Calm, Forward, Straight

Calm, Forward, Straight

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In the Arena #66 - Don't forget to breathe...

Happy day - the weather man was oh-so-wrong. After digging up numerous pampas grasses, transplanting numerous pampas grasses, spreading multiple stinky bags of fertilizer, and mowing several yards, (good lord I am tired!) it was riding time.

I did an experiment today. I practiced ujjayi breathing for my entire warm-up. Ujjayi translates to "loud" in sanskrit, and is sometimes called the "ocean breath". Basically you control the flow of breath across the back of your throat, while using your diaphram and filling your lungs top to bottom.

I maintained the breathing meditation way longer than I have ever done in a yoga class. I breathed in rhythm with Val's movement and he l-o-v-e-d it. He was snorting and blowing from the get-go. My seat was super relaxed. No geography issues and minimal sticky turns. Way funner than our last ride.

I can't tell you why this is for sure, but sadly, I have neglected my yoga practice, pretty much since Val arrived. The only class available conflicts with my horse feeding / dog walking schedule. And I have not made time or devoted energy to create a practice at home. There are really no excuses - and I'm not making any. Just wondering out loud why, and hoping that fessing up here on my blog will start the ball rolling. I am a much better rider when I practice yoga. I am peaceful, patient, calmer, fitter and happier. I need yoga. (Val sez - you ain't kidding!) :)

Monday, March 28, 2011

At the barn #37 - Don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows...

Ugh - it's back to winter again around here. Probably all week too. This is what we think of that forecast...

Guess we'll be sporting our new blanket (an excellent score from Tack of the Day)...

and snatching playtime between the raindrops...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

In the Arena #65 - There are no bad rides... OR
the kiss of death might have been when I set up the video camera...

We're expecting crappy weather for the weekend. Yesterday was for sure the day to ride. After cleaning up, I pulled out some fresh hay. Val moseyed into the run-in after me. I groomed and tacked him up while he ate lunch. I didn't even have to halter or tie him, he just hung out for the procedure.

Things were going swimmingly. Our warm up was smooth, but gradually I lost the ability to steer. Ran through the usual reasons, trying to address and correct them, but just could not get it together. Val and I began arguing, and I was unable to muster the presence of mind to resolve the situation. (In retrospect, a healthy dose of forward was likely the answer.)

I became so frustrated that I finally ended up having a meltdown in the center of the arena. Sobbing, tears running down my face. (Not trying to be dramatic - just fessing up.) I've been under a ton of pressure lately, and apparently it's affecting my riding. Worst of all, I was taking it out on my horse. Bummer.

Val patiently waited for me to calm down. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE MY HORSE!! Then we began walking quietly around the arena while I sniffed, hiccuped and generally felt sorry for my self. A bit of a pity party... Well what do you know, suddenly there were no steering issues. The tension in my body had melted away. My seat felt totally connected. Val was relieved. He began to snort and reach. We moved on to some very nice trot work, with lots of two point, and many transitions. Nothing video worthy, but solid work.

Interestingly, Val eventually walked over to the gate, put his nose on the latch, and asked to go out. I opened the gate, and we rode back to the small (fence-less) arena. Since there have been steering and brake issues on our last few outings, I thought that should be the focus for our outside the arena work. There were a few sticky moments, but I coped better than earlier on. I stopped myself from asking for too much, (why is this so hard?) and rewarded even the smallest step in the right direction. In other words, I was patient. It didn't take long to get on track this time.

As we made our way back, Cowboy challenged us by lunging out from behind his run-in, racing the fence line, and generally acting foolish. He ambushed us, charging around at the blind corner beside our gate, which left Val hesitant to enter. As we were in a narrow area hemmed in by my truck and the hitching post, I backed him up, circled a few times, chastised Cowboy, and tried again. Success ;)

Lessons... while we are almost always the cause of riding problems - we are always responsible for resolving them. And with perseverance every ride can be salvaged.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In the Arena #64 - Sometimes I can be such a knucklehead...

As was the case with most things regarding Val and his tack when I first got him / it, how I initially adjusted everything was trial and error. We've had a number of errors. Saddle placement for instance - there are guidelines, but every horse is built differently. Val needs room for his shoulders but also has a bit of a roached back. He has no problem expressing himself - some mini bucks clued me in. For Val to be truly comfortable the saddle needs to be just so. Our first dressage girth let the saddle slip forward. More mini bucks. A timely mention of the Le Tixerant girth from Grey Horse Matters got us on the right track. Val's not too keen on anything but the largest setting for his cavesson. And loose ring snaffles were pinchy. Not good. It's french link eggbutt all the way for us.

While catching up on some reading over the weekend, I came across a suggestion that sometimes geldings and stallions can use to have their bit sit just a bit higher in their mouths. There was no explanation of why, and I couldn't for the life of me even tell you where I read it. All I know is when I tacked up today, that thought came to me. I checked out how the bit sat in the corners of Val's mouth. I could really only see one, maybe one and a half wrinkles, so I took up each side a notch.

We had a lovely ride. It was actually hot out - very sunny and still. There were no issues with geography. (!) Making good progress with our big walk, and responsiveness to my asking for it. Lots of trot work. Trot / walk, trot / halt transitions, half halting through the corners and some two point work. Nothing new, but some nice work.

I'll need a few more rides to confirm, but it seemed like Val really liked the adjustment. He was very responsive and did quite a bit of chewing / mouthing his bit. Turning was smoother, and the contact felt easier to maintain. Go figure... 

After a refreshing liniment rub down we grazed for a spell. Val tucked into some juicy green stuff while I thought about things. Like how come I could overlook such a simple adjustment. And how long Val may have been trying to tell me about it. Just like with the saddle, the girth, the needle hay... Bless our horses hearts for being so tolerant of us humans, who can be a little on the slow side. :)

Monday, March 21, 2011

With this knowledge strive to cooperate with rather than impede the horse...

Face Behind the Vertical
A "modern" deviation from the classical ideal. 

by Erik F. Herbermann

Another matter, related to the main topic, is begging for discussion here. Riders are being encouraged to ride their young horses virtually in an advanced, "Grand Prix" frame (a short, high neck and head carriage) and are penalized for working them in the more "open" (less erected) frame better suited to their level of development. Young horses do not have the strength or suppleness in their backs and hindquarters to bear the strong lever action of high head carriage. Prematurely resorting to these concepts only teaches the youngsters, in sheer self defense, to stiffen their backs and hind legs. Instead of recognizing that they are overfacing their horse, most riders read such resistance as an unwillingness and apply more and more force to make it yield. Predictably, the work digresses.

Is it any wonder that the "rot" sets in early, when a horse's natural beauty is squandered, and that so many horses break down from related maladies because of this? For the true horseman, it is unbearably sad to observe just how many horses beyond First or Second Level are distorted in their gaits, and not infrequently lamed, because they have been indiscriminately hauled and crammed together by the reins.

Are we so blinded by our selfish motives that we have lost sight of our equestrian purpose, that we become traitors, neglecting our responsibility towards the horse and forfeiting our friendship with it --- but worst of all actually damaging it --- for some ill-conceived notion of supposedly "advancing" ourselves.

All this is an unconscionable travesty, and the blood of many good horses is on the hands of those who partake in such perversion, but especially on the teachers who propagate it and on the judges and "The System" for condoning it.

We are sentencing ourselves and our horsemanship to the unspeakable stupidity of the dark ages when we deliberately ride the horse behind the vertical or in too advanced a frame for its level of development or when we forcibly hurry its training to suit the preconceived notions of our ambition-driven training schedule.

Though we might not all do such incorrect and damaging things to our horses deliberately, the fact remains that many of us are partaking in such violations all the time. We need to look at ourselves honestly and must avoid being head-in-the-sand ostriches, pleading ignorance as our defense. It is our inescapable duty to come to recognize the above-mentioned points for the grave offenses they truly are against the creature we profess to love. But above all, we need to recognize that such behavior also debases the inherent beauty and dignity of our human nature. There is such a deep need for us to cultivate, patiently and with deep respect, a very thorough knowledge of the natural workings of the horse and with this knowledge strive to cooperate with rather than impede the horse and assist it to carry us more easily by improving and developing the balance and freedom of the deliciously beautiful gaits it has to offer. Because as things stand, we have unfortunately all too often inadvertently destroyed those gaits long before we have come to realize what a treasure we possessed before our "training" started.

Shouldn't we who are responsible for designing the tests and we who are going to be judging them try to assure that the Training Level tests become a far more clear and honest guideline as to how young horses might be reasonably and systematically trained in preparation for more advanced levels? Young horses, at least up to First or Second Level, should be ridden in a longer, more open frame (nose well in front of the vertical, poll the highest point) and should be allowed to demonstrate bright, forward-going gaits. Anything else is a disservice to the horses and misguidance to the many riders who placed their trust in "The Competition System" and who rely on it for the direction their training should take.

If we are sincere about making substantial headway in the quality of our riding, then there is only one valid standard towards which we all --- judges, teachers, and pupils alike --- should strive, and that is to live by the classical equestrian ideal --- that guideline which is solely governed by the nature of the living horse.

We can best begin to implement our new direction first by building our work on a foundation of solid, correct, working gaits and second by getting away form our hand-oriented (saw-the-horses-head-down) riding, which will necessitate working the horse more effectively from behind. Furthermore, there is also a superb exercise which can act as an antidote for the "face behind the vertical" malaise. It can help us to "renaturalize" the horse, which will have become warped by having been actively "formed" with our hands. The exercise is the "forward and downward" riding of the horse. This in itself, however, is a broad subject and will be left for another essay.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

In the Arena #63 - Every little bit helps...

Thursday afternoon we took another walk around the property. There's a loop / trailer turnaround adjacent to my place, that connects up to the new mini trail next door. (the turnaround would make a great galloping track at some point) I grazed Val around the loop a few times, and then ventured onto the trail.

We investigated up and down. It's uneven and needs grooming. Lots of roots, downed branches and holes. I'm really glad we didn't try it under saddle the first time. The only problem we had was when a bird flew up out of the brush right beside us. We both startled, and Val did his stamp all four feet really hard spook. His left front landed on my right front. Once again living on a sandy island has it's benefits... no mud, easy to scoop poop and my foot sank down and didn't get too smashed up. Val took his foot off my foot immediately, and looked at me like - so sorry mom - did I do bad? I was super happy that he didn't rear, spin and bolt, or even pull on the lead at all, and told him so. I thought it was real progress. Very proud of my guy :)


Friday was absolutely gorgeous weather. Sunny, 70's and a warm breeze. The tractor repair work my dad and I were doing that morning seemed to drag on and on and on. I suppressed the urge to repeatedly check the time. And to act impatient. The job that pays the bills is more important than riding after all...

The minute I could slip away I headed to the barn, groomed and tacked Val up. He wasn't particularly calm during the process, and seemed to be preoccupied with what goes on through the woods next door... cue extra scary soundtrack. I mounted, and we spent the first ten minutes arguing about the usability of about thirty percent of the arena. It got to the point that Val was popping up a little bit and wheeled around to avoid the area.

Now, I know that our steering issues are generally almost always related to me, blocking, being stiff and/or unclear in my aids. I also know that yesterday the issue was Val's and geographical in nature. I found myself starting to get impatient and frustrated (hormonally challenged) so I dismounted. I led Val to the area where we proceeded to walk, halt, and soften, with some backing and standing practice thrown in. He was very nervous. It took some work to get his attention on me and away from next door, the source of all scary stuff. I focused on my breathing as well. After a few minutes, I remounted and we continued with our session. 

Vast improvement. We used the whole arena. We got our biggest big walk yet. We had some lovely trot work with reaching, picking up of back and taking rein from me. Only on the long side away from the area of course, still a giraffe on the scary side, but I'll take it. I focused on supporting him through the turns with my legs and half halts. Still lacking coordination (me) on this, but there is improvement. To finish up we weaved through the cones trotting on loose rein - steering with my legs. We even made some foam :)

We meandered around on the buckle a bit to cool off. Then on a total whim, and because I have been obsessing about not boring Val with tedious drilling, we rode over to the gate, and opened it. Our second try. I still wouldn't quite call it side passing but he was great about moving exactly where I asked him to.  Then we rode though the gate and out for another little solo trail ride. 

I let him decide where he wanted to go... to the back of the property, not into the smaller arena, back up front along side Cowboy who was being a bit of a pita, and out the front gate. Totally his idea. At this point steering got sticky. He really wanted to graze in the neighbors yard, which I didn't think was a great idea. He went anyway. I (patiently) got him turned around and heading towards our place again. Then my camera bag fell off, so I dismounted to retrieve it, and figured it was time to call it a day. No place to remount from anyway... What a good boy!!


The rest of the day in pictures...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In the Arena #62 - When it's time to cha-ange...

A little break from the Herbermann article. Next post - part IV :)


Daylight savings time...

On Sunday morning I was hating it.. by Sunday evening I was l-o-v-i-n-g it! Plenty of time for barn chores, feeding and to fit a ride in. I do think Val wondered why I arrived in the dark on Monday morning...

Unfortunately our ride was a real struggle. Another dose of distraction practice. Neighbor screaming at (and cussing out) his dogs and grandchild + loud tractor work + motocross + target shooting. And it felt like I had to reinstall steering and brakes. Can't blame that on the neighborhood though. Actually, Val had to deal with me being super crooked and stiff. I had such a hard time keeping my weight even - I was constantly collapsing my right side. We got it sorted by the end of the session. I guess it's progress that I realized right away what the problem was.


Today was spring vaccinations day. I beat the vet to the barn by a good while, so Val got a walkabout through the neighborhood to search out grazing. Then we got a top to bottom grooming. Picture snoozing horse with dangling bottom lip. Still no vet... I flipped over a bucket, leaned up against the tack room and thought about dozing off in the delightful sunshine. Forget that! Val wouldn't leave me alone. He groomed me all over... with periodic grabs of my clothing and a cheeky look checking to see if I was noticing, with his very close to me eye, eye. I couldn't stop cracking up. :)

Our vet finally arrived. As usual my horse was perfect for his shots and getting his coggins drawn. (bragging) Dr. G showed me how to do an iv injection, how to find a vein (and miss an artery). I hope I never need to do it, but it might come in handy some day. He and his assistant loved on Val and we demo'd some liberty work for them. Fun.

Next I hopped on bareback, which I knew I needed to do after Sunday. The connection we had shared through the afternoon flowed right into our ride. We worked on forward and I focused on using my core for halting. Super fun.

One day I hope to have a saddle that feels close to my bareback pad. When I saddle shopped before bringing Val home, my first choice was an older County, like the one I've ridden in for years at my trainer's place. Close contact and a spring tree. Searched high and low on ebay and in tack shops online - no luck. Either the size was wrong (Val is fairly wide), or the seller seemed dicey. Couldn't find my second choice either - Neidersuss. I settled on a Beval Natura, which fits Val well but is a bit cushy. One day, when I hit the lottery, I will have a deluxe / custom saddle... among other things. :)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

By their fruits you will know them...

Face Behind the Vertical
A "modern" deviation from the classical ideal.
Part Three

by Erik F. Herbermann

Modern trainers claim that horses "give" better in their backs when they are ridden behind the vertical. But as we have seen earlier form Fillis and Baucher, the only advantage to this way of working is that the horse cannot as easily resist the rider. Now, our instant gut reaction might be that this is exactly what we want, but for true horsemanship, this is only "Fool's Gold," because where poor riding makes the horse unable to resist, good riding strives to give the horse no reason to resist.

Not only does the artificial "face behind the vertical" way of ridding the horse of its ability to resist not lead to a true state of "lack of resistance" (which can only originate from honest, forward-going work), but it actually blocks off the very avenue though which such correct influences might come into play at all. This blockage occurs on both the psychological and physical planes.

Psychologically: if we rob the horse of its "say" by shutting off its ability to resist, we inevitably also shut off its willingness to contribute, and with that evaporates the potential for achieving the "playful ease and beauty" of the performances. Those coveted fruits of riding, which can only unfold from an honest, trusting, and harmonious partnership have thus been forfeited. The dialogue has ceased. Only the rider's willful monologue remains.

Physically and technically: by riding the horse behind the vertical, with curled-up "empty" necks, we rob them of the proper use of the major locomotive muscles in their backs, which are anchored in the neck. The hind legs are hindered from "jumping freely into the poll," which would ordinarily cause the horse to carry its head with the poll as the highest point. And since the energy is therefore not properly focused out of the hindquarters and reaching forward to the bit, the horses are not honestly stretched in their spines. The connection between the hindquarter and the bit, which is indispensable to correct work, has not been solidly established. Instead of beiong supple and energetic, such a hindquarter is restricted and stiff and cannot develop the appropriate carrying and thrusting energy that leads to correct balance.

The correct balance in the horse should be "held" by the perpendicular balance of the rider's spine, resting partially on the crotch and mainly on both seat bones. If, however, it is held with the hands, such as it often is when the horse is ridden with its face behind the vertical, either the horses barge like locomotives against the bit, up to which they have been forced, or they are artificially light in hand (behind the bit) and are not truly going forward. This is one of the central reasons for the artificial quality of the gaits we so often see.

For our horsemanship to be valid, its critical that we tirelessly strive to maintain the highest quality of the gaits. This is reflected in the absolute purity of the footfall, which is the medium ---the very lifeblood--- of good horsemanship. It is therefore imperative for us to understand the inseparable correlation between the head and neck position of the horse, how this position has been achieved, and the direct effects these elements have on the quality of the gaits.

In a well known book of ethical guidelines, the Master says, "By their fruits will you know them. Can people pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles?" We can rightfully draw an analogy and conclude that good work produces pure, beautiful gaits. Poor work produces warping and distortions. So judging by its unmistakable ruinous effects on the gaits, "face behind the vertical" should have no part in our horsemanship if we are at all sincere about following the classical way. "Face behind the vertical" is a tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon in which the basic mathematics is wrong --- how can the equations built on it help but fail?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The secret of good riding...

Face Behind the Vertical
A "modern" deviation from the classical ideal.
Part Two

by Erik F. Herbermann

As we come to realize just what a vast and diverse subject horsemanship actually is, it becomes increasingly clear that a whole lifetime of study would be grossly inadequate to achieve any measure of equestrian competence unless we carefully build our work on the hard-fought ground won by past generations of dedicated riders. We absolutely must keep in touch with this great wealth of inherited knowledge and diligently try to apply it in practice if we are to succeed. Not that everything old is necessarily always good, but as the reader will surely agree, we had better be certain about what we are throwing away! We would indeed be foolhardy to ignore the well-established observations about the horse's nature from the past while merrily setting out (with callow, schoolboy enthusiasm) to reinvent the wheel!

Besides seeing the illustrations submitted in this article, it is highly informative for us to study carefully the pictures of Richard Watjen and Johann Meixner, especially when we compare them with more recent photos depicting "modern" dressage. (These well known illustrations can be seen in Watjen's book Dressage Riding or in Dressage Formula by this author, both books published by J.A. Allen, London.)

Watjen - canter

Watjen - trot

Watjen was among the last true classicists. We are indeed fortunate to have such excellent photos of his work available to us, and we should always try to keep the ideals they portray clearly in mind. Note particularly how the horses are going vigorously forward, and note the exemplary head and neck carriage: and honest reflection in relation to the engaged, lowered hindquarters. Comparing our work to such highly respected performances from the past, and studying the well-established literary knowledge that these masters have left behind, is a both rewarding and indispensable avenue for analyzing and correcting our course.

Phases of correct piaffe, #1-4. #5 and 6 are labeled 'faulty.' These famous sketches of Lipizzaners working at the Spanish Riding School, were made by Ludwig Koch, a Viennese painter who studied the horses in motion at the school. They were published in 1928 in his book called Die Reitkunst im Bilde (The Art of Riding in Pictures). Through Koch's work we have an invaluable and accurate record of what correctly trained horses should look like.

The accepted classical standard for the head position of the horse is: "with the horse's face at, or slightly in front of, the vertical, and with the poll as the highest point." This having been stated, we should, nevertheless, always view any external guidelines with a deeper understanding of cause and effect, because a horse could potentially demonstrate even this classical requirement without going entirely correctly. We human beings have such an inexhaustible capacity for synthesizing (falsifying) that we must be constantly on guard to monitor our work and assess its quality and honesty by using natural law as our standard.

In other words, the correct head position should be, exclusively, an end result of the horse's entire locomotive system being supple, balanced, and naturally (unforced) in play. This can only be correctly achieved when we work the horse from back to front and receive, filter, and direct the energy with a quiet, passive hand. In no way should the horse's head be artificially placed by the hands.

One of the most obvious and failsafe signs that the horse is not being ridden in accordance with classical principles, and is therefore not in natural self-carriage, is betrayed by the constant, active fiddling, sawing, crude half-halting, and any other demonstrative "verbal diarrhea" of the rider's hands. How rare it is to see riders working their horses from the seat and leg and with two perfectly quiet "glass of water" hands.

The classical way of working might be compared to preparing a seedbed. It seems only common sense that the gardener should accept that he cannot make a seed grow. He accepts his task: that of being an assistant, a subject, to the little seed. He knows that his task is strictly confined to making the circumstances for the seed as ideal as possible so that it can do that which it knows best: grow into a plant. So, too, the rider is actually only a catalyst, an enabler, who through adequate experience knows how to make circumstances such that the horse begins to trust its working environment and liberates its powers, willingly surrendering them to be usefully directed by our human intellect. That is the secret of good riding: knowing how to free the horse's natural powers while effectively guiding it. We can no more force a seed to grow than we can force a horse to go. Only through patient nurturing and care will each bring forth its delightful blossoms and fruit in its own time.

We must keep in mind that it is the rider who sets the psychological scene. If we think of riding as a battle, then, surely enough a battle it will be! Any strictly physical or technical manipulation of the horse, which dismisses its ability to contribute willingly to the partnership, gets into the adversarial "master-slave" attitude of working and can at best only bare sterile and degrading results. And when the horse is deliberately ridden with its face behind the vertical, exactly those unwanted aspects begin to appear. Why is this so?

Friday, March 11, 2011

We must listen to the horse...

Today I'm starting a series to share an article from (now defunct) Dressage and CT (combined training) magazine, originally published in 1992. It tackles the topic of modern vs. classical dressage. It speaks frankly about this sometimes contentious topic. Most importantly, it's written from the point of view that preserving the nature and well being of our horses is of the highest priority. It's also pretty long, so I'm dividing into a number of posts. Enjoy :)

Face Behind the Vertical
A "modern" deviation from the classical ideal.
Part One

by Erik F. Herbermann

In this essay, we will be evaluating one of the characteristic signs of modern dressage which points to deviations from the classical ideal: that is, the horse being ridden, deliberately and methodically, with its face behind the vertical and with its poll not the highest point, this attitude being used as a means of establishing control.

We are not dealing here with those circumstances in which any of us can occasionally find ourselves: those moments when, either due to our own attentiveness or because the horse has failed to respond to the driving aids, the horse loses impulsion, drops behind the vertical with its face. A clear driving aid from seat and leg to re-establish a bright, forward going gait, in conjunction with a good half-halt to maintain the rhythm and to set the horse up in better balance, normally corrects such a temporary aberration. The horse will then go, as it should, with the poll high and with its face in front of the vertical once more.

It is quite a different story when "face behind the vertical" becomes a deliberate and integral part of a philosophy and method of riding, which it appears to have become today. And that is the issue on which we will be focusing here.

The "face behind the vertical" blight is indeed a travesty for horsemanship, especially since it seems that rider will simply not make it on the competition scene (they will hardly be recognized as dressage riders at all) unless they demonstrate this insidious fad. In fact, it is now so common and so deeply entrenched that we have come to think of it as an entirely normal and acceptable part of dressage riding. Look at most of the photos in the magazines. Look at dressage posters. Look at the printed T-shirts. It even appears on a German postage stamp!

It doesn't take a genius to figure out why the inventive showman has sought to appease the judges by presenting them with this clumsy facade in order to get passable scores. First of all, it is because riders are so severely penalized if the horse comes above the bit, and secondly, it makes the horses easier to ride.

To elaborate on this second point, if we try to ride the horse with its poll high and its face in front of the vertical without its being solidly and honestly "on the aids" (working properly through its back and being balanced, supple and willing), then at the slightest difficulty or provocation, it will immediately come above the bit. If, however, the horse is being deliberately ridden with its face behind the vertical, it can be ridden with a fairly poor, or even incorrect set of aids, and still look pretty good. It gives the rider an extra margin of safety so that, even though the horse is not going terribly well, it is less likely to show that "unforgivable faux pas" of raising its head above the bit. Now granted, on the surface this may appear to be a real bonus, but for the true horseman, it is a non-starter!

That detail which seems to be overlooked is that having the face behind the vertical is a far more serious fault than having the horse above the bit. The latter, though hardly desirable, is at least an honest manifestation of the horse's way of going, while the former is nothing but a pathetic contrivance, an illusion which not only appears to be fooling many riders but is, at the same time, a reflection on the compromised, uninformed standard of judging (after all, horses are consistently winning while clearly showing this serious aberration form the classical ideal).

Just to insert an historical anecdote: it is interesting to note that both Fillis and Baucher (1800s) also resorted to the "Face Behind the Vertical" concept. But though both men were certainly acknowledged as very influential horsemen in their own time, it has also been thoroughly established that neither one of them worked along classical lines. Rather, they were highly adept at clever manipulation of the horse. Their work was built on a basis of debilitating the horse, stripping it physically and mentally of any ability or will to resist. In this way they rendered the horse to the status of an automaton (a furry motorcycle if you will). But the most significant aspect of this anecdote for us today, if we wish to avoid repeating mistakes made in the past, is that towards the end of his riding career, Baucher finally realized and sadly professed that his forced methods were a serious violation of the horse's nature.

For many riders, it can be confusing and frustrating to know who to believe and what guidelines to follow. There appear to be so many conflicting opinions. But our task can be made somewhat easier if we learn how to let the horse's nature guide us: we must listen to the horse. It is, nevertheless, important for us to realize that it takes an enormous amount of adequate experience, often requiring years of study, in order to even begin to recognize the details which differentiate right from wrong or better aspects from less good ones. As with all fields of endeavour, the tiniest nuances usually make the world of difference. How else could the expert recognize a natural diamond among synthetic ones? It is precisely in an individual's highly developed perception for subtle details that the chasm lies between the true connoisseur and the pretender or the layman.

How can we best avoid making inappropriate choices when we are struggling with limited experience?

Francois Baucher (1796-1873) was a French riding master whose methods are still hotly debated by dressage enthusiasts today. His methods diverge from many earlier masters, however he still has a strong following of riders and trainers today. Baucher also took great pride in his ability to produce a horse quickly, claiming to have trained horses the airs within months. Baucher wished to "annul the instinctive forces" of the horse. To do so, he gradually applied both driving and restraining aids at the same time, until he was using a great deal of spur and hand, his theory being that they should cancel each other out and the horse should stand still. The horse is not allowed to escape the aids, and finally realizes that he is dominated, submits, and is "tamed". This technique was termed the effet d'ensemble. (bio courtesy of wikipedia)

James Fillis (1834-1913) was a well-known English born French riding master. A student of Francois Baucher, he introduced his instructor's methods to his home country as he trained horses for 12 years as Ecuyer en chef of the St. Petersburg Cavalry Riding School. He then went on to train in a German circus in 1892, during which time he performed for the Grand Duke Nicholas in Russia, and was subsequently offered a position to train the Russian Cavalry. (bio courtesy of wikipedia)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In the Arena #61 - One track mind

My Dad and uncle dropped by the farm today to say hi to Val. They pulled up a couple of chairs outside the long side of the arena to watch our session. Val said - "What the hell is going on? No one's ever sat there before! Why are they talking so loud?!" And proceeded to act very silly for much of our ride, including a bit of head tossing and crow hopping. Dad and my uncle are both hard of hearing which apparently means they have to talk four times as loud. And my uncle jumped up and down from his seat, made big gestures and generally did distracting things as he doesn't know any better. Chalk it up to a training opportunity :)

We utilized halts and turns on the forehand to get Val's focus back on our work, and ended up doing some very nice trotting with Val reaching and working over his back. Not sustained, but more than we've achieved before. Treats were flowing after the ride, you can be sure ;)

My training plan for the time being is contact, contact, contact. Since this could get pretty boring as a non-stop post topic, I'm going to limit myself to brief updates and photos until we have a handle on it. In the meantime be on the lookout for a series based on an article called Behind the Vertical by Erik Herbermann.

stepping under :)
What a GOOD BOY!

Monday, March 7, 2011

In the Arena #60 - Hooked on a feeling, good things coming in threes and laissez les bon temps rouler!

Tomorrow is Fat Tuesday - so happy mardi gras everyone, especially the residents of New Orleans. You can't keep a great city down! Is anyone giving up something for lent? I'm not catholic but do think the idea of bringing awareness and focus to your blessings with symbolic deprivation is actually a beneficial practice. I'm officially giving up complaining for lent. (Please feel free to bust me on that here on the blog if necessary) ;)


Three times in less than twenty four hours I've been very, very lucky. Last night, in a pouring rainstorm, I narrowly avoided squashing the most humongous snapping turtle ever - over two feet long I reckon. The driver behind saw him just in time as well. I stopped the car, found a suitably long stick and shepherded (prodded) him the rest of the way across the road. He was less than appreciative.

This morning on my way up the road to exchange the needle hay, two puppies chased each other right in front of my truck (towing the horse trailer). I locked up the wheels, managed to stop, and the pups arrived safely on the other side. They never even saw me.

This evening at dusk, I was once again in the front of a line of traffic when two deer ambled across the highway. I was going 65 mph (at least). Somehow in the dim light I saw the deer, slowed down and signaled the other drivers behind me by flashing my brights. Third time's a charm :)


Since the feed store is not that far from my trainer, I swung by her farm on my way home today, and got a lesson. I haven't been able to get out of town for a lesson since a clinic I did with her in late November. Either weather, finances or both have prevented me from making the trip off island (three plus hours).

Today was well worth the wait. First of all, I haven't ridden another horse besides my own in about a year and a half. (Valentino - I cheated on you!) I got to work with Bud, a statuesque 17.3 saddlebred schoolhorse. What a treat. :) Bud is a total clown. He loves to show off his (way more than adequate) neck by reaching over the stall divider and drinking from his neighbors automatic waterer, all the while checking out of the corner of his eye to make sure you notice his trick - I mean talent.

We worked exclusively on contact, specifically on my getting the feel of contact. Bud is a great choice for this work, as he needs a lot of help keeping his neck stable, and will either be above the bit with a stiff high neck, or diving, unless you provide him with even, steady, elastic contact through your elbows. You have to have a soft following but steady two sided contact for him to move well and work over his back. It was a struggle, but we did have some very nice work.

My trainer reminded me that it's not enough to stay out of the way / not interfere with the horse. And it's not enough to be neutral. I have to be active in the sense of figuring out what the best way to help my horse is, and how to respond to the feedback he is giving me in a timely manner. My legs tell him to go, and the contact gives him a place to go to. Oh - and ride both sides of the horse.

I realize now that in my work with Val, I must shorten the reins, and increase the contact. Our driving has improved, but he needs somewhere to reach to. That's my job :)

Upside down.
Almost - wait for it...
And we have contact :)
Love that Bud man

Saturday, March 5, 2011

In the Arena #59 - You could have knocked me over with a feather...

The plan was to give Val a few days off from riding so his mouth could heal up, in case there are hurts inside which the bit could affect, that I haven't been able to see. But something came over me at the barn this evening. On a total whim I hooked some reins onto a halter and hopped on, slip on shoes and jeans, with not even the bareback pad. What the heck got into me?

It's not that I didn't believe my trainer who has repeatedly told me that you don't need a bit for control. We discussed bit choices when I first got Val. He was previously ridden in a slow twist. I was worried about switching. I think her exact words were - "A horse can run through a bit made from barbed wire if that's what they want to do." A french link egg butt snaffle has worked out well for us.

It's not that I didn't believe my fellow bloggers who ride bitless primarily - Kacy from All Horse Stuff,  Juliette from honeysuckle faire, Golden the Pony Girl and Kate from A Year with Horses all have great success riding their horses without bits. I have admired them for this choice - I know it must be nicer for our horses not to have a piece of metal in their mouths.

So tonight I took the plunge. And I had steering and brakes from the get go. We wove through the cones and did some turns on the forehand in each direction. It didn't feel any different from riding with a bit actually. The only uncomfortable part was Val's withers without a bareback pad giving me a wither wedgie ;)

I have worked hard to develop soft following hands, and imagine it could take the rest of my riding career to perfect them. However, I also think I need to really get a feel for correct contact with a bit, before spending tons of time riding bitless, especially as far as dressage is concerned. Tonight was mainly about going out of my comfort zone, and getting perspective on what control is and where it comes from. It was super fun - I giggled the entire time.

A note to my trainer - yep, you can still have inside rein-itis without a bit :)

Friday, March 4, 2011

At the barn #36 - A public service message, because that's how we roll...

It ain't over 'til it's over.

Some of you might remember that we had a situation with problem weeds in our hay not too long ago. I began treating Val for the condition; sores, swelling, and a bad smell in his mouth, caused by barbs from foxtail barley imbedding themselves in his gums as per my vets instructions, rinsing his mouth and using a soft toothbrush thingy to try to scrape the needles out. I also threw out fifteen bales of otherwise perfectly good hay.

This created hay deficit - what a crappy time to try and find decent hay. A feed / tack store about three hours away, near my trainer, had some beautiful bales of orchard / timothy mix that although outrageously priced ($9.75 for still green 60 lb square), were up to snuff quality wise, or so I thought.

A few days ago Val developed a nasty quarter sized bleeding sore on the flat part of his upper lip, where it meets the lower lip. (I tried to document, but Val drew the line at facilitating lip photos.) He has been so over the top cooperative with his treatments that I didn't push it. He arrives at the tack room door waiting for me to get the dose syringe out, and holds his head low and still while I jet salt water and listerine around in his mouth, finishing off with a swipe of vitamin e on his lip. All of this happens without a halter and lead rope. I love my horse :)

Anyhow - I spent a nervous evening online researching other possible causes / conditions. Boy was that fun. Vesicular stomatitis - a drastic version of hoof and mouth disease - came up over and over. Could eventually occur on the coronary band causing hooves to slough off. Wrong region and time of year thank goodness. Bot fly sores - wrong time of year and I worm against them. Then there's the herpes virus - he hasn't had contact with any other horses for almost four months so that went to the bottom of the list.

On a number of forums, I kept coming back to foxtail barley. Numerous posts about the same symptoms as Val's happening this winter, and they all pointed to hay. Could it be possible for me to get two different types of hay, from two different sources at different times, that both had this noxious weed in them?

Apparently yes. I took a bale that we were currently eating from out into the light, and broke it apart, searching stem by stem... what do you know - it was chock full of foxtail barley. What I thought I had identified previously wasn't correct. The feed store is letting me return the hay thank goodness. I'm taking in a few flakes that are ridden with the weed, as well as some samples so they can identify it in the future.

picking through the needle hay

You throwin that away?

Nuthin wong wth thth hay...

Foxtail barley - run your fingers backwards down the seed head and you feel the needles, very stiff and sharp

Foxtail closeup

Not foxtail - seeds fall off easily when you run your fingers backwards

Not foxtail - closeup

Hay farmers should know that horses cannot eat this type of hay - it is unscrupulous to sell infested hay without disclosing. It may be a case of occurring along the edges of fields so the entire crop is not affected, but nonetheless, I have been assured by my vet and dentist that hay growers should know better. The only way to find it for sure is to cut open a bale.

I'm looking on the bright side as much as I can. Val hasn't gone off of his feed too much. He's not quite as round as when the winter started, but luckily we had some padding to work with. Poop has remained normal - plenty of it. He doesn't seem to be too uncomfortable, although if he relishes picking up contact after all this is healed up again, I'll revise that thought. I do think that eating from the nibblenet exacerbated the situation, and that horses fed on the ground may have the chance to avoid or pick around the foxtails - so the nibblenet is officially retired for now.

I'm very relieved that I've finally gotten to the bottom of this little mystery. Sorry for the long post. I hope that the info and photos can keep anyone else from going through what poor Val has.

Have a great weekend everyone!!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In the Arena #58 - Heading in the Right Direction

Just returned from the barn, where Val and I had such a wonderful afternoon!! My goodness I can't even describe how much I love my horse (insert hearts with cupid arrows, A +'s, happy faces and a maybe a million exclamation points).

We started off in the arena, and got right to our trot work. The contact felt pretty consistent today. As a result, we achieved several confirmed half halts and reaching. (!) Brief and restricted to the long side that has the deeper footing, but confirmed nevertheless. Val seems to use his core and pick his back up more easily when we work in the deep parts of the arena. I'm not happy that the footing varies so much, despite nearly daily grooming, but it is helpful for me to feel when we start working correctly. Sometimes no matter how much I read about something, or how much instruction I get, it doesn't really sink in until I feel it.

So, since our arena work went very well, I decided to follow up with more out of arena riding. We walked around the property for a few minutes. I persuaded Val to go a little way towards the woods trail. He wasn't 100% calm, so I didn't push, and let him turn around. We headed out towards the front of the property, did a few circles and I would have been satisfied there, but when we got back to Val's gate, he turned around, expressing interest in more outside time. I decided not to be obsessed about steering and continued to let Val express himself. We walked back out towards and through the front gate! We even went several calm steps in each direction down the road. When we returned to the arena, I wouldn't say we side-passed, but I closed the gate from horseback :)

After all of that progress I thought some grazing reward was in order. Back out and down the road on foot. We stopped to eat a treat off the top of one of the death dealing trash cans, and then open the top and poke our noses in. Some in hand trotting to keep our soles in shape - with Val keeping my pace exactly and fully paying attention, + lots of green green grass.

As I cleaned and put away the tack, Val shared some gentle grooming. Why is it that horses always find that little bit of skin between your shirt and pants so interesting? My old ride Cowboy used to groom me there too. Val seemed like he enjoyed our afternoon as much as I did. I had to drag myself away :)
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