. The horse must always lead the way.

Next question:

Given todays show environment, is it even possible for the horse to lead the way?

I think maybe no, it isn’t possible all the time especially as we reach higher levels.

It is my belief that as soon as the showing becomes complicated and entwined as an integral part of life’s set up that at some point it is no longer possible for the horse to be the driver. When things develop to the Olympic or World levels its obvious that showing has become quite complicated and has become entwined as an integral part of our lifes set up. And then there’s the money. Always the money.

So I would ask, is there a point where the sport developed to preserve “training” has now become the very vehicle of its destruction?

At what point do we say “No”?

The answer is different to different people. I can afford to make my answer to completely listen to the horse and allow him to be the driver. I’m not currently showing or even driving towards some goal and time destination.

I have the luxury of my mantra being “I’ll do what evolves based up my frequency and intensity of rides and the horse wanting to and enjoying the training”.

Others are striving for some goal and that goal might be on a local, regional, national or global level.

The ones striving towards some goal are feeling the pressure. What will they do? What will we do?

In the end when we speak of being in harmony with our horses and of allowing the training to develop we can always talk the talk, but can we walk the walk?

As you know I have just become a published author. In celebration of this event I write the following as a tribute to those I must credit. Were it not for them being there for me, I probably would not have taken on such an endeavor.

Mentor is a small, big word. Only six letters long its size conceals the life altering effect having a mentor can have on someone’s life, whether it is within or outside of the horse world.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had three mentors. Two of those were teachers and the third rather like a second mother to me. All three contributed equally to the forming of who I was to become, both in and outside the horse world.

The first, a high school teacher, probably has no idea that I consider him a mentor. He was the first to appreciate my quirky creativity and who told me I had a talent for writing. He believed in me and encouraged me as no one else had previously done and because of his encouragement I began to feel like I had an actual talent for something other than horses.

He would often tell me I was brilliant in my creativity and to be honest, I kind of liked that! Plus that kind of unbridled freedom I felt because of his unabashed endorsements really empowered me to become even more creative. No matter the writing assignment he would offer I’d find a way to swing the topic to have some sort of equine relevance.

There is one equine related story which has stayed fresh in my mind even after all these years.

He had given me an assignment and although I don’t remember specifically what the topic was to be, I do remember he wanted a lot of descriptive words to be used. He wanted us to form pictures with our words.

I remember thinking “I can do that”.

So I wrote a story about my relationship with my horse and in one section it went something like this:

“In quiet times, when it was just my horse and I sharing life silently with one another, I’d often find myself just gazing  into his large, bright mahogany brown eyes. I’d relax with my face so close to his that his warm, sweet breath would gently caress the sensitive skin on my neck. I’d stare into those eyes for hours as he looked into the distance, and I wondered if he was seeing those things that were present now or perhaps remembering some distant time. Perhaps it was a memory of running with his mother and the other colts through lush fields of sweeping, fertile grass. Grass which colored so deeply green that in the amber hues of the setting sun would slowly fade to a deep and lavish blue. It was during one of these silent bonding moments that I spoke to him in velvet whisper, telling him of my love and admiration for him.

Then, he sneezed. Arrows of green snot shot at me as if suddenly released from a cannon, scattering like buckshot upon my white shirt. In an instant a lime green design boasted thinner in some spots, more robust in others.”

Suffice it to say he absolutely loved the piece. Loved it to the point as I had to stand up and read it to the whole class. As I read, I watched them get captured in the lofty moments of sunshine and teddy bears before I hit them with my arrows of green snot. Then, as the arrows struck their mark , I got to watch them become bewildered for a moment before the comprehension set in. Then of course I enjoyed the reaction with all it’s “ewwws” and “gross!” moans.

I was hooked. Look at the power I had to manipulate their little minds just with a flowery arrangement of some silly words. Yes, Mr. Ira Shatzman taught me that.

Not too long ago I googled his name and actually found him. We’ve spoken and I’ve told him how much he’s meant to me. It was his words which gave me the balls to start this. I also know he’s reading this now. How cool is that?

So, if I write anything stupid, you can just blame it on Mr. Shatzman…..

My next mentor was the mother of one of my equestrian friends. She too always supported me and in the horse world she had my back and would go to bat for me when I wanted to get involved in different areas in the horse world, whether it be showing or being active in equestrian or civic groups.

She taught me about people and their behaviors and how to fight long and hard for those things you believe in and she led by her own example. She would routinely fight stupidity with intelligence and her motives proved pure and noble.

She always spoke highly of me, both to me and to others. She actually believed I was a person worth knowing and she would scream it from the rooftops on my behalf were it needed.

Unfortunately she passed way too soon and way too young. I knew at the time of her passing that she meant the world to me but it wasn’t until afterward that I realized how truly significant her presence in my life had been. It wasn’t until real world struggles were made easier by the skills I’d acquired with her in the horse world that I fully realized the huge impact she’d made on my life.

See, that’s the thing with mentors; Often you don’t realize they are your mentor until they are gone.

My third mentor is solidly entrenched in the horse world as an internationally recognized dressage Master and if you’ve read my many blogs regarding him you know of whom I am speaking. A reading of those blogs makes it apparent why I would choose him. Besides, who better than to be a mentor than Walter A. Zettl. I can think of no better person.

I can only hope that each of you reading has your own mentor and that they are deserving of your trust and adoration.

Choose wisely.

Soon the great American summer holiday known as the 4th of July will be with us. This holiday, also named Independence Day, marks the day in history when the colonial representatives of the original 13 colonies signed the great document The Declaration of Independence pronouncing American independence from Britain and tyranny.

This holiday remains one of my favorites of the year, second only to Christmas. In addition to the wonderful Independence Day ceremonies, fireworks, national pride and the flying of flags, other traditions have evolved such as the great American art named “The Barbeque”.

So, in honor of this holiday I bring you this Revolutionary War tune tweeked in a DressageForTheRestOfUs kind of way. I would add that in the days of yesteryear, the term Yankee Doodle was meant as an unkind term often meaning “fool” and it’s in that context that I use it. It is not meant to refer to Americans, but rather to the folks I perceive to be riding “fools” riding in forced, held, manipulated, unnatural, unhealthy frames.

It’s meant to be sung to the familiar tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”

Yankee doodle rode dressage
On a giant pony
Shoved two bits in its mouth
And made its carriage phony

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

The show I saw was FEI
The riding very vexing
Horses staring at the ground
They called it hyperflexing

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

I watched a team from overseas
They did a lot of winning
They rode with force and shortened necks
They did not see their sinning

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

So I asked the judge why high they scored
Short necks and phony frames
He look surprised in his eyes
And said it was their fame

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

Then I heard a woman say
I’m just a stupid ammie
An amateur is too unsure
She really tried to slam me

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

I turned to her and I did say
Just see the horse’s eyes
Every time you ride that way
His soul just mourns and dies

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

Next to me there was this man
Who seemed quite in the know
He said I’m right with my eyesight
A Master known as Nu-no

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

The friend with him was very grim
He muttered like a whiner
What he saw just dropped his jaw
This Kleimke they called Reiner

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

And with them was another man
A Master worth his mettle
Exercises he did train
His name is Walter Zettl

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

Then rode by a Ma-no-lo
Upon an Andulusian
Light and lofty he rode well
Classic’s not illusion

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

Masters smiled as they did watch
A rider worth his salt
His horse went well they all could tell
And his horse could halt

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

I wish I could go back and time
See Masters in a ride-off
All the ones who taught so well
And the man von Neindorff

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

Now its time to train my horse
I have to find a trainer
Wanted one who did things right
Its really a no brainer

Yankee doodle did it rough
Yankee not so dandy
Mind the music and the kur
Don’t ride so very “hand-ee”

If I could wish a riders wish
I’d have them all to teach me
Happy horse result of course
Me so glad I’d peepee

Yankee doodle not so rough
Yankee not forced framed
Ride it right it’s out of sight
Plus the horse ain’t lamed

Since the beginning of time those humans who have shared their lives with horses have come to believe that horses, like people, have a soul. Proof of this is evident by all the writings, songs and poems speaking in regard to the horse, their spirits and their souls.


But what exactly does it mean to have a soul?


A quick peak at dictionary.com offers these definitions and I’ve highlighted in red those definitions applicable to horses, apart from the “must be a human to have a soul” component.

soul

soʊlShow Spelled[sohl]

–noun

1.

the principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans, regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable in existence from the body; the spiritual part of humans as distinct from the physical part.

2.

the spiritual part of humans regarded in its moral aspect, or as believed to survive death and be subject to happiness or misery in a life to come: arguing the immortality of the soul.

3.

the disembodied spirit of a deceased person: He feared the soul of the deceased would haunt him.

4.

the emotional part of human nature; the seat of the feelings or sentiments.

5.

a human being; person.

6.

high-mindedness; noble warmth of feeling, spirit or courage, etc.

7.

the animating principle; the essential element or part of something.

8.

the inspirer or moving spirit of some action, movement, etc.

9.

the embodiment of some quality: He was the very soul of tact.

10.

( initial capital letter ) Christian Science . God; the divine source of all identity and individuality.

11.

shared ethnic awareness and pride among black people, esp. black Americans.

 

12. deeply felt emotion, as conveyed or expressed by a performer or artist.

13.

soul music.

–adjective

14.

of, characteristic of, or for black Americans or their culture: soul newspapers.


Origin:
bef. 900; ME; OE sāwl, sāwol;  c. D ziel,  G Seele,  ON sāl,  Goth saiwala


According to that definition, a definition which is human specific, it would seem that there is not a worldwide consensus that horses do in fact have a soul, yet to us it seems blatantly obvious that they do.


I have no doubt that most of horsemen along with millions of people worldwide believe that horses (and most animals) do in fact have a soul.


But do we treat our horses in accordance with this belief?


For way too long horses have been forced to perform our whims for us and often to their own detriment. Throughout history millions of horses have met an unfortunate end doing all those crazy things we’ve told them to do, like charging into battle.


Amazingly enough horses did it and still do our bidding. Some things they do because they want to please us. Sometimes they comply because they are forced to do so under threat of pain or the presence of actual pain. Shame on us when such is the case.


So we as horsemen find ourselves in a position to either believe horses have a soul, or that they do not and then to act in accordance with our beliefs.


If you don’t believe horses have a soul then there’s very little I can say to change your blind mind. If you haven’t seen that presence in a horse’s eye or how they interact with you then you are pretty much a lost cause and beyond any reasoning I can offer. You might as well stop reading now. Go play in traffic with explosives or something.


But if you DO believe that horses have a soul then I ask that you stop and think about what that really means.


Any being with a soul has a sense of self-awareness, feelings and emotions. There will be a response to kindness as well as a response to pain. As horsemen we like to pride ourselves on being kind and effective riders, but are we really?


When a rider hasn’t fully developed their seat and rides off balance or bounces unmercifully upon a horse’s back we can easily cause pain. If the horse reacts negatively to that pain we often subject it to punishment and even more pain and discomfort. Often, our bad riding leads to lameness or other soreness issues to the horse. In these situations we have failed to be kind and effective riders.


Humans also have a tendency to become rough in their training and we have become so blind to it, so complacent that we don’t even SEE the abuse. Case in point is a natural horsemanship trainer that I’ve seen on TV, one who routinely jerks the living crap out of the horses he handles and watching it makes me wince. Yet someone must think he’s good because he has his own TV show!


It could also be argued that there are varying levels ranging from dampening of the spirit to discomfort to pain to out and out abuse.

When a rider uses rough training tactics or equipment which is ill fitting, uncomfortable or is used as a weapon against the horse (like a bit) we are again failing to be kind and effective riders.


When a rider hasn’t obtained the skill to use exercises to achieve wanted goals and resorts to force it is likewise wrong.


When a rider uses force (like the type of riding seen in fixed hand rolkur/hyperflexion positions) in order to achieve goals quickly it is again wrong. The crying shame is that organizations such as the FEI no longer view prolonged discomfort or damage of the spirit or soul as inhumane. The FEI, by its latest proclamations has decided that the definition of undesirable riding is ONLY through the use of aggressive force. Discomfort and passive approaches to causing pain is just fine by them.


To my mind, this is akin to saying that among humans abuse can only be in a physical form and not in a mental or emotional form. Yet we all know that mental or emotional abuse is just as taxing upon the spirit and health of the individual as physical abuse. Yet for some reason we fail to see that comparison when it comes to horses.


That sucks.


So what are we to do to honor our horses, respect their souls and yet get the job done? How do we keep our goal oriented selves from getting greedy and rushing training or causing pain or discomfort in order to achieve them?


We need to learn technique and to work as hard as we can to perfect our balance, timing and skills. Then we must be patient and never, ever greedy.


This is challenging for us humans because humans do greed very well. Olympic equestrian tradition seems to have moved from the art of the ride to the want of the win and that’s greed.


I think that sucks too.


However, the first part of changing something is being aware that it needs to be changed and we’re at a point where many of us have come to that awareness.


It is likewise as disheartening to our humanly fragile egos to acknowledge that although we’ve owned horses for twenty years that we still do not know enough and we still cannot ride well enough to keep from causing the horse pain and discomfort. It’s hard to admit that when we push the horse to go in a zillion classes at a zillion horse shows that it just might be pushing the horse to its breaking point – and I do mean BREAKING.


Sorry to say as a horseman I do not have all the answers and probably never will. I, like the rest of us, do my best to keep my horse’s work pleasant yet effective. I try my best to educate myself and to ride to the limit, but never ever over.


In my own riding this currently equates to my getting my horse to use his back end enough to lift his front end even more than he already has. It’s a slow process but a necessary one. Constantly I have to go back to scratch and if I haven’t been able to ride as consistently as I want to I’ll come across those rides where I must have the self-discipline not to be greedy for more. Sometimes, less IS more.


It’s hard not to get carried away sometimes especially following a good ride. We seem eager to try and force a duplication of the wonderful ride, but that never works.


So I ask that the next time you ride you consider the horse’s soul in all that you do. Just because a horse can be replaced doesn’t mean that soul is replaceable – EVER.


If your horse is the type to try his heart out it would be simply criminal to take advantage of that, and soon you’ll run out of heart. When that happens a horse loses much of his magnificence.


For me adherence to this code means patiently doing my exercises, taking things as they come – as they are offered. I constantly try to add to my knowledge and expertise and I’ve learned that when I do things correctly my horse is very likely to also do things correctly.


I’ve had a lot of fun on my rides and I see the constant progress and am grateful for them. I may run out of time or ability (in either me or the horse or both) to get him to FEI levels, but with what is getting rewarded in FEI competition I’m pretty alright with that.

Especially when I consider his emotion, his soul and how precious and fragile it can be, just like ours. I’d rather be a good lower level partner that a shitty higher level source of pain and irritation who gets to wear a top hat so I can feel good about myself.


If there is an afterlife and souls can join there it would be thing of dreams. I imagine my horse and I in piaffe and passage, the two of us moving as if one, lasting for eternity.


Yes, this thought has made me smile. I want that.