Essays of an Equestrian


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

I woke up early today and found a glorious Sunday morning. The sky, cloudless, is that perfect shade of a light, yet deep blue which echoes the arrival of welcome warmer weather.


A cup of coffee or two later, along with a maintenance trip to Facebook found me clicking on the TV. I tuned to a country channel, RFD-TV or as I like to call it, “The Horse Channel”. No, it’s not totally horse, but with coverage of many different equine disciplines, including British CCTV, there’s often something equine on to hold my interest.


Sometimes, I’ll watch a British dressage instructor doing a fabulous clinic or lesson with someone. Other times it’s a natural horsemanship guru which either gets me to arch a brow wondering, or compels me to yell at the TV. My spouse has gotten used to me yelling at the TV for two types of shows: natural horsemanship and “Nanny” shows focusing with highly disobedient children and their pathetic parents who end up crying in frustration because they are getting “run over” by their kids.


Today though, after a visit with the Budweiser Clydedales and the cleanest barn I’ve ever seen, there was some iconic western bit connoisseur discussing the use of bits on a horse.


At first glance the show discussed nothing riveting. Then a line caught my attention when the interviewed man said “For most riders with uneducated hands it doesn’t matter what bit you get. You have to really have educated hands to understand and appreciate the nuances each bit has to offer”.


Now I’ve heard that bits which were more severe should only be used by those more educated since if you’re too hard with your hands you can ruin the horse’s mouth. Heck, we’ve ALL heard that.


But I never thought of it in this context.


Damn. Cowboy, you have my attention. Go on please.


“Well…”, he says. “It’s just like when someone takes a picture. If you’re an average picture taker you are going to get a pretty basic camera. However, if you’re a pro, you are going to get something more sophisticated and more easily manipulated by you. And you’ll know how to manipulate it because you are skilled and educated. It’s the same with bits”.


Then, the next line hit home. “And it’s not only the bit, it’s how you use it. It’s the refinement of your hands. Remember, slow hands are good hands”.


I sit back now and start thinking in my head, comparing my experiences with riding western where the horse is off the bit, to riding dressage where the horse is on the bit.

Now my Sunday morning exercise is reconciling this.


Heck, I can’t ride. A phone call last night told me my horse had thrown another front “chu”. A “chu” tacked on less than a week ago.  I truly hate my horse’s feet. So, today’s learning will have to be this.


In dressage, does the nuance of differing bits affect your outcome? Sure, you have the snaffles with a single joint and the French link type. In upper levels you use two bits, the bridoon and a curbed type. But basically the choice is somewhat limited. How much could there be to know?


This man, as a trainer, had a collection of over a hundred different bits.


Enter the conversation in my mind, the voices in my head as it were. It went like this:


“A hundred bits? Really? A hundred? Well, if what he says is true would it also be true that in dressage slow hands are also good hands?”


Then my thoughts escalated. If a theory such as “slow hands are good hands” is relevant in one discipline, does it carry on to another discipline?


Well, he’s a western rider and western horses are trained to somewhat be off the bit and dressage horses are trained more to be on the bit. And in western, the amount of severity of the bit is as much as is needed to keep the horse off the bit.


So in dressage, since you want the horse to be on the bit, wouldn’t you use the least amount of bit in order to keep the horse on the bit?

Well yes, yes you would. If the horse was truly being trained to be on the bit and if the horse was being trained to be so much more than a headset.


And, if so, wouldn’t the logical progression be that the higher a horse is trained, then the less of a bit it should require? Why then the conformity that upper less horses must be ridden with two bits and one of those with a big ole port? What do they know that I don’t know?


Then it hit me. Again, it’s all a matter of sophistication. When we ride the body, then the hand can confirm, and it should never be the other way around. The hand should be slow to come into action because it should always come into action AFTER the body. And so, when the body rides big, like upper level horses ride big, the hands need a tool which allows for the smallest amount of “do” on the part of the hands.


Wait a minute, didn’t I, in the very beginning of this blog, post a quote by Charles de Kunffy which says “the leg energizes, the seat modifies and the hand verifies”?


I already knew this! Well, most of this. But that tiny nuance of individualizing bit type threw me off.


Damn! Now I know I have uneducated hands and I have yet another topic to go off and further study.


And just when I was about to get distracted by a fabulous singer.