My favorite poem

(My favorite poem, by Borges)
Neither the intimacy of your look, your brow fair as a feast day,
nor the favor of your body, still mysterious, reserved, and childlike,
nor what comes to me of your life, settling in words or silence,
will be so mysterious a gift
as the sight of your sleep, enfolded
in the vigil of my arms.
Virgin again, miraculously, by the absolving power of sleep,
quiet and luminous like some happy thing recovered by memory,
you will give me that shore of your life that you yourself do not own.
Cast up into silence
I shall discern that ultimate beach of your being
and see you for the first time, perhaps,
as God must see you —
the fiction of Time destroyed,
free from love, from me.

How fit do you really have to be?

How fit do you really have to be to do dressage well?

Good question.  How well do you want to do it?  What are you riding?

The answer re fitness is short.  Most of the time when you ride a balanced, cooperative horse you must have just enough core strength to keep yourself stable on a moving platform.

But, when you have to apply aids to rebalance a horse, it is a different discussion.

If the horse is cooperative and has learned to understand and trust your aids, the period of effort will be short.

(Trust means that the horse knows what is expected, and also that ignoring the aid will result in a consequence, just as cooperating will result in a nice experience.)

If you break the agreement with the horse that your aids and communications mean something, you are in for a much harder ride.  This agreement can be broken by not having a developed a good enough seat, or by overreaching your ability at the time.  A lot of people then take the gym route–get fitter-fitter-fitter!  This will not help in the end if you have insufficient skill and tact.  The point of being strong is to not be strong very often!  Find your center and keep it.  (Easier said than done–but not impossible.)

Tasks for riders:

Develop correct independent balance.

Practice tactful, rhythmical supportive directives. (AKA the horse can always, 100% of the time, answer this question: What am I supposed to be doing?)

When you are practicing movements, never (ever) think you can afford to sacrifice the calmness, ridability and basic balance “just to get it done.”

And now a story.  This is no one rider in particular for I have seen this rider-owner in my own crowd; witnessed it in Germany, Rudolf with a sad smile patting a US horse so locked up in the jaw and dead to the aids that nothing short of dynamite would get his true attention.  This story exists across continents!

There is a rider who has aspirations to the upper level, and she buys a horse with training and movement that would indicate potential into the FEI–a good horse with free gaits, but also a powerful horse with enough movement to get itself in trouble if not correctly balanced.

(Some horses can trudge around all day long on the forehand and never really lose balance in a way that effects the rider–they just don’t move very well.  Rudolf said, by the way, that a good schoolmaster could lose the quality of the gait and still be able to do the movements–we see them all the time on the show circuit here in the states, and I would imagine other places as well.  That is the point, even if the rider fails to correctly set up the balance for a movement the horse can still do the movement.  This makes the rider able to practice the timing for the movements which is important.  But it does not make a good, free, expressive mover.)

So for a time, if she is lucky enough to have one available, the owner-rider with the mid-level warmblood rides with a trainer who is a strong and effective rider.  That strong and effective trainer has a lot of experience and tact–as well as a lot of strength.  The trainer rides lightly at all times when the horse is responding correctly, but if the horse (who knows already how to perform these movements and different balances) shows any sign of ignoring the aids there is a swift and strong correction.  Pay attention!  Now, that is better! Equilibrium restablished.

But the owner-rider, after a year or so, begins to tire of training bills, and is more confident of the horse and the character of the horse.  The trainer is no longer necessary–or at least not very much of the time.  A lesson now and then will do.  And the horse begins to get heavy (or sucked back or inverted or inactive. . . .fill in the blank).

But not VERY heavy or not so much anyway that it can’t be ridden.  It’s just a bit heavy.


But a year later when the team goes to a show what is shown is that the horse is no longer accurate, the gaits have deteriorated, and much worse, the rider-owner is really having to sweat.  It is not a pretty picture.  The rider is being dragged around the arena–and thinking of joining a gym!

So the rider-owner tries a clinic or two.  She is advised to stretch the horse downward to improve the quality of the gait.  This lands the horse solidly on the hands of the already taxed owner-rider.


In the next clinic the advice is given to go forward!  Which in this case ends up with the horse careening around the arena with quickened rhythm, falling further way from the hind leg and now impossible to half halt.  Then in the third strike the third clinician says: up, up, UP!  And SLOW, slower. . .


So now we have a horse that is heavy if stretched, running out of rhythm if sent forward, and inverted and not going forward–all in sequence.   The horse has learned that all three directions provide escapes from work–and worse yet, that they are expected.

So perhaps the rider-owner goes back to the original trainer and says: he seems to be XYZ, can you get on and see what the issue is?  Oh, but he needs now to be ridden in a snaffle, this new saddle that I have bought is the only thing that can fit him, and I would appreciate it if there were no “tic” marks on him so don’t use your whip.  And spurs, well they just make him run. . .

The correct response is of course for the trainer to come no place near that horse:  improvement is impossible given the guidelines set out by the owner-rider–and ignoring a client’s express wishes is bad form in any business.  Even if they are misguided.

But, if the trainer were to get on the horse, he or she would find a workout bar none.  The horse used to be light, but has learned that aids can be safely ignored, that no consistent program will be in effect, and it is really better just not to pay attention at all.  Horses are very trainable–more so than humans in most cases, and what they learn they take a long time to unlearn and there is confusion and angst in the process.  And to regroup such a horse the rider must be very, very , VERY strong–which most amateur riders are not.

So the moral of the story is there is a reason that we do not let horse lean, pull, or lose rhythm and activity.  Even a little bit!

If an error of understanding exists about balance, it  WILL  get bigger. 

(I promise.)

So, paradoxically, if you are very skilled you don’t have to be so fit.  If you make mistakes, you may have to dig your way out, and that is going to take some strength–we hope, very briefly.  Sadly, attaining that strength is not a brief process and if you use your horse as the gym, working on anything but self-carriage, you can bet he or she will have the advantage in the end.

“The only difference between a rut and a grave is depth.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Marketing. Sell the sizzle?

When it comes to dressage I’m actually not very interested in marketing–though in other parts of my life it has some pull.

BUT, I am bored just now,  away on a clinic, up early, had a walk, and waiting to be picked up by my Organizer–later to shower the locals with Good Advice–and they need it!  It is not everyone in the community that knows the footwork for a correct canter pirouette, and can, if pressed, perform one in jeans and tie dyed socks.IMG_0416

Notice the slightly “heels down” position my feet atavistically adopt when under the pressure of photography?

This comes of a youth spent on the hunter/jumper circuit.

(Websters definition b.)

Definition of ATAVISM

a : recurrence in an organism of a trait or character typical of an ancestral form and usually due to genetic recombination

b : recurrence of or reversion to a past style, manner, outlook, approach, or activity.

But anyway, re Marketing: last night several of the Usual Suspects participating in the clinic went out for several martinis. And one very fine woman, who has a successful career in marketing (and follows the blog) said, “We have to find a better way to market you!”

Sell the sizzle, not the steak!  (I had to look hard to find out who first said this–and I could not!  It is all over the place;  one source:  Here’s their view–I think it valid, if you are indeed, selling something:

“If you have been around anyone vaguely interested in marketing, you have probably heard the saying “Sell the Sizzle NOT the Steak”. Another form of this expression is “Sell the Benefits NOT the Features”. Or perhaps you have heard it put like this, “Sell People What They Want, NOT What They Need”. . .  Ask yourself one thing and one thing only. From the customer’s point of view – “What is in it for ME?“.

Back to the bar: continued long silence,  “Marketing?  Why?  This is a nearly impossible sport to learn, unless you have contact with someone who actually knows how to do it.  Very few people do actually know it, and is not a bid at the Olympics and eight years with the finest dressage trainers on the planet enough?”

(Never mind the skill to coax piaffe out of almost any mutt with four legs and hocks?)

“No.” she explained,  “People only remember the LAST Olympics.  They want more than that now.  You have to look the part.  No more jeans to the barn, and we’ll get you a funny hat.  Set you apart.”

More long silences–in feeling, very akin to a sticky horse coming out of piaffe.

Brain chatter: Forbes Folk from the East Coast do not wear funny hats to get attention.


Well, maybe we do. . .wear them. . .

But we would prefer them to look more like this if we did: supremely practical.


(I have several from this fine Parisian woman:

Cousin John, is a good example of our general sense of style!


(I am a devout fan: my bumper sticker of Kerry/Edwards has finally worn out–but just.  Given that, I also give you, amusingly:,6318/

(Another side note, re stuffy: Lord Forbes has just died this past week: (In case you did not know, he was my great X times a zillion uncle–or 23rd cousin once-removed.)  Story is that such a blight of American Forbes showed up in the seventies at the Castle Forbes in Scotland that they put a sign out to deter visitors: “NO U.S. FORBES!”)


Anyway, here is his obituary:


Genetics?  Don’t believe in them!

(And, if you looked like any of these people, would you be TRYING to remind people of Downton Abbey?)

Alas, though we New England  Forbes prefer to remember the turn of the last century when we were building this sort of barn: (Naushon Island 1913:)


We are currently far more likely to actually reside in something like this:


Fast forward, 100 years, it is 2013–we have horses to spend money on!

The point (as well as entertaining myself while waiting for a ride to work) is that dressage is so darned expensive that luring people with the siren song that they can identify good help by “dress to fit” is not useful.

And more importantly, the side trip, emulating “the look” wastes valuable funds, never mind supporting the idea that looking “the part” will make them able to DO the part.  Never mind, one should not dress like a pumpkin on a horse–plaid or otherwise–for the simple reason that it does not assist the rider to disappear from the picture–which is the actual illusion we are trying to create.  (Duh!  You are not supposed to notice the rider.  Though those who want to learn watch the good riders very, very carefully!)

Anyway, neat and workmanlike is the goal.  Some purchased articles actually do help–but very, very few of them!  Rudolf laughed with me once looking at his rather elderly horse van–back in the day.  He said, “You should be careful that your horse is more valuable than his box!”  Quite true.

So, sell people what they want, not what they need?  I beg your pardon? What they need is to know what they are doing!  And just drinking the Kool Aid is not going to produce skill.


What helps is riding–and then riding with someone with experience that can help your horse sort out the maze of aids no doubt inadvertently installed in said creature.  Like most things, dressage is not difficult–once you know how and have spent a lifetime at it.

And, if in the end, what it takes to “sell my form of dressage” is telling people it is going to be easy, quick, cheap or painless–that strikes me as a form of  Ponzi–collecting cash, not teaching dressage.


We do dressage because it IS demanding.  That’s the point–it is hard to do.  Let’s not make it totally impossible by following bad training or bad advice–nor fool oneself that there is a true short cut.

Indeed, though never short, there are many longer routes.  The quickest is staying as close as possible to the known path and following people who have been down it and come back.

That goes for most things, actually.

Off to work!  Which, despite the former rant, I have once in a while really done in my socks–like in India when offered a morning ride with the cavalry–who could say no to that because not traveling with boots?  (We were invited to watch a demo of “Tent Pegging” (This field but 1987–at the time the last active cavalry in the world)

And they found I could ride–so across the country it was!  A very fine ride on a hot TB while the cavalry raced along side jumping cross country fences made of piled earth–but that is another story.


Hunch Back

From Melynnda Thiessen

Posture… we’ve all been nagged about this!   In the dressage arena, I’d bet none of us have been spared the correction of “shoulder’s back and down”, “don’t lean forward!” and  “look up, look up!”.

Much has been discovered about the rider’s need for a strong core. However this post is to shed light on another important piece of the rider’s stability…the upper back.

I have found two truths about the proper use of the upper back:

  1. It is necessary for stability –i.e. when riding the young horse
  2. It is necessary for connection –i.e. accessing the upper level movements

I have posted a suggested exercise at the end to help riders begin to strengthen their upper backs.

I have a young Andalusian in training. This guy, sweet as he is in temperament, is squirrely to ride! Those of you familiar with the breed can empathize with their loosey goose shoulders and flexible necks that can be a real challenge to keep together in frame.  Green horses come in and out of their frames all the time, but this guy is especially talented at it! I found he was able to challenge my stability through his quick and flexible movements, which if left unchecked gave me a tendency to hunch through the upper back and send my elbows out and thumbs down. This, of course, compromised my stability.

Due to the number of amateur riders I work with, I began pondering this tendency as at least 85% of my riders suffer from hunching their upper backs.

My conclusion was that riders resort to this as a defense mechanism when their balance is challenged.

Unfortunately, this is one of the least effective positions.  It disconnects the rider’s lower back from ever having influence on the horses hind leg thus losing rider orientation, balance and therefore, control of the horse.  And what I have noticed all too often is that once the rider has taken up this position, they very often stay there…a big mistake in a dressage rider.


example of a rider disengaging their upper back when their balance has been challenged.

I very quickly corrected my position and began taking the offensive in the ride through a firm position of my upper back. (A position that holds my shoulders back and down, my core is engaged, my center of gravity is low, my hips are loose and sink down in the saddle with my legs relaxed at his side.)

Westley as a teacher:

But riding the green horse has not been the only event that has led me to weed the error of a disengaged upper back out of my ride.

I always tell my students to observe the world class arena of dressage riders and recall their postures.

Courtney King-Dye showing excellent posture in her upper back.

I then explain to them they don’t sit tall just because it looks good, they have to in order to get the job done.  (First explained to me by my own instructor, then clearly demonstrated to me by my horse, Westley.)

So enters Westley’s passage 🙂

(The new love in my life, Westley – Grand Prix TB/Hanovarian Cross gelding)

I have found that the ability to ‘find’ passage, is the ability to connect in a way that lifts the horse to the movement.  Yes, you need a secure position on a young horse for stability. However, when riding passage, the concept of a connected upper back is brought to a whole new level.  Ahhh, the fantastic joy of the upper levels!

When done correctly a definite connection is felt all the way through the horses back to the riders seat up through their trunk and on up through the upper back.  This is the process that takes place with each and every stride, so it feels like a rhythmic circle of energy that is contained through the rider’s body, back to the horse and so forth.  When you are truly connected, you feel as though your seat acts as a suction cup, bringing the horse right up in the air with you.

What struck me about this connection was my upper back. Sure, its obvious that it takes a strong core. This can be discovered just by observation. But to realize that if you don’t connect your upper back correctly you will never complete the circle of connection from rider to horse.  To understand this, for me anyhow, took experiencing passage.

Moral of the story:

  1. Correct your upper back issues.  Don’t be bashful; we all have had this issue to some extent!  Please see exercise below.
  2. When you have an opportunity to get on a horse that knows the upper levels, take it! …the experience given to you by a well trained horse will pay you back 10 fold!

Suggested Exercise – Chair sit:

I like practicing this exercise just before I get on.  Its great for my upper back because it stretches and strengthens that area and begins warming up my core.  When doing this exercise I focus on keeping my back straight and my shoulders back and down. I initially hold for 30 seconds, extending the duration with each repetition over a series of several days. Please discontinue if any pain or discomfort is experienced.