I’ve always enjoyed competing. Well, I did back in the day when I actually had energy.
I remember a day in the late 1970’s when I entered a show on my former horse. It was a local show, but all the best people in the area would enter it, and winning a class or more would bring the rider some local prestige. You would also get your name in the local paper if you won a class. Win a bunch of classes and they’d do a little article on you. I wanted that, and I wanted that BAD.
Problem was, I hadn’t yet won a first place. No blue ribbon ever. But still I wanted to be competitive so I figured I’d psyche out the competition a little. To this day I do not know how it worked or why it worked. I only know it worked.
Now remember, I said it was a local show. This meant that everybody knew everybody and knew of their accomplishments, or at least should have known.
At that time it was in style to wear satin jackets or baseball caps with your horse’s name neatly embroidered on them. So, in wanting to fit in, I did the same. I came up with show colors and ordered a shiny satin jacket, a matching baseball cap and all my equipment bags, coolers, sheets and whatnot reflected my color scheme. I even went as far as to order pens and coffee cup holders with my horses name on it. I had a matching director’s chair and set up a little area where my wares would be displayed, my personal “show central”. Very neatly arranged it was to give the impression that I knew what I was doing and that I’d been there a million times before even though I hadn’t. I felt most “cool”.
When my first class was to go in I lined up with the others outside the show ring. It was a western pleasure class, so all the entries would line up and enter the ring together.
As I waited one of the competitors noticed me and said to me “Oh well, there goes my chance of winning now that you’re in the class”. I could only blink in disbelief as I’d never won a class! But guess what? I won that one!
Since that day I’ve taken the time to further study the art of “showmanship” when it came to competing and the skill of psyching out other competitors. The practice is done all over, but often we become so numb to it we don’t even realize what it really is we’re seeing, and so we may be psyched out too.
If you’re competing, this might be something you wish to explore, especially if your competitions are of a more local or regional type.
When it comes to competing, every little bit helps.
Continuing on this training sequence I’ll next discuss another exercise which is also most valuable. It was also taught to me by the same Master.
I’d like to first pause to mention something. Despite my horse having once been a racehorse when it came to riding he was “forward” challenged. When unsure of himself, or unhappy with a given situation he tends to shut down. I’m pretty sure he did this as a racehorse as well and I imagine that despite how many times they’d flail a racing bat on him, he’d would just go slower and slower.
So again I had to learn technique since I was precluded from using force. Additionally, at that time I had an instructor who insisted that I not wear spurs as I had developed this horrid habit of raising my heels way too high, and placing my leg way to back in order to engage the spur. It became too much of a crutch.
I had to learn to switch from crutch, to crotch as it were. Well perhaps seat is a lot more accurate. It was not easy to make this transition and it frustrated me. It took years before it became muscle memory and habit. And to this day, I do not wear spurs and these two exercises are why I am able to do that.
This exercise calls for changes within the gait, no matter which gait you are riding. Let’s start with the walk.
You’re walking your horse forward with good marching steps and a long and low neck. Slowly and gently you pick up the reins. You bring the horse to a working walk, still marching forward. Then you still yourself, your body’s subtle change of movement not as free flowing as it was before. The horse should then also shorten his stride. If done correctly the rhythm will be maintained.
It’s just the steps getting shorter, not the horse taking slower steps. Next, free up your body, have your mind think longer strides now and the horse’s stride should lengthen. When both you and the horse are in sync together doing this, continue on, but in circles and on both the long and short diagonal. Try doing it on a serpentine (large one where each loop brings you to the opposite side of the ring.)
Shorten the stride for the curve and lengthen again on the straight part. Lengthen and shorten strides again and again. See how light and subtle you can make your body. See if you can “think” it, and it happens. Now, let’s try trot.
You’ll begin in a nice forward working trot. You have a gentle contact and you’re still not worried about the head set. You are posting and you want to try and use your post to try and affect the length of the horse’s stride. To go longer you post bigger, moving your pelvis more to the pommel of the saddle. The rhythm is still maintained.
You’re not posting faster, you are posting longer. The arc your hips make is longer. If you need more forward, put more emphasis on the “down” of your post by making it heavier. Horsey should then engage another gear. You can feel it, and it’s awesome when you do.
(As an aside, back in the day when I’d flail my legs and try to use my seat I’d squeeze down and make a grunty noise. Once, with the instructor urging me forward in a rather loud voice, I squeezed so hard I dripped a piddle. When you’ve dripped a piddle, you are working way too hard!)
Now, we urge the horse to go shorter in his steps, yet maintain the same rhythm. We no longer post long, we post shorter, a bit more up and down as opposed to swinging towards the pommel. But not big up and down, low up and down. Longer, shorter, longer, shorter. Repetition makes you and your horse more in sync.
Rhythm and tempo must be maintained. Gee, I guess I need to define rhythm and tempo, don’t I? (Should have done that before!)
Tempo is the number of beats per minute. Rhythm is the regularity of those beats. Imagine a metronome (which incidently people do use when they ride): The tempo is the number of beats it ticks per minute and rhythm describes the period of time between each beat. Even rhythm means that there is the same amount of time between beats 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 3 and 4 and so on. You should also note that optimum tempo varies from horse to horse.
You should also do the exercise in a sitting trot. Personally, I find those far more fun. To go longer free your hips and imagine your hiney on a swing and you’re in the part of the swing where your legs are just about to go forward. It’s like sitting heavier, but down and forward. Often you see riders who exagerate this part too much and who seem to be leaning back. That’s too much and incorrect.
As you do these exercises try and think of it as playing. You’re playing with your horse to see how subtle your aids can be and still get the reaction you want. Close your eyes if it’s safe to and you’re comfortable doing that. Just feel. Don’t complicate it and overthink it. Just do.
The same holds true for canter. Sit heavier for a slower canter. Be stiller. Let go of your hips more for a larger canter. Concentrate on just feeling.
As you do these exercises, slowly increasing the difficulty by coming off the rail, remember that it’s play. It’s a two way communication between you and your horse. Experiment. “If I do this, then you’ll apparently do that!”
You may end up practicing this for months. It’s quite alright. It’s the basis of dressage. It becomes part of your toolbox. Again, don’t worry about head set. The reason is twofold: first, you are doing an experiment to see how altering your body alters your horse’s body. You have to learn this and the best way is to play, without the pressure to be perfect at first. Secondly, when the horse is going naturally forward, and your position is correct, his neck and head should fall into their proper place and may only need an adjustment by a slight playing with a rein or two. Again there shouldn’t be a change in tempo or rhythm, just a change in the length of the stride.
When I started this exercise I didn’t have a metronome. So I’d sing. At first out loud, but then I had to chill it to brain. The reason was that the song that I picked which fit my particular horses tempo was “The Stroke” by Billy Squier, specifically the “stroke me stroke me, stroke, stroke” part which just didn’t seem fitting in dressage circles.
Please don’t focus on how you look. Focus instead on feel. How does it feel? You can feel it when your horse is rocking the gait because his back will come up and he’ll flow.
My goal is to get this horse as tuned to me as my last horse was. I rode in many a western equitation class and with my old horse all I had to do was to “think” a gait and it would be there. That’s what I want with from my current horse too. I just need to ride well enough first. If I get it right, he will be there because he wants to be there.
Be happy when you do any exercise and ride in lightness. Be in a good mood and ride with the idea that you actually LIKE your horse and that you and he can do this. Pat him often and if he’s a pansy puss like mine who gets off on sweet talk too, shower him with that. Be generous with your praise. It means a lot to them, it really does.
And remember, it’s baby steps.
The quotes on the bottom of this page should now be reread again, and read often.
Ride well my friends.
There is an exercise I was taught to do which to this day is my favorite as it has proven the best way to achieve various goals. It gives both the horse and the rider a mental exercise, puts each in tune with the other, and gets the horse hotter off the leg and enables the rider’s signals to become more and more subtle. It disciplines the mind of the rider and the more horses in the ring with you, the harder it becomes.
The most basic version of this exercise is called 10/4. It can be used in any discipline and has variations that a rider can use based upon their particular level of ability.
When I mount my horse and begin my work I use a methodical process that I’ve developed for him based on his own quirks. My horse tends to warm up slowly and hits peak after about ½ hour of riding. It takes me a good twenty minutes for the horse’s movement to loosen my aged bones and to settle me deeper in the saddle. The warm up warms up my legs so that they can function properly instead of looking spazzy. Nothing worse than watching a fat spazz ride.
So I begin tracking off a nice, forward walk with reins as loose as is safe. Mostly, for my horse and I, this means “riding the buckle” with the reins as long as they can be, and my hands positioned by the buckle.
During this nice forward walk period I begin to use my body in sync with the horse, and I try to see if subtle shifts in position will influence my horse in any way.
Now sometimes my horse is a little “higher” than he’d usually be. This is not because he wants to be naughty, but rather is a display of his excitement to be working and doing something. It is at times like this that I must keep his brain busy. If I don’t find a way to keep it busy, he’ll be more inclined to keep it busy on his own, and often to a Thoroughbred that includes his imagination, and a busy imagination leads to spooking, because for sure Godzilla is behind that tree over there.
I dislike spooking. It jerks a rider’s body and although in my case and due to the nature of my horse’s spooks it seldom results in a fall, it still is not desired, or appreciated because it tweaks old muscles and gives me boo-boos.
I could just trot my horse and “work him down” that way, but that just means spooking at a faster gait. Not for me and not for my back. So, to reach the very overactive Thoroughbred brain, I engage in using different techniques. One I love to do is to walk my horse over ground poles doing it from different directions and even a bit more diagonally. He’s got to think about where to put those four cloppy hooves. Sure footed my horse is not, and given the chance he’d trip over pigeon poop, so he really has to focus over ground poles.
Good. Now I’ve reached his brain. Next I try to keep the rhythm of the walk over the ground poles (or cavaletti) the same as when you’re walking without them. In fact, in all exercises, being able to keep the same rhythm is a sign you can now move on to the next exercise. Keeping the same rhythm isn’t just preferred, it is imperative.
So here we are walking on a nice loose rein, riding the buckle. Our horse is marching forward in a clean, reaching walk, and in a perfect world, is nicely overstepping his foot tracks. His neck is long and lower, his nose in front of the vertical. We’ve put him over some ground poles which are set off the rail and we’ve used the subtleties of our body position and leg to leg yield him back to the rail.
Now we slowly and gently pick up the rein, but we’re still allowing his face to be in front of the vertical. Our contact with the rein to mouth connection is there, but it is very giving and moves to the motions of the horses head. We can just feel the mouth, no more.
Now for my horse, I’ll begin with shoulder in and haunches in riding both directions. Again, I’ll be mindful that to the best of my ability I will keep the same rhythm to the walk. I’ll ride the quarter lines and leg yield to the track. Then, when I reach the end of the long side, coming into the short corner, I’ll ride the beginning of a 10 meter circle and halfway through, keeping that same bend, half pass back to the rail.
For those who are reading who are confused to the terms leg yield and half pass, it all has to do with the bend of the horse and the direction to which it is going. In the simplest of terms think of it this way:
For these illustrations imagine you are riding from the bottom of your computer screen towards the top of the screen.
) This bend of the horse’s body going to the left is a half pass
) This bend of the horse’s body going to the right is a leg yield
( This bend of the horses body going to the right is a half pass
( This bend of the horse’s body going to the left is a leg yield.
Again, this is in the simplest of terms, but a good starting reference.
Hey this is kinda cool. Let’s see if it works for shoulder in/haunches in, again in the simplest of terms.
/ shoulder in with the wall to the left or haunches in if the wall is on the right and again travelling from the bottom of your screen to the top.
\ shoulder in with the wall to the right or haunches in if the wall is on the left travelling from the bottom of your screen to the top.
There are of course other elements such as the shoulder in being either a three track or four track, but for now we won’t get that complicated. There are a zillion places on the ‘net to look that up should you be so inclined.
Now we put ourselves back on the rail, either direction, and we count out steps of walk.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight (ask now for trot) nine, ten, TROT should now be there. Now count four strides of trot which in a rising trot is up, down, up, down, walk. You will have to adjust when to ask for the change of gait based on you and your horse’s abilities. To simplify it at the beginning you can do your count of four as four ups instead of counting the downs in as well.
Don’t expect to get this right from the get-go. Just keep practicing and you’ll find you’ll be able to get the gait more efficiently so you can ask for it later in your count.
See if you have the mental discipline to do the exercise for twenty minutes and remember not to worry about the bit or the front end. This exercise is for your body, not your hands. This exercise is for your brain and yours horses. See how subtle you can be. See if you can use only your core to transition from the trot back to the horse. See if you can use your seat to transition from the walk up to trot.
You’ll be surprised how truly hard this is. In fact, I’ve never seen any ammie (myself included) who could nail this exercise the first time out and it’s still not easy especially if your mind isn’t settled.
If you want to mix it up you can come off the rail and ride circles, diagonals, up the middle, whatever you can manage to do while keeping your count. On the rail is the easiest, and coming off the rail adds to the difficulty of the exercise.
The next level of the exercise continues to really get the horse forward off the leg.
We’ll visit that next time.
The title of this essay is probably the worst use of Latin ever. But it is my way of describing the ultimate diva of the horse world. Dressage queens move over. Rodeo queens step aside. Grand dams of the horse show world you aren’t even diva competition to this group. Bratty spoiled children you don’t even come close. You are all out-diva-d by this one group and every single horseman in the world today has continual contact with this elite group of equine divas.
So who is the ultimate diva in the horse world?
Horse shoers. Farriers. Blacksmiths.
Surprised that I’m saying this? Don’t be. If you doubt my word, just try telling your average farrier that the vet said he should trim or shoe the horse a different way. That’ll go over like a fart in church and you get to sit in your own pew.
No other group in the horse world is as unmovable as farriers. No other group is as responsible for the health and well being of your horse either. The only other one who comes even close is the person who feeds or trains your horse. But even the training part can come apart if the farrier has not done their job well.
There is little need for a farrier to advertise. It is almost solely dependant on word of mouth. And there are a lot of horsemen who would swear that their farrier is the best, yet ask the owner of the horse in the next stall down and they think that that farrier is an ass who crippled this one horse or another. Oh, and by the way it’s their farrier who is the best.
Even in the best locations the selection of farriers may be limited. Some barn owners compel you to use the farrier they have deemed worthy. Other barns let you use whomever you want. I would never keep my horse at a barn where I didn’t have choice of farrier or vet but a lot of ammies are bullshitted into accepting that limitation.
But few, if any, barns have more than four farriers who come to them, and even that number is pretty uncommon as far as numbers go.
Let’s say you’ve figured out which farrier will shoe your horse. The first thing you have to do is make sure you pay them timely. You can’t expect them to come timely when you don’t pay them timely. But in addition, you have to be able to walk that fine line when it comes to telling them anything regarding shoeing or sometimes to get them to come in between shoeings when Pookie has thrown a shoe.
This is how I find my situation works. I get a phone call from the barn worker telling me that Pookie has thrown a “chu”. He’s got typical “Thoroughbred with shitty feet” syndrome and despite the most expensive food additive for hoof health, still manages to throw shoes.
I immediately take my cell phone and send a message to the farrier. The message goes like this:
“Hi, it’s me. Sorry to bother but Pookie has thrown a chu. I know he’s a pain, but can you pretty please come and tack it back on? You’re da best!”
Then I wait for a reply. In the absence of one, I go to Phase Two the next day with a phone call message. But these are delicately worded. You never want to piss off your shoer. The last Phase Two I did was in a Mr. Ed voice and singing:
“My horse is a horse of course of course, and I must say with due remorse, that a shoe is gone and has been lost, please come and shoe my horse”.
Whatever it takes!
Now my shoer is a great guy with a good sense of humor so usually something like this gets me a response. Of course he also knows that if he doesn’t respond, I’ll just keep calling and singing.
I suppose you’d have to hear my singing voice to know how tormenting that can be. But to give you an idea, consider this: I once sang in my house while I was sitting on the couch. My cat came running over, jumped on my lap, and slapped me on the nose and that pretty much says it all.
The Mr. Ed singing worked and he responded. I told him it’s time to shoe him anyway and oh, could he do girlfriends horse too? She too had tried to get him, but didn’t resort to singing so she hadn’t gotten a response. He said he’d get out and shoe them. Two days pass and I go to the barn, hoping Pookie was done.
Instead, he wasn’t done and now had somehow managed to lose three shoes. Yes, that’s right, three shoes!
Cell phone whipped out – check. Text message sent – check. Wait half hour – check. Text he’s a little off on back right – check.
Then, the beautiful music of a returned text. Its contents: “SOB”.
Yes, I know dear chu-er that my Thoroughbred has TB feet which don’t hold chuze the best…..
I text again noting that the back right is slightly lame/sore and saying “twist/abcess?”.
The response was, “Likely a twist”.
My next message: “Still luv me even though my horse is a gigantic pain in the ass?”
No reply. Dammit!
So now I pray that the chu-er will come tomorrow and chu Pookie. But I mustn’t hound him, even though I want an answer. I want a commitment. I want to be able to call the barn guy and say “Hold Pookie in, chu-er coming manana”. But I can’t because I don’t know when he’s coming. I can hope and I can pray. But I won’t know until I talk to the barn guy and ask if the chu-er was there.
The last thing I want to do is piss off the chu-er. I’ve been there before and it’s an ugly, ugly place. It was with a dfferent horse and a different shoer, and it was years ago. My horse was getting old and the very expensive vet I paid for at a regional equine hospital said to shoe the horse a certain way, at a certain angle and balanced differently. I told the shoer, and what transpired was a thirty minute conversation about how vets don’t know nothing about shoeing.
In the end he seemed to comply…… I guess. But do I really know?
I wonder if I had the leverage of having twenty horses if it would be easier.
Gosh, I hope the chu-er is there tomorrow. I’ll have to call and check. Do they have a song for that?!
For years my family would gather together, sometimes for the holidays, sometimes not. Although I’d manage to make it for the big events like Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, I rarely made it to others. I’ve missed an untold number of baptisms, birthdays and graduations and I’ve missed them due to one factor: my horse.
For 30 years I would spend my weekends at the barn, riding, going to shows or clinics and participating in all sorts of equine events. While the family was getting together, I was waist deep in all things horsey. No one in my family, including my parents, ever got involved in any of my horsey endeavors, except for coming to watch a show or two.
The one time my dad did go to a show I was quickly reminded of how alien it was to him when he noticed my gelding’s sheath, pointed at it and yelled “Oh my god, what’s that on his stomach!” in a loud booming voice for all to hear.
Thanks for coming to the show, dad.
But now I’m older and burnt out from working horse projects and from volunteering. Tired from my job and home duties I’ve had to cut down on my equine activities and so I only do a fraction of what I used to do.
Now, rather than run and organize shows, I’ll occasionally go and visit one for a hour. Rather than trailer two hours for a lesson, I utilize an instructor who comes to my barn every other week. Rather than show ten times during the summer, I show not at all, much preferring to clinic here and there.
This leaves more time available for home and family and so I’ve been attending more family events, including hosting a summer barbeque for twenty five to thirty very loud, but fun people.
So now that I’ve cut down my equine projects and I’m spending more time with the family, they’re finally opening up on what they thought I was doing all those years. It was surprising to hear their thoughts.
They believed that I wasn‘t with them more often for all those years because I didn‘t like them. They added that now they were very happy to “welcome me back to the family” as if the prodigal rider had returned.
I could only blink in disbelief as I was completely unaware of having been “gone” from the family! It’s not like I didn’t see them for the three major holidays as well as the occasional wedding. In trying to defend myself I stated that I was never “gone”, but just learning and refining my skills as a horseman. I expressed my surprise and asked that if I were instead a gymnast or skater could they better understand how I had spent all that time?
They didn’t get it.
Knowing them I’m of the opinion that were I a gymnast or skater I would have been looked upon with a lot more respect by my family. I would have been admired and considered as dedicated and motivated for attempting to reach the pinnacle of my chosen sport. Athletes like gymnasts and skaters are always lauded for their dedication to their time consuming sports as you see during exposes played on every Olympic games. We are told that their sacrifice makes them noble.
But for us, not so much.
Aren’t we athletes too? Why doesn’t equine sport get that kind of respect?
This got me thinking a bit. Not only doesn’t the outside world really “get” what we weekend warriors do (and I know we apply ourselves more than just on weekends), we don’t even really respect each other.
Don’t believe me? Ask a trail rider what they think of dressage. Ask a dressage rider what they think of western pleasure. Ask a western pleasure rider what they think of eventing.
Dressage riders are thought of as snotty rich bitches.
Trail riders are thought of as lazy uneducated sacks being packed about by a horse and that most of them can‘t ride for squat.
Western pleasure riders are thought of as peanut rolling, go nowhere, four beated lope, dead horse, riders.
Eventers are thought of as being crazy, wild jumpers with more brawn than brain and a serious death wish.
Admit it, we often think that way!
Yet in reality each of these endeavors require a certain degree of skill. Skills that maybe should be a little respected. And before you tell me that trail riding takes no skill, look around and see how many dressage riders would be willing or able to take their Prix St. George horse Gunther Von Piaffer on a nice long trail ride.
Even more incredible is that within the same equine discipline we don’t really respect one another. One fraction of dressage against another. One trainer against another. One ammie against another. An instructor against their student.
Is this lack of respect wrong, or maybe is it right? Do we deserve more respect?