Essays of an Equestrian


Throughout my life, giving a horse a bath wasn’t really that complicated. It basically required bringing a horse to a water source, turning on the water and then bathing it. Sometimes you use shampoo, but most often I don’t as I think it dulls the coat and I’ve always been known for having shiny horses.

All my life with horses the hose would spit out one thing: cold water. The only exception was if the hose had been laying in the sun in the summer and then it would come out hot for a minute or two then eventually run cold again..

Then I got this horse, this sensitive Thoroughbred. He never stood still for baths and now I’ve discovered the reason. He hates cold water baths! Even when it’s two thousand degrees outside and you’d think a cold bath would be a welcome thing, it wasn’t.

Now I am at a new barn and this barn has both hot and cold running water. Mr. Sensitive is now in his glory. Bathing Mr. Sensitive Thoroughbred has now evolved into an art form. In some ways it has expanded my understanding of my partner, my horse, and how truly sensitive he is. On the other hand, it’s a little bit annoying.

Stoic is not a word I would ever apply to my horse. He lets you know from the very moment you are near him that he wants to communicate and he makes every effort to. When a human isn’t smart enough to “get it” he gets annoyed. When a human reacts with violence he simply gets pissed.

Now in the summer every day is another bathing opportunity. Sometimes baths come prior to work, sometimes afterwards, sometimes instead of.

With last weekend so hot and ridiculously humid, the bath without riding was the best option for us. We’re not in training for anything so there was no harm in missing a ride and even if there was something to prepare for I probably wouldn’t have worked him, opting instead for an early morning ride the next day.

Now remember, more than anything, Mr. Sensitive loathes cold water. No matter how hot it is he just does not want that cold water hitting his skin. If you were to use it on him you would see his entire belly just suck up into his back, and he does his pissed off dance.

So here I am last weekend and I can tell my horse is looking forward to a bath as he walked quite energetically to the wash stall and backed himself in like a well driven tractor trailer.

I clipped him to the crossties and then began to run the water, my own hand testing the temperature. Throughout the bath my hand retests the water constantly (several times a minute) to make sure there isn’t some sudden temp change which also tends to annoy my horse.

He’s special, isn’t he?

I often wonder if aliens were watching us from space which creature they would think was master, and which is slave. I’m sure you’re familiar with that feeling! Of course we’re both more like partners, but I’m just sayin’…..

Slowly I made my way along his body starting with the legs, then shoulder and neck and then the butt. The last part of the body is the back and stomach and after that I move to the other side starting the whole process again. Once he’s good and wet I take my fingernails and give him a nice gentle scratch on his neck, under his mane and all over his various itchy spots which I’ve come to know.

He stretched his neck out and made that cute lip pursing until he wanted me to move on, Then he shifted a step and I knew it was time to move on to the next itchy spot. This went on for both sides of the body and eventually that was done. He ended up with a lengthy scratchy massage. I ended up with ick nails. No matter how clean the horse, if you scratch them with your nail black crud will always be embedded under the nail. There apparently is no such thing as light colored horse crud.

After that I hosed the whole body off again for awhile, switching from side to side, letting the gentle shower of the hose remove any other dirt bits from his skin. I knew they were there, I could tell from my nails.

I should mention that I’m only allowed to set the hose nozzle to “shower”. Mr. Sensitive doesn’t like it any other way.

Eventually the bath was over and I realized that for him it was more a spa treatment than a bath. He was happy and energetically walked backed to his stall, grabbed a bite of hay, demanded some more treats and not so patiently awaited the arrival of his afternoon grain.

With all that done he settled in to contently munch his hay.

I watched him and giggled to myself as I could never imagine Mr. Sensitive running in the wild. Yes, I do believe he likes his life just the way it is, even being able to teach his human to change a bath from just a bath into a carefully orchestrated art form.


I’m happy to be back! Please excuse my short respite from blogging as I was trying to develop the next generation of my blog – DressageForTheRestOfUs 2.0 as it were. It’s still not done, but I didn’t want to stay away any longer. I’ll just have to add more piece by piece.

An experience over the weekend has provided the fodder for this next essay. I hope you enjoy it and can identify with at least part of the experience.

We are all very busy people, especially us amateurs trying to juggle a multitude of things in one day. In the winter it’s often easier in one respect: It’s a lot less complicated stopping to do an errand after the barn. You tend not to be as icky. But in the summer, it can be most problematic and embarrassing at best.

I don’t know about you, but I won’t shower before going to the barn. There just doesn’t seem to be a point to it all since you have to fling yourself into the shower when you get home anyway. So last weekend I spent the morning doing gardening chores in the heat then returned to the air conditioning to cool down and have some lunch.

Afterwards I pulled on breeches and barn clothes and jumped into the car. On the way to the barn I stopped at Dunkin Donuts for a gigantic coffee and uncharacteristically decided to get a jelly donut as well. Since it had been so long since I’d had a donut I figured I deserved that jelly donut.

I knew my day’s agenda called for three things for me to do: go to barn, stop at feed store for animal food and then stop at a grocery store to pick up a few goodies to go along with dinner.

I got to the barn in the afternoon and it was hot, too hot to really work the horse in the sticky indoor given the high humidity. I decided since it was so hot and humid to take my horse instead for a “relaxing” walk around the farm. I figured it would take about ½ hour to walk around and this way my horse wouldn’t be all hot, sweaty and hard to cool down before he ate his afternoon meal.

It seemed the perfect plan. Really, it did.

When I got to the barn I took my horse from his stall and began to brush him. I noticed that despite the heat my horse was a bit antsy. Normally in that situation I’d work him in the indoor first but I decided to just suck it up, plop a crash helmet on and just go for a farm perimeter trail ride and see what happens. Either I’d live or I’d die but since I’ve never managed to die before I figured the odds were in my favor of living. I believed I could trust him enough and I figured I had to respect my own skills for keeping him focused as well.

My horse seemed very eager to start his ride so I figured if he was eager to please then maybe he’d be “eager to listen” too.

From the moment I swung a leg over his back he was ready for the races. Ready to spook at any given thing…. That bird maybe. Or that tree. Perhaps that tall evil looking weed would be his undoing. He was so incredibly stoked a funny looking cloud in the sky would have spooked him.

I decided to give him stuff to think about rather than him IMAGINING stuff to think about and I began working him in a level area and started immediately doing shoulder in to haunches in, mini half passes and walk/trot/walk transitions. Every minute or so his head would swing up as he’d look into the distance making sure Godzilla wasn’t approaching. He’d swing his head this way to look for Godzilla every two minutes or so.

I began to sing his little song and walked him on in a long, ground covering walk. I had to ride every step forward, always going forward. He began to swing his neck and bob his head to the rhythm of my off tune song.

He apparently appreciates my crappy voice. Lord knows no one else does.

I then mixed in more walk/trot/walk transitions seeing how light we could be. The transitions also helped unlock his jaw which would become like concrete every time he would perk up his head to look into the distance. Surprisingly, he wasn’t as sensitive as he normally is, and needed heavier aids, but after a while I was able to lighten them up significantly. You would think that him being so “amped” he’d be more sensitive, but as it turns out the opposite was true.

At that point I rode off to the perimeter trail, praying no deer was planning on popping into or across our path. Sudden deer appearances would probably not go over too well especially given the path was only about ten feet wide and once side sported electrified fencing.

I then found myself quickly wondering what would transpire if I were to fall into the electrified fence and one part of my body, say a leg, would go into a water trough. Would it sound the same way as a mosquito hitting a bug zapper? Would the barn end up smelling like BBQ me?

He spooked once, and it was one of those spooks that happen in place. Excellent! I’m glad he no longer does that spin and spook he was so fond of when I first got him ten years ago.

I continued to ride every step, my body moving with his in order to proactively make my desired destiny of the ride being uneventful. This began me thinking that surely every stride is a decision. Every stride necessitates a conversation with the horse.

The conversation begins with you feeling each stride, listening to the joining of your bodies. For each stride the conversation is “Feel, decide, act”. You ‘feel’ where the horse is at body and mind wise, deciding if it’s desirable and if correction is required. If correction is required then you must act correctly to change the undesirable to desirable. If all is well you do nothing until the next stride where the process begins all over again.

It’s such a delicate thing this conversation that there isn’t time to think really, just feel. Familiarity with equitation and with your horse should make it possible for your reaction to occur in a nanosecond just like an ingrained physical response like swatting at a biting mosquito.

Famed English eventer Lucinda Green calls it “A constant nuturing of the marriage between horse and rider”.  I like that description.

The rest of the ride he was real “looky” but never took a wrong step. His black tipped ears were very active, listening to me as I rambled on talking to him. “Come along you big bum, just walk, you know you’re okay. Good boy, C’mon you big ole bum, you big ole jerk.”

What you say isn’t as important as how you say it.

Such conversation continued and when I returned him to the barn he was only the slightest bit warm and I was able to give him a nice shower, beginning with warm water and slowly graduating to cooler water, but never cold. He hates cold water.

Well, by the end of all this my horse was cool and clean but I was a hot, tired, dirty, smelly, sweaty mess and I still had two stops to make! This walking stuff was murder! Thank goodness I was wearing breeches because at least when smelly me entered a store people would see the breeches and at least know why I am so smelly.

On the way to my first stop, the feed store, I began to eat the jelly donut I’d bought as a little treat hours before but hadn’t yet eaten. Since it had been months since I’ve last eaten any donut I was looking forward to the treat. Well as I was happily munching, a big glob of purple jelly fell, landing with a purple splat right in the middle of my chest. Almost looked like a shot gun blast. The splat was about three inches across. I tried to wipe it off, but apparently there is no way to remove a three inch jelly donut splat from your light colored riding shirt.

So now I’m smelly and jelly stained in a very big way.

I went to the feed store and thankfully it was empty. Quick as I could I made my purchases and left.

Next was the grocery store. That too was empty and I rushed my purchases. The lady behind the counter was familiar with me, but couldn’t help giving my appearance the once-over.

I felt so very pretty…. Not! I almost felt obligated to explain my appearance to her, but I couldn’t think of way to do that without making things sound worse.

I drove home and literally dove into the shower, embarrassed but none the worse for wear. As I showered I thought of how many dirty, sweaty horsemen were at this very moment experiencing this very same thing, no matter where they are in the world.

Later on in the day I spoke of my dirty, smelly day to a friend over the phone. She told me that perhaps this one our way of connecting with our ‘primitive’ selves. I said “Nah, let’s face it……. We all just stink”. There is no redemption from the stink other than the fact that the dirtier we are, the cleaner and fresher our horses are.

Horse dirt is universal isn’t it?!

Dressage tests are a pain in the rear to learn.

The good part of being a lower level rider is that the lower level tests probably won’t cause you to fling yourself out the nearest window. But the higher you go up the levels, the harder the tests become not only to ride well but to remember the sequence of the movements.

Adding to this is the fact that usually a rider is going in more than one test. I’ve heard of pros (maybe Lendon Gray?) that have the innate ability to know all the tests of all the levels just off the top of their head.

My memory could never handle that load. I have a hard enough time with the lower level tests. I tend to ride in one or two tests at a show and I have to refresh my memory for weeks ahead of time. I’ve come up with a way to “test” my test.

I do it driving. I have found if you can repeat your test out loud, without hesitation, while you drive, then you KNOW the test.

If you end up plummeting into a ravine, it is an indication that you do not adequately know your test. You need to go back and review your test some more.

My reasoning is this: when you ride your test you constantly have to tweak things. Some of those things are quite unexpected, such as a spook. You can also become unraveled by a judge’s whistle or gong and that tends to fluff up the nerves for many an amateur.

The other part of the skill of test memorization is remembering where all those silly letters are in the ring. I know many who use an acronym. There is a popular one which I would tell you if I could, but I can’t because I can never remember it. It is not unique to me. It has something to do with eating nine pies. Oh wait, that’s remembering the planets of our solar system. Maybe it’s the one with king’s horses or something. So I have come up with my own system which doesn’t make sense to anyone but me but it’s the one I can remember. I’ll try to explain it.

Let’s take a training level test for example. For training level you are often riding in a 40 meter long ring with two long sides and two short sides. The letters in the middle of the short sides are A and C. Air conditioning and Atlantic City come to mind. You enter at A, so by default C is on the non entering side. Okay got it.

Going on the first long side you have M, B, F. M is next to C because when I was younger I worked in a stock brokerage firm who had a fund called Cash Management. So C is next to M. M-B-F becomes my unusual take on a often used sequence of curse words, the first word being Mother and the second Bastard. You can fill in the F on your own.

The other side is K-E-H. At that same brokerage firm my boss (a nice lady) was named Eileen Hatcher. So to me K-E-H became Kill Eileen Hatcher, even though I never actually wanted to kill her or anybody.

H is next to C and I remember that because I knew a quarter horse guy whose name was H.C. and then the last name. After years of knowing him I found out the H.C. stood for Horatio Cornelius and I then understood why he went by H.C.

H is across from M like in the word HiM.

K is across from F like in the term Kitchen Freezer.

So as you can see, my acronym system is quite unique to me.

So if you should see me driving down the road before entering a dressage show, watch out. You have been warned.

If I’m all over the road it’s because inside the car I’m doing a pattern and muttering to myself “Kill Eileen Hatcher – Kitchen Freezer – Mother Bastard F***** – Cash Management” and then I just might drive into a tree.

Thankfully although driving without a hands free phone is illegal in many states as is texting, trying to remember your dressage test while driving is still perfectly legal. At least until Oprah gets wind of it, then there will be a campaign to stop “Driving while dressaging”.

Or at least until enough of us drive into a ditch.

I received a comment from a reader called Katerina who asked me the following;

“Can you please write a bit more about how did you use the energy to move him and what did you mean by this ? I’ve hear about something like that from Nino Oliviera like ridding your horse with your mind only but haven’t been able to find info on it.”

Well Katerina that’s a great question and as such I decided to post it here so more folks can see it. So let me give it a shot! This is how I, an amateur, interpret it.

In the beginning my horse didn’t want to react to my leg. So much so that I’d put on a pair of spurs. This led to a terrible habit of lifting my heels to get forward and brought me totally out of proper alignment. You might consider it a quick fix, but it was not a good start to a solid riding foundation. Plus it would rub the hair in that area and make it all scruffly looking.

I began riding with an instructor whom I found going to the Zettl clinics. The first thing she wisely did was rip the spurs off of me. They haven’t been back since. She then had the hard task of re-educating my muscle memory to use my leg and my seat to send my horse forward without the habit of lifting the heels. It took literally years. (Another thing that makes me feel stupid!)

Both she and Herr Zettl made me do thousands of exercises utilizing transitions. These came in a few forms, some of which I’ve described on previous postings. If my horse did not react to a forward cue of my leg I had to learn how to back it up. The term my instructor used was “whisper – shout – whisper”. It works like this: You give the leg aid to go forward. Horse doesn’t respond at all or doesn’t respond the degree you want him to. You tap with the whip. He goes forward. You give leg again, he should go forward. If not, or not to the degree you wish you tap again. Sometimes one tap isn’t sufficient. Then it’s tap tap tap or whatever is required.

When it comes to the tapping of the whip it is as light as you can be and still get the job done. You start with the softest of taps that you can.

My horse is one that tapping on the butt might be buck inducing. For this issue Herr Zettl told me it was alright to tap on the shoulder to avoid the buck.

Okay, so that’s the basic part.

Now you go out on the rail. You are riding a nice forward walk. You squeeze just a little for trot and it should be there. Herr Zettl would always tell me “When you ask for trot it must be there”. You don’t ride the trot with a few small weak steps and then warm up to a better trot from there. The trot must be there and affirmative from the first step.

Now you’re trotting and you sit, using your seat and legs to bring the horse forward back down into a walk. I know that sounds counterintuitive but hey, that’s just a nuance of dressage. You ride him forward into the walk. That means not taking rein. You are slowing your body but still giving the leg, and room to go forward with the hand. Not throwing the contact away, but just giving a teenie tiny little bit.

You then begin walk trot transitions. You may have to use stronger aids in the beginning, but after a few minutes of this the horses really do catch on and the aids will get lighter and lighter. My instructor would have me do an exercise called 10 – 4.

Ten steps of walk then four strides of trot. You had to pay attention because in the beginning, you might have to cue for the trot during step 7 of the walk in order to nail the trot transition precisely after step ten of the walk. As you do a bunch of transitions you might have to change your cueing to step 8 of the walk. Then step 9.

You must ride so that you do PRECISELY ten steps of walk, four of trot – no more, and no less. The same holds true in the downward transition (which again you are moving forward to the downward transition by stilling your seat, but giving room to go forward a teenie tiny bit with the hand and a forward cue with your legs.)

If you try this exercise for twenty minutes you will be mentally exhausted. It is so incredibly hard for a rider to keep the attention span for that long, especially if others are in the ring riding with you. At my best I can do thirty minutes, and by then I just don’t want to ride dressage any more LOL.

As you progress from minute one to minute ten to minute fifteen you will note how responsive your horse will get. You then up the challenge by seeing how subtle your cues can be to still be effective.

With enough correct practice you can get to a point that all you have to do is think it. When you “think” it, there are teenie tiny reactions in your muscles that your horse picks up on and will react to. It’s all a matter of getting him to realize that reacting to that teenie tiny muscle movement is the reaction you want from him.

In addition to 10-4 there are other exercises. Herr Zettl would also have me do a lot of these as well. I walk my horse and then cue for trot, and the very second he moves forward for trot I cue for walk again.

We’d also do changes within the gait. I’d ride a working trot and then would shorten my steps, then go longer, then shorter….. longer….. shorter. It was desirable to keep the tempo and rhythm. See how long you can do this one too.

The same can be true for work at canter doing canter/trot/canter transitions or canter lengthenings and shortenings.

Canter/walk transitions are my favorites. On a truly happy note, they are also the way you begin to train the changes.

Once I understood this progression of lessening of the aids I realized I had actually known it all along.

That’s exactly what you do in western riding classes where you use a long rein with little or no contact. When I rode western, my old quarter horse was so broke to death that all I had to do was ‘think” it and he’d do it. My current horse is not broke to death but if I keep on learning and moving forward myself, we’ll get there.

I hope I’ve answered your question to your satisfaction. If not, please let me know.


What a wonderful Saturday today was. I had no set schedule, and took a leisurely trip down to the barn for a ride. I haven’t been riding much at all, but with this three day weekend and some new juice in my enthusiasm I figured it was a good day to start my training regimen for this season.

I should have started earlier, but home chores kept me from riding in earnest. But now the grass is growing well and is mowed, the vegetables planted, the plants fertilized. Everything is fresh and clean so now there will be more time for riding.

My horse seemed pleased to see me and gave me that familiar and adorable nicker in greeting. I opened the stall door, gave him some much wanted baby talk and scratched that special place on his crest. I slipped on the halter and he happily clip clopped to the cross ties.

He stood like a gentlemen so he got a treat. I then began the three step process of brushing him. He was dusty for sure, and some hairs on his loins still seemed to be shedding. He had a mud spot near his poll on one side, and one gaskin was muddy too. I took out my small round rubber curry and lightly began to do soft circles around his body, paying special attention to the itchy spots like under his mane. I focused the brushing as a masseuse would pay attention during a massage, watching his reaction to what I was doing and if he liked it or not. If he seemed to like the brushing in one spot I’d linger, until his body language told me to move on.

After the once over with that brush, and because he stood like a gentleman and didn’t lift a leg, he got a treat. Next, I went to a mitt which has sheepskin on one side and cactus cloth on the other. Starting with his poll, I gave him the once over with the cactus cloth side. I could see that he was starting to shine.

When I needed him to move over I practiced using my energy to do it. He did well. He remembered.

Again, a treat for he’d stood just as good as for the first round of brushing. Now the third round, the softest bristle brush you can imagine. I brushed him methodically, a flick of the wrist propelling the dust into the air and off his coat. When I was done, he was deliciously shiny. I stepped back and admired him. Such a handsome boy!

Other than his bit of a Budha belly his muscling didn’t look too bad. He kind of looked butch and I was happy with that.

I finished up the rest of the grooming, though I did have to walk away once when he lifted his leg to me after the brushing hit a tickley spot on his belly. After a few minutes I came back, and his Thoroughbred brain was so starved for attention that he once more stood like a champion. When I was done, he got a treat and my wonderous praise.

He likes that kind of babbling praise a lot. He gets this “I’m adorable!” look on his face which I find terribly endearing.

I tacked him up and could tell he really wanted to get a move on it. He was anxious to be off the crossties, anxious to work.

I put on my helmet.

We stepped into the indoor and I clumsily climbed the mounting block, swung a leg over and got on. He then almost scooted off in a most energetic walk. I know this walk. It’s “spooky walk”. It’s the walk he does when he is looking for an excuse to be silly and to get frightened from silly things like the dirt.

The indoor had jumps strewn about. The rails were all down but not neatly piled, more like someone tossed a bunch of toothpicks around that fell randomly about.

I needed to focus him, I could feel him building energy inside. I began to walk him over the rails as if I was doing a pattern. I tried as little as possible not to use my hands but rather my seat, weight and legs. Some of the turns to get from one rail to another were extreme, others not so hard. I took him back and forth over them at the walk, each time using the reins less and less. By the time I’d finished the sixth set of varying patterns his focus was mine.

I then started my work, walking circles, shoulder fore, baby half passes for a couple of steps, A lot of changes in the walk from long steps to more collected steps.. More should fore, haunches in, square halts; we took our time and I tried to concentrate on riding the back end, imagining lifting the forehand and being light on the bit, my body finding his and moving together. I worked hard on not getting in the way. Nice and quiet and relaxed. Good.

I was very pleased with our work. Way more than I had expected. I was proud of him and I let him know it. He liked that!

I then moved up to trot and he was very forward and willing. I kept him in a longer frame which pleased his demeanor. Lots of changes within the trot and a ton of trot walk trainsitions. He was nice off my leg and other than the occasional locked jaw he was great! And even the jaw thing softened with just a little attention from me with my leg.

I however, caught myself looking down for the diagonal and I made this loud grunting noise in disgust. Hadn’t I just written about how hard I worked to get passed this habit?! So I sat some trot, then lifted by feel. Wrong diagonal. That’s right, I have to wait until it feels right, then wait one, then rise.

I tried it again and nailed it. Good. I worked on it for the rest of the ride going in and out of transitions.

By the end of the trot work he was started to get that semi floating feeling. I worked a few minutes in that state then called it quits, even though we hadn’t cantered. The canter is the gait where he’s most likely to fall on the front so rather than fight it I opted to just wait until tomorrow. Get that little bit more so he can balance himself better. Gymnasticize him just a bit more tomorrow and we’ll be fine.

This was a good start. I am pleased.