When the Cat’s Away

Often during the many long years of dressage training, my instructor would be away for periods of time, either off to Europe to “recharge his batteries” or to some university to further his own training. So the questions is this: What do students do when the “cat’s away”? If we have an instructor with a unique teaching style we don’t want to seek out another coach so what do we do?

Speaking for myself, in the initial days and weeks I just had fun. Being free from watchful eyes, and often disapproving ones, I took advantage of this opportunity to play with all I thought I had learned. It was exhilarating to play with the movements, push for more power and fancy strides. I imagined I was riding full of expression, utilizing all my skills to a degree I wasn’t permitted to under supervision.

And then, as happens, things began to turn a little sour. My horse was more resistant, while fully forward going as was his nature, he was not through and eventually became quite tense. In my “fun” and imagined accomplishments, I began to realize he was no longer supple and relaxed. In my enthusiasm I had overridden to such a degree that I was forcing the work, not developing it. I became frustrated as to why things were deterioriating and probably, given my driven nature, I was creating tension through insisting to my horse that I was “right”. I think the penny dropped one restless night around 3 a.m. that I was making a mess, and I suddently realized why, and how. So the next morning as I prepared my horse for a new start, I apologized to him and thanked him profusely for not trying kill me, as he was a bit of an overactor himsself. Not always a good combination.

I started back with a new attitude and understanding. Back to basics, the exercises I had grown so tired of, and felt weren’t all that necessary in my desire to “quit the scales and play some music”. So I returned to all the suppling exercises, worked on relaxation, rhythm, throughness, all with thought, focus, preparation and planning. And to my surprise, as things began to improve and I was aware of what I wanted to do, and was trying to accomplish, I realized that I was actually having fun. And rather than feeling frustrated, was beginning to find some satisfaction in the “simple” things. It was at this point, I was looking forward to the return of my coach.

Now that I’m on a new endeavour, one less physically demanding, but no less mentally so, I am once again finding parallels. In my quest to learn art, specifically watercolor, which I find very intriguing, I have come upon the same dilemma. Due to the many factors of the times, restrictions related to COVID and the hesitation of people to meet, it has become more and more difficult to form a group to pursue our lessons. And of course even instructors have reservations, so I find myself without an instructor once again. So what am I doing?

I suppose some people never learn, or maybe it’s just my over enthusiastic or overly confident character, that I found myself in the same trap. For the initial several weeks of being on my own, guess what? I had fun. I was “off to the races” with a paint brush. I wanted to do everything I thought I had learned. I threw caution to the wind (which means I went through a lot of expensive watercolor paper) trying to duplicate those things I’d seen my instructor do so easily. I worked from pictures, my imagination, and tried duplicating some of the work from my instructor. I challenged my knowledge and abilities with brushes, pigments and water. And as the trash can continued to fill, and overflow, I came to the realisation that all I was doing was making one mess after the other. Somehow it seems to take a disaster to slow me down, and a review of reems of paper, most headed to waste, brought home the fact, I was missing the point, as I had with riding. It was a major reality check. I came to realize I was not engaging my brain, as I had been told more than once by the powers that be.

I had spent hours and hours watching my instructor work over a period of almost two years, and it suddenly occurred to me that I rarely saw him complete a full piece of art. On a random outing or two where we were painting as a group, he may have completed a landscape. But, for the most part, his work consisted of simple exercises he would demonstrate to us. It formed a complete simple painting, I now realize, meant to encourage us to make use of exercises to learn, and demonstrating to us how those exercises, those pieces, formed a whole. Somehow the penny dropped in this circumstance late at night as well. That’s when our frustrations keep us awake, and we do our best thinking, well sometimes.

Basic wash

Maintaining puddle of paint

So with this thought in mind, I literally went back to the drawing board. I went back to basics, the washes, the mixing of pigment and water, thinking of consistency relative to the project, selection of brushes and being aware of loading the brush sufficiently. I did what had become laborious exercises with a fresh understanding and approach. I thought about what I was about to do, planning ahead, and taking into consideration the purpose of what I was doing. And, as before with my horse, it became challenging in a way I enjoyed. I began to look forward to doing those exercises, and realized that a picture is actually a combination of those exercises, just as basics in dressage were the precursor to the movements. And in doing so, I make another very interesting discovery. I discovered that art requires feel, just like riding is based on feel. It surprised me to realize brushes can feel different in our hand, that how you hold them has an impact on how you use them, and that paper has a palpable texture, which can be felt with the right touch. It struck me how similar that is with the fact that a fine contact with a horse’s mouth is the best communication, and the best results in art come with a fine feel in the artist’s touch. And, as in riding, pressure varies and that variance produces varying results.

So, I’ve once again learned a lesson about myself. Patience yields rewards. And I’ve been reminded of the fact that without the basics, in either endeavour, be it riding are watercolor, the finished product is lacking. Striving for perfection requires endless practice, but practice is wasted when it is thoughless and hurried. I’m learning this lesson, though I realize I’ll have lapses, it’s my driven nature. However, I am proceding as I write with a more thoughtful and careful approach, We’re never too old to learn, or change.

Learning to Embrace Change

I’ve been absent from my blog for quite some tine, a few years in fact. The reason for this has been the need to accept that given my current life situation, horses can no longer be front and center in my daily life. While I continue to feel passionate about dressage and training, I have now found satisfaction in teaching students online. It is a particular satisfaction to have two of my students continue with me since 2001. I hope from time to time to post a few pictures and comments from and about them. That part of my life will never to completely out of my system, but has now taken second place to another, long dormant passion. ART!

I’ve always been interested in art, was a doodler from early childhood, loved my art classes in school, and continued to draw throughout, but more of a relaxation, or past time, than a pursuit.

However, two years ago something changed. I had been a member of an art group in the local community association, but it was for the most part without an instructor. We meet once a week for three hours, each of us pursusing own personal interests, mine drawing, others acrylics and watercolor. I tried each, but found them challenging because I felt unable to control my work and get the results I imagined I was capable of. So I worked at drawing, using colored pencils in an effort to learn how to use color.

And then, much to everyone’s surprise, a new member joined our group who was an accomplished artist. He is capable in all mediums but it was his watercolor work which inspired me. Being cautious by nature, I watched for some time, continuing my drawing, until I decided to give it a try. Suffice it to say, what he made look quick and simple, was a brutal reminder of how it felt to begin learning dressage. You feel incompetent, intimidated and insecure. So, many of us, including certain members of the group, find this too much like work, have decided we’ve put our “learning years” behind us, and are inclinded to pursue something easy and relaxing….not work, and certainly not homework.

For those of you that know me, I am drawn to a challenge, and become highly motivated when I have access to someone whose work I admire. This situation developed over time, and I was drawn back to those days on horseback being told “No, No, Why are you doing that? Is that your right hand, are you turning right, do you know your right from your left?” And it goes on, and on. For those of us who had the passion and the drive, we swallowed our pride and pushed forward. We took it in, practiced, made mistake after mistake, progressed a little, slide back a lot. We went through numerous horses, always feeling guilty we didn’t do our best to the ones we left behind.

Well, guess what?! I’m back to square one. Art is no different. As as I realized everything I had done in the past had no foundation, I became determined to learn the basics, become competent in them, and work towards a point where it became second nature. I’m not there yet, but I am working each day, I do my best to do a little homework if not everyday, several times a week. I try to get lessons as often as possible since I know from experience, we don’t progress seeing an instructor once a week, or even less.

So, it occurred to me, there are people like me out there who would find my new passion interesting, and would find it inspirational and often amusing to follow my journey.

So, I will share the attempts, my mistakes, my occassional proud moment, and let you see what I am going through. I share with you my pages of exercises, attempts are techniques I think I’ve grasped, and I won’t hide my bad moments, and technical errors. I will also share some of the work of my instructor from time to time, which will help you understand my passion and sense of drive; the hope of producing work of a similar quality. So, watch this space, and join me in the experience. Please feel free to comment, even if you’re not impressed, but especially if you have encouraging words. It’s a journey, and like dressage, not an easy one.

Ask my instructor, he’s been know to give me glaring looks, raise his voice a little, not to mention pulling his hair out from time to time. Sounds a bit like riding doesn’t it?

A tonal rendering produced by my instructor in watercolor. Tough to let go of the detail and find expression through creating impression. I’m captivated!!

Lakitos – Haunches

All is progressing well with Lakitos.  Over the months he has been with us, he has become very relaxed and trusting in his environment.  Under saddle, there have been great strides forward.  His trust in me as a rider has grown to the point that he is more concentrated on his work, and less concerned with his surroundings.  On the occasion that he is startled he may do as little as take a tense step or two, or at the most, “scoot” for a couple of strides before settling back to work and focusing on the rider.  As a result, we have been able recently to concentrate more seriously on our training.

Here we see a total lose of the haunches, with the left hind crossing under, and the horse falling left and stiffening his right side to balance himself.  Totally incorrect.

Here we see a total lose of the haunches, with the left hind crossing under, and the horse falling left and stiffening his right side to balance himself. Totally incorrect.

Our primary ambition at the moment is for me to gain a more consistent control of the haunches.  As I have mentioned before, going left on turns and circles, he tends to cross his left hind leg under himself and to the right, and stiffens his right side, powering through the right shoulder.  This causes a tendency toward over-flexing left (a tilting of the head with unlevel ears), a heavy stiff ccontact on the right rein.  Any attempt to fix this from the front (hands only) results in his opening his mouth, crossing his jaw and dragging the rider to the right (no longer a circle, but an oval).  It is possible to regain control by making a right flexion, keeping the right leg on, and then back to the left flexion.  These flexions supple the neck, which he has stiffened, but more is needed to obtain a consistent, long-term solution to this problem of laterality and balance.


Right flexion, haunches right

Right flexion, haunches right

An exercise I use often in my daily work, performed both at the walk and the trot, is renvers to shoulder-in, going left.  (This post will deal with problems and work to the left.  I will concentrate on the right in another post.)  This exercise helps in several ways.  First, it develops a good response to the diagonal aids, the left leg and the right rein.  For Lakitos, who is a left handed horse,  this diagonal is the most difficult for him to handle.  By developing a supple right flexion, supporting him with my right leg, I can move his haunches and ultimately stretch the left (short) side, allowing him to relax and supple is right (stiff) side.   Once he is responding well to the renvers, I then transition to a shoulder-in left.  Having achievewd a relaxation of his right side, I am able to stabilize his haunches and effectively bring his right shoulder inside the track.   Out of this response to the aids, I can either turn or circle without resistance.  As with all horses, a loss of balance results in a return to the stiffness and crookedness, but that is the point of training.  At this early stage, we might have to return to the exercises described above  to restore the suppleness and balance.  In a more fully trained horse, this correction can be done within a stride.

Shoulder-fore.  Good control of haunches on the track.

Shoulder-fore. Good control of haunches on the track.

An improvement in the left bending as a result of the work in counterflexion.

An improvement in the left bending as a result of the work in counterflexion.

Another exercise we practice, which can be a little more challenging, is a left circle with counterflexion (12 – 15 meter circle left, flexed right).  The difficulty here is to control the haunches, to prevent the left hind from driving him through his right shoulder and out of the circle.  Or at worst, turning right rather than making a circle left.  Again, done correctly (and patiently), it stretches the short side and supples the stiff side (releasing the obvious tension).  The most noticeable result to the rider is a “flattening” of the right side, giving a place for the leg, and a softer response to the right leg and rein aids.  Also it fills in the “hollow” of the left side.  The rider feels centered over the horse, with each leg having the ability to lay flat against the horse’s sides.  And ultimately it results in a more correct left bend, where the horse moves with “four” legs under him and a good balance.

It is important to remember we are developing muscles as well as teaching the horse.  Patience is key and as riders we need to be conscious of the fatigue level of the horse, both physically and mentally.  Lakitos is a horse full of energy with a tendency to rush his gaits.  Therefore, I ask him to wait and to perform his exercises slowly and with concentration.  He responds quite well, and shows a nice work ethic.  As a result I always try to stay aware of his state of mind, as he shows mental fatigue, and rarely physical fatigue.

Another phase of our work to the left is half-pass.  Though Lakitos is a strong horse, he is easy to “push” sideways.  The difficulty is to get him to carry himself in the half-pass from his haunches rather than pulling himself from the forehand.  At this point, I often will perform a turn on the haunches, sometimes raising my hands to ask that he does not drop his withers.  Out of this positioning, I can ask for the half-pass.  If I feel he has started to “slide” sideways rather than carry himself, I might immediately go into a shoulder-in, rebalance, and continue in half-pass.  If he has gotten too strong for me to effectively rebalance him, as sometimes happens, I come back to the walk, perform a turn on the haunches, or half-pass  in the walk, and then continue in the trot.

 Throughout all of these exercises, the emphasis is on developing control of the haunches, either by moving or stabilizing them.

Relaxed trot, straight with even diagonal strides.

Relaxed trot, straight with even diagonal strides.

 And of course when you can control the haunches, you can develop good responses to the diagonal aids which serve to supple and ultimately straighten the horse.  This work also helps to develop an even rotation of the haunches.  This can be seen by a supple rolling effect when the horse trots, with his tail swinging calmly equally to both sides.  Viewing the trot from the side, you would look for even diagonal strides.

A good engagement over the poles

A good engagement over the poles

Finally, understanding that the control of the haunches is a consequence of suppleness of the sacro-illiac joint, through the action of the posas muscle, we also school trot work over cavelleti.  Done properly this work facilitates the engagement of the hindquarter resulting in an easier rotation of the hip.  Of course, this all contributes to a better control of the haunches.

For Lakitos, consistency is paying off as he is more even in his diagonals, he starts to rototate his hips more evenly and with more fluidity.   Successful development of the haunches of course provides a more secure balance for the horse, and as a result he is more confident, trusting, and therefore calm.  And for the rider, the horse is much more comfortable to ride and easier to control.  A positive for all.

Lakitos – Evasions

In my last post I described how Lakitos felt to me as I sat on him without trying to actually ride, that is change or correct his way of going.  Before I begin to discuss the aids and exercises we employ in our training, I wish to take a moment to describe the obstacles we face in our training program, since all riders face issues of their horse’s personality or past experiences.  As I have said before, Lakitos  stresses and worries to the point he scares himself, often without any identifiable cause.  So today I will share this challenge, and then we can move on to discuss the actual training and riding.

 Alert, but calm

Alert, but calm

Lakitos is a very friendly and calm horse in the barn and other familiar, unchanging places.  He likes people and other horses, although he gets tense when another horse comes directly face to face with him, both on the ground and under saddle.   He can walk calmly to his paddock or toward the arena assuming nothing has changed.  When something has changed or has been moved , he senses it immediately ( still find it fascinating that he can have such a good memory) and starts to breathe quickly and try to hesitate or otherwise avoid gong near or past the object.  In fact, the more and longer he looks at something, the more frightened he becomes.   The rider/handler has to stay calm and relaxed and give him another point of focus.   Of course, the ideal situation, if riding, is to keep him on the aids and moving forward, but this is not always the case.  At one point I wanted to be “kind” to him and allow him to walk freely (long rein) to and from the arena, but for him that was not “kindness,” but rather abandonment,   (I should note that the walk from the barn to the arena is about 60 meters, and goes past various buildings, paddocks, the jumping arena, and often a lot of activity.)

The "long" walk.

The “long” walk.

When left to walk on his own he can only look for things to worry about and avoid, as he makes the “dangerous” trip from arena to barn.  For him  “kindness” is  to keep him where he feels safe —“on the aids”.  We all want to be kind to our horses and develop their trust.  However, it is important that we determine what is kindness to the individual horse, for they are all individuals.  What makes one feel calm can bring terror to another.

As an example, I will relate a typical day.  If I mount in the barn, he is calm and stands quietly.  He walks in a relaxed manner out the door and is reasonably content walking as far as his paddock (we are assuming here that he is not “on the aids”), provided of course, nothing has changed along the way.  Once he passes the paddock he begins to stress.  You can feel he is worrying about what will be going on in the arena (since the arena is uphill from the barn, he cannot see what is there until he arrives at the entrance):   are their poles left on the ground, colorful plastic objects left in the arena or in the corners by Pony Clubbers?   Lakitos finds these things a bit “offsetting” and on the way to the arena seems almost to be thinking “good grief, what frightening thing will I have to face today”.  A bit like I feel on my way to the dentist.

Avoidance, try to run through the corner.

Avoidance, try to run through the corner.

Once in the arena he takes a quick look around making a  mental list of the problem areas.  At this point, if he is not on the aids, he is hesitant to go forward, meaning through his body toward the hand.  Here I think it is important to remind ourselves that while some horses are nervous, some spooky, some tense, and some outright bullies, the thing that brings them all to a state of relaxed submission is feeling balanced, therefore “safe”.  So my primary objective with Lakitos is to keep his focus, keep him on the aids and develop his, balance.  For him this is reassuring and allows him to work comfortably.  Happily, he is a very kind and willing horse, and quite a workaholic, never quitting.  He never does anything against the rider, and in his heart wants to relax and please.

Always watching and correcting.  Keeping us out of trouble.

Always watching and correcting. Keeping us out of trouble.

As we know, all horses offer challenges to their riders.  Here, I have described our challenges with Lakitos.  Since we like to solve problems and face challenges, and as we are in no hurry, he suits us.  However, I must add I would find it almost impossible to pursue his training without coaching and eyes on the ground.  In my riding at the moment, I find I tend to anticipate certain reactions from Lakitos and often become either too strong in my aids, lift out of my seat, or match his resistances rather break them.  With good instruction I am usually corrected quickly and can proceed without major problems developing.

I am happy to report that during the few months Lakitos has been with us in France, he has made good progress in his transition from his surroundings and work in Germany.  He is often softer in the contact, less determined to stiffening his body and lean on his shoulders and the bit, pays more attention and responds more quickly to my aids.  While he has no reduction in his “self-imposed anxiety”,  he relaxes more in the work since he begins to trust me and my aids.  He is a teeth-grinder by nature, and this has become now a rare occurrence, as has his jaw crossing and neck stiffening.


I wish also to point out that while I do not know his history, I do know he was ridden by stronger, younger riders.  Therefore, a part of this transition has been a necessary adaptation to a smaller, older rider who is not as strong and naturally uses slightly different aids.  So I think it speaks well for his effort to fit into a new riding technique, considering all of his insecurities.

Finally, I believe I have described to the best of my ability the feelings and challenges Lakitos presents.  Therefore, I will begin in further posts to discuss how we approach his work, what I do and why.  Since we combine lunging, pole and caveletti work, long-lining and riding, there is much to share.  And much to learn, as the horse always gives us reason to think, and re-think our approach.  in the end, they are our teachers.

What I Feel From the Back of Lakitos

After much reflection, I have decided to approach my next few posts in a slightly different manner.  I hope to take the reader onto Lakitos with me, giving the best description possible of what I see and feel.  I also will incorporate a bit of the instuctors point of view, both in correcting the horse and rider.


Here he is relaxed in the walk and long in the neck, but could open his walk more.

trot inside

In this trot, he is active with his hind leg, but could engage more under himself.

A good starting point is an evaluation from my coach, Henri.  What does he see as the primary issues to tackle at this moment in training in both horse and rider?  Let’s begin with Lakitos.  (I wish to note here that my coach is not only an accomplished rider, but also an expert in equine biomechanics.)  Globally,  (1) He needs work to open his shoulders to develop more fluidity in his gaits  (at the walk, needs more shoulder freedom).  (2) He needs to engage  his haunches to obtain a lifting of the withers,  (3) I need to build his confidence in the aids, thereby developing more confidence in the rider. Regarding me and  my position (I am working also after a 3 year riding absence to develop my condition and improve my posture in the saddle), the most common commands I hear are:  (1)open your shoulders, (2)sit deeper, (3)relax your leg down,  and(4) post closer to the saddle in the rising trot.  Regarding my hands, Lakaitos has a difficult mouth (he crosses his jaw and stiffens on the reins) and has a tendency to be quite inattentive, so I have a habit of meeting his stiffness with a little stiffness of my own, so I often hear, relax your contact.  Don’t give him something to stiffen against.  Easier said than done.

Now, to what I feel when I am riding.  Let’s begin at the walk, with a description of how things feel under my seat and legs.  First, I feel a bulging fullness under my right leg, and a place to sit on his back with my right seat bone.  On the left, everything feels empty to my leg and seat, and he leans heavily in that direction.  Because of this crookedness (laterality) it is difficult to get my legs back and control his haunches.  In my hands, it is difficult to make sensitive observations since he is easily distracted and a bit flighty.  It takes a long time for him to relax and the warm up required varies from day to day.  However, what is consistent, he locks  on the right rein, flexes easily to the left.    When he is distracted, he becomes very rigid on the left rein, and any attempt to flex results in a crossing of the jaw and stiffening of the neck.  (I plan to discuss at a later point what I do about this, but for now we are just “describing”.)  However, when he relaxes and concentrates on his work, he enables the rider to sit squarely on his back and modify weight and seat aids easily, and comes into the left leg sufficiently that it can be used properly.  In the hand, it is important to keep the bit “alive” in his mouth so he can relax his jaw and swallow.  This relaxation keeps him from stiffening his neck and it becomes easier to bend and flex.  Just recently he has begun to stretch out and down to seek the contact and allow the rider to make a “release” without disturbing his balance.

It is easy to see the left leaning, emptiness left and right shifting (bulge).

It is easy to see the left leaning, emptiness left and right shifting (bulge).

At the trot, his first reaction is to trot very quickly, with running strides.  Because he stiffens himself and is crooked, he rushes in order to balance himself.  Without any intervention on the part of the rider, the left stirrup is a bit longer than the right (again his laterality), he falls left and stiffens against the right rein, making it difficult to get a response from the right leg, other than rushing even more.  His neck becomes rigid and the contact uneven.  His back is dropped and it is difficult to sit and even posting is challenging without bouncing up and down (my coach calls it “bellydancing”).  Overall, he is out of balance and uses speed to maintain his equilibrium.

Much the same occurs at the canter.  Going left he maintains the canter easier, but is either two slow and a bit lateral in the canter, or races  to keep his balance.  Going right, it is more difficult for him to maintain the canter and he breaks to the trot, or he stiffens and sometimes bolts in a bit of a panic.  When these things happen, there is no place to sit, he stiffens his whole body an leans on the bit.

As you can see, he has balance issues that must be addressed immediately by the rider.  He is a very insecure horse, and relies on the rider considerably for his sense of  “safety”, that is to say balance and security from things that make him nervous.  This is perhaps an extreme case since Lakitos is very sensitive and very insecure, but it serves as a good example of the responsibilities of the rider to his horse.  From him, many riders can identify similar issues with their horses.  Hopefully however, their horses have patience and tolerance and the rider can learn to make good use of the aids to solve these problems, progressing a little each day.

I often have to remind myself that I am “re-schooling” Lakitos, as he was previously ridden in a different manner and discipline by riders younger and stronger than I am at this point in my life.  Therefore, it requires a lot of patience, and acceptance that there will be good days and not so good days.  However, one advantage to this journal is it helps me to recognize the progress we are making.

Much more relaxed.

Much more relaxed.

As I said, this post is not meant to discuss what I am doing to school my horse; how I use the aids, what exercises I am doing, etc.  This is an initial description of how he feels to me, and what my coach can observe BEFORE we apply any aids.  This is the RAW material, the horse as he is with the burden of the rider, but without any help from the rider.

My next post will begin to explain how I am proceeding with my training, and what results I am obtaining with this work.  I will also include the problems, set backs and frustrations.  But happily, more often than not, I go back to the barn feeling pleased with my horse and his effort to please me.

The “Happy” Horse

So much has been written about the “happy horse”, especially lately.  I believe this recent rollkur lefttrend is in some part a backlash to the controversial low and deep, or rollkur form of training.  If not specifically that, then perhaps in response to the form of business riding  where the horse is “pressed to the max” to boost the price for sales.  Whatever the motive, it is definitely the “trend” at the moment.

I have been reading various approaches to making a horse “happy”.  Some of these articles  suggest  a horse is happy when he can stretch , he is happy with very light contact, lots of walk breaks make him happy, as well as a multitude of other riding concepts and practices.   For me, these things, in an of themselves, do not make a horse happy.   As the result of reading various opinions, they have inspired me to reflect on my many years of experience with numerous horses, as well as the knowledge I have worked to acquire over the years.  I have thought a lot about what it took to bring each of these horses to a point of calmness in their work.  Of course, there was a lot of variation in their needs, as horses are individuals and not to approach them as such can never make them “happy”.  Finally, I have decided to express my opinion as well.

Here I feel this young horse looks relaxed but still making an effort in his work.

Here I feel this young horse looks relaxed but still making an effort in his work.

First, let’s start with my definition of a “happy horse“.  For me, this is extremely simple; what makes a horse happy in his work is a clear understanding of what is asked, and a rider who finds the way to make it easy for him to accomplish the task asked of him.  What is difficult is adapting the training to the individual needs and attitudes of the horse.

It would be easier to begin my discussion with a typical young and unspoiled horse, beginning his training with only his “personality” to consider.   However, most of us are not starting three and four year old horses.  Rather we are dealing with a horse with a history, good or not so good.  This situation of course complicates somewhat our approach to making our horse  “happy” in his work.  So, I will tackle this issue using a specific example.

Contact can make a horse either happy or unhappy.  So let’s discuss  the horse who has been ridden upside down with little contact, or with the “contact, no contact” (taking the rein until the horse puts his head down, and then slacking the rein until he raises it again) style of riding commonly seen at lower levels of dressage.  In an effort to “train” this horse, that is to say develop rhythm, balance and straightness, we must of course school the horse with contact.  Needless to say, the horse will not at first be happy to accept contact.  But we all know in order to teach him to become elastic and flexible, we must have contact.  In order to develop his topline, we must have a tensile strength from pole to tail (longitudinal flexion) which cannot be accomplished without contact.  Therefore, he must encounter and be developed to UNDERSTAND and ACCEPT contact with the bit and therefore our hand.  (I am not intending to conduct a training session, perhaps at another time we can discuss the question of contact.)  We have to remember here, we are not “educating” but “re-educating” our horse so we have to expect some resistances.

So how do we bring this horse into a state of “happiness”?  First we have to acknowledge that re-schooling takes a lot of patience.  In order to work calmly, the horse has to understand the aids and have confidence in the rider.  This requires constant repetition of the application of the aids using the BIG LETTERS so he has a clear understanding of your demands.  Of course anything new is a bit stressful, for horses and humans, and therefore the horse might not seem happy, but a calm repetition will over time bring the horse to a point where he will perform this demand in a relaxed way.

Here the horse is making a big effort, but does it willingly ...happily.

Here the horse is making a big effort, but does it willingly …happily.

This does not mean the work is not hard, but unless a horse is lazy, he does not mind to work hard if he understands his work.  For me, when he can perform his work in a way that he understands, even if it is physically demanding, he is happy to do it.

Finally, I think we can make the description of a “happy horse” even more simple.  A horse is most happy when he feels he is in BALANCE.  The work is not easy for the horse when he is out of balance. And it is the rider who must help the horse stay in balance throughout his work.  Of course a horse who is not on the aids, does not understand the aids, can never receive any help from the rider (outside of force) to maintain his balance (or re-balance).  Simply put, the horse has to have some stress while learning to respond correctly to the rider’s aids, which will not always make him happy, but once he understands the aids and trusts the rider to apply them consistently, he relaxes mentally and assumes the role of “happy horse”.  This is the true meaning of harmony.  Consistency and trust.  Happiness!!

Lakitos – Changes

My original intent some months ago was to share my efforts to develop a young, untrained horse, with a description of the problems I encountered, and the search for the correct solution for him.  However, change is a constant in life (hmm) and with age and the wisdom  gained from a certain maturity, we learn to embrace it and search for the positive.  With that thought in mind, my posts now will be following the progress of  “furthering the training, and perhaps retraining” our eleven year old equine partner, Lakitos.

New Home, New Language

What language is that????

Now that Lakitos has been with us in France for a couple of weeks, we have been able to observe his personality and get to know him better.  His routine has changed quite a bit as he has 3 hours of turnout each morning, and works in an open covered arena.  That is to say, an arena  bordered on two sides with full walls (with small cracks between the boards) an open side with kickboards, and a side fully open to an outside arena .   In

Busy corners

Busy corners

addition, the corners house a lot of pony club paraphernalia.  Therefore, for him, it is a much less secure feeling than a fully enclosed indoor arena.  Conscience of his insecurity regarding suddenly moving objects and unexpected sounds, we were curious to see how stressed he would be in this new environment.

Our first approach was lunging in the covered arena.  At first he was against the bit trying to look around.  He stiffened his neck and had hurried strides.  However, after a period of time, he relaxed and stretched his neck a little, and developed a better rhythm in the trot.  We continued this routine until he relaxed more quickly, adding a ground pole, and eventually two, to give him something to concentrate on.  After first taking a couple of “looks”, he made the attempt, and finding nothing bad happened, he began to work over the poles with some confidence.    In addition, we asked for transitions from trot to walk, and back to trot, and canter to trot and back, to make sure he was listening, in spite of his periodic tension.

Next, we began riding in this new environment.  I should mention here the things I had been told about him when riding him  in Germany.  I was told first, he was not spooky and that his looking and trying to avoid things was worry and stress and not spooking.  I thought about that for some time, trying to differentiate in  my own mind.  Secondly, I was told that his “idiosyncrasies” included crossing his jaw and pushing against the bit, stiffening his neck, and panic at approaching horses, all of which  could result in a bolt, if the rider was not “awake”.  During my first weeks of riding him, I encountered all of these issues.  Much of my time getting to know him was spent learning how to react to these problems in accordance to what he knew and understood.  I think that is an important point, because some of my instinctive and learned responses to those issues were different, and it is important with a horse like him to be consistent, and to make any changes slowly.

I was a little apprehensive myself during my first ride, not really knowing what to expect, aware that there were lots of objects and activity present, and that if he did get away from me there was a lot of open space .  Happily,  I can say the first ride was rather uneventful, though he was a bit stiff and tense, and his gaits were a bit too fast and strong, but he was listening to me and was controllable.    Also, I was able to make the differentiation between “spookiness” and “stress avoidance”.  With all sorts of objects stacked in the corners, jumps set up here and there and some horses hanging out under the overhang of the covered  arena, he did not “spook” at any object at all (he did check, but then moved on normally), and only tensed when he heard the horses outside or saw movement.  I have come to realize that he truly is not a spooky horse, but he really dislikes  surprises. And when he has suffered a “surprise” he anticipates it reoccurring, therefore it is important for the rider to be aware, and act before he does.  This is really valuable information, and has so much to do with understanding how to train.

After a couple of days riding him and trying to relax (him and me) and reassure him in his new workspace, we were able to begin developing some exercises aimed at building his suppleness, straightness, and condition.  With some time schooling these exercises, he will become better balanced and with that, more confident, and I believe easier to ride.  (Another note:  In my last post I spoke about my own loss of balance.  What I have learned from that experience is that muscle tone is key to balance on a horse.  I have spent the last months working on getting myself back into good condition, and fortunately  I feel I am riding normally again.   As a result of my ability to follow the horse and influence him with my seat and legs (instead of heavy contact), he is more responsive in a positive way.)

Finally I will share what exercises we are working on at this pont, and why.  Since he has had some training in the past, it is possible to ask him to work in ways I might not expect from a young horse.  For example, we ask for a haunches-in, keeping his neck parallel to the wall, both at walk and trot.  We also ask for shoulder-in, ten meter circles, and half-

Working on left bend

Working on left bend

pass.   So why and how are we doing these exercises.  Lakitos is a right handed horse.  Going left on a turn or circle, he shifts to the right, and leans on  his left shoulder.  In the beginning, when my aids were not effective (mostly my seat and leg) it was a bit of a struggle to make a round circle or good turn to the left.  His imbalance and his tension made turning left difficult and if the rider did not make it easy for him, he  felt safer if he could quickly turn right and run (reminds me of a “Wiley” little character I used to ride some years ago).    With respect to the rein contact, he stiffens his right side and throws his haunches right, falling into the left rein, thus becoming heavy on it.  In other words, there is not suppleness or possibility of bending in this state.  The haunches-in left, to shoulder-in, back to haunches in, helps develop the suppleness and makes the circle and turn more balanced easier for him.    We include with him, a circle  and half pass.  Specifically, the exercise is as follows:   haunches-in to shoulder-fore, circle, shoulder-in to half pass, and back to shoulder-in.  When it does not go smoothly, we stay calm, and just begin again.   Regardless of how knowledgeable and experienced we are, none of this can really go properly without someone to watch and correct.  So much of what we feel is deceiving and a good coach, pictures and occasional video is indispensable.

Of course, Lakitos  loses his balance throughout this work and much repetition is required.  In addition, his need to constantly check his surroundings adds to the stiffness and balance issues.  But, he is smart, and after a few days these exercises have become familiar to him, and when performing them, he concentrates and relaxes, forgetting for a few moments all the “dangers” surrounding him.  For the rider, a real benefit is that this suppling work helps to loosen his back and make him more comfortable to sit  and it is easier to feel any sign of tension or resistance coming and take preventative action   Also, as he supples and balances through this work, the contact becomes much softer and it easier to apply the rein aids and he is more comfortable with the contact.  He is less likely to cross and stiffen his jaw.

All of this is just the beginning, and I have given an overview of where things are at this moment, with some idea of how we expect things will develop.  I hope to continue to post our progress together and provide some pictures and video to further demonstrate the what, why and how of our work.

Balance – The Essential Oil of Riding

Before I say more, let me define what I mean by “balance” for the purposes of this post.  I am referring to the riders equilibrium and ability to follow the movements of the horse without unnecessary or involuntary actions.

Happily, on my recent visit to Germany I encountered a horse that really appealed to me. lunging He was a gelding of good size (1.65 or 1.66), very nice ground covering strides, very elegant with a beautiful neck, friendly and calm on the ground,  relatively easy to lunge and had some training, I think to basic M level.  Given the fact that he had been out of work (as have I) for a couple of years and was a bit stiff (as was I), this is a guess.

Under saddle he appealed to me because he was just difficult enough to be challenging without doing anything against the rider.  To be specific he is very electric; that is to say, very reactive (almost over-sensitive) to stimuli, both from the rider and the environment.  He is not spooky, but instead is anxious  and tries to escape what is for him anything unnerving.  As a result he seeks his confidence from the rider, and if the rider is either absent to disruptive, he either takes over or gets very anxious.

Out of Balance - knees up, seat to back of saddle = gripping

Out of Balance – knees up, seat to back of saddle = gripping

Enough about him, let’s get to the issue at hand – Balance.  The first thing I discovered on this very active and forward moving horse was that, after my little riding hiatus, my “balance” had mysteriously disappeared.   To my horror, I discovered I had no effective seat, and like a rank beginner hung on with my legs.  Well, on an electric horse who is highly reactive to the lower leg and spur, there is just on response — a very brisk tour of the arena.  Fortunately, a lifetime of riding experience and education kicked in and after a few seconds of surprise, I managed to get my spurs out of his sides and supple his rigid neck and gain some control.  Maybe I had lost my seat, but not my mind or learned responses, and I did not try to “pull” him to a stop.  So, there I was, two days into my return to “serious” riding and the handwriting was on the wall.  I had no balance!   

As I have said to students for years, without a solid but supple seat, you cannot have effective legs or a good hand connection.   So for me, sitting on an extremely sensitive and reactive horse, who has been trained by a rider with a seat second to none, it was a strong reminder  that the rider’s balance is so crucial to the security of the horse.  It is something I had taken for granted for so long that at first I felt totally lost.

After a week of riding (well sort of) I began to feel that I could follow the horse and influence him a little from my seat in the rising trot.  A few more days of riding, and I started to become a bit more supple and relaxed (suppleness is not coming back as easy as it did when I was 30) and I could follow the canter with my seat instead of rocking my upper body.  Sadly, at first, being stiff and out of balance I had to diminish his large gaits somewhat to follow them, but by the fourth week I was able to relax my seat and allow his ground cover in the sitting trot.  As a result, by the time I left Germany, the horse was calmer to ride and gave me positive responses to my “intentional” aids.  Needless to say, the unbalanced riders gives a lot of “unintentional” aids, and I was no exception.

As I reflect on this humbling experience (nothing is quite like making a fool of yourself in a training stall in Germany)  I think of how hard all my students worked and how much progress they made.  But I also remember always believing the rider had to learn to use the aids properly in order to keep the horse in equilibrium, or to bring him back to it when he loses it.  This I believed was necessary to help the rider maintain his “balance”, as it is obvious that the “horse makes the rider” in a sense.  (It is hard to be straight on a crooked horse.)  But I must say, one thing I realized with my own loss of balance is this:  The rider cannot properly and effectively use the aids without achieving his own balance first, and that means developing a secure seat with independent hands and legs that do not grip, therefore he cannot truly train his horse, or effectively ride a trained one.   The only alternative to this is to diminish the responses of the horse so that he reacts to nothing.  For me, that is not an option.

Deeper knee and more centered in the saddle.

Deeper knee and more centered in the saddle.

Needless to say, this horse literally “shouted” at me to get my act together …. and quickly!!!  Fortunately I was able to draw on all my training and experience, and sufficiently recover my balance and find my seat, though it needs to be more solid and  effective, to the point where he finally started to trust me.   I will be back soon to continue “redeveloping” my riding skills.  This horse suits my personality so well, and my goal will be to bring myself to the point where I can produce (or allow) his good expression with mental calmness, both his and mine.


One of the aspects that makes a successful dressage rider is the desire to achieve near perfection, knowing that it is a difficult journey, fraught with setbacks, and requires determination, persistence as well as education and experience.  By definition, we are not “quitters”, therefore it takes years of experience for such a person to know when it is right to quit.  I have been reflecting on this subject for some days now as we have come to the conclusion, after much effort, reflection and discussion that Da Capo is not a suitable horse for our ambitions in dressage.  The good news is that he shows some potential as a jumper, and has caught the eye of a young rider who wishes to make the effort to develop him in a different direction than we would take.  So, we are happy that he will be able to pursue a path that he might be more suitable for, that we can move on to search for a horse that likes the discipline of dressage.


This situation has prompted me to think about the subject of suitability.  I am not referring to the often discussed issue of experienced horse for beginning rider, or expressive gaits or natural jumping ability.  I am referring rather to the horse/rider combination, and their mental compatibility.   Their desire to do the same thing.

I will take for an example the situation with myself and Da Capo.  What attracted me to him in the first place was the dressage characteristics:  a bloodline proven to produce top dressage horses (Donnerhall/Pik Bube), large expressive gaits, a free shoulder movement, strong active hindquarters, and a conformation (though it needed developing as he was living in a pasture) that looked promising.  And since I am not thinking serious competition, his size was nice because it fit me and my size.  Also, I was optimistic since he went under saddle easily, accepted the rider without bucking and was very comfortable to ride.   He was also easy to manage on the ground, and very friendly with people.

So what finally made us find him unsuitable?  Something as simple as “attitude”.  As he became more fit and stronger, he became a bit resistant.  Without  changing his routine at all, just the same consistent work to develop his muscles and strength through lunging, rather than becoming calmer and more confident, he became more resistant.   It soon became clear that there were things he liked to do, and things he could do, but not willingly.

From the tine spent working with Da Capo it became clear that he was an elastic talented horse.  It also reminded me  that in the end the horse has an opinion also about what he wants to do.  After persisting with the riding I realized that he could be “forced” to work, and eventually would submit, but it was not pleasant for me or him.  And in the end, forced work does not produce the kind of results I am looking for when I train a horse.  Therefore, I chose not to try to force him, but to try to seek a situation for him where both he and his rider can enjoy their time together.    I know there will be a willing partner for me  and I plan to go out and look for him.   As a good friend of mine reminded me, “when one door closes, another opens”.     So I am maintaining my “hopes and expectations”, they will just develop on a different path.    This is the part that I think the “seriously driven” rider finds the hardest, accepting that they cannot make everything work, and sometimes have to just  “quit” and move on.   This requires both experience and maturity, and putting the ego aside.   DONE!!

Hopes and Expectations for 2013

With the beginning of the new year I am  in a “forward thinking” mode regarding my hopes and expectations for the months ahead.  DaCapo has just started his basic work under saddle which will be combined with some continued work on the lunge.  There is not much to examine or illustrate at this point.  The primary focus is on “forward” and “exposure”.


Regarding the first days under saddle in his new home, there is much to see.  Fortunately, he is easy to mount and relatively calm with the rider.  He responds to the “forward” request, though is not at a point where he moves totally on his own initiative.  So, this will be the work for the the next weeks.  He is also exploring the various arenas (there are three, with one being a full sized dressage arena under cover, but open on one side to the large jumping arena).  He has also walked under saddle around the entire facility and has explored a field.  While he is alert and curious, has a “stop and look” attitude at “scary” things,  he does not yet show any worrisome resistances.   He can get a little panicky but calms down very quickly, and has shown himself to be quite smart.  As long as he uses that intelligence in the right direction, things will go well.

So just what am I hoping and expecting to accomplish this year.  I will set my goals, and and evaluate mid-year if I have been realistic.  First, I hope to take this young gelding who has spent most of his life in the field, to learn to not only trust me, but also to understand the enjoy the work we do together.  My specific riding goals will be to teach him to react to the leg and seat, accept and understand the rein aids, and develop a good physical condition with nice musculature.  I expect that he will develop a good rhythm, move forward readily, and begin to understand the aids of moving from the leg, in the form of leg yielding, turns on forehand and haunches,  and the bending aids.  That he will readily accept to push forward in the lengthening of his strides in trot and canter, and come back to working gaits with balance.  And of course, become attentive to the rider, trusting but retaining his own personality, which in my opinion, gives the horse a sense of “pride”.  I have never been one to insist that  submission comes through a form of “subjugation” and I have always believed that a calm horse is not “dragging his feet, and sluggish” but is working hard with a clear mind.  These are the characteristics I seek in my horses, and this is what I hope to achieve with Capi.

Ralf home

In addition, I hope to develop our Equestrian Excursions for 2013.  We have nearly concluded arrangements in both France and Germany with facilities and trainers where we can offer lessons and tours for individuals and small groups, in both dressage and jumping.  We have located very nice housing, gained access to trained horses, and are working on the “events” calendar in order to offer dates which can include the “show” experience, among others.  We are very excited about being able to offer this opportunity to  anyone interested in equestrian activity in Europe.

Finally, we have been working diligently on our website and hope to have it up and running as we would like by Spring of 2013.  We are preparing many articles, photo galleries, and reviews of equestrian activities worldwide.  In addition, we will offer some online photo/video evaluation and “question/answer” sections.  Getting really ambitious, I am trying to set up an online forum and hope that this can stimulate some thought-provoking issues among participants.

As you can see, I have high hopes and expectations for 2013.  Now, it is time to move forward and begin the journey.  I will continue to share for any of you who would like to accompany me as I face the challenges I have placed before myself.

So….best wishes to all for a healthy, happy and successful 2013.