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.


The perfect bike for you.

Baffled by your horse decisions?

Buy a bike.

Take your pick.  They are a fraction of the price of a horse.  And fun to ride too.



“Planet-X full carbon fiber triathlon, TT bike, with 50mm carbon tubular wheels. This bike was custom built by a certified bike builder, using the some of the best and lightest components on the market. This bike weighs out at 16.13lbs and is very aerodynamic. Comparable stock bikes would run around $3500-$4000 without the carbon wheelset. This bike has never been wrecked and is in excellent shape, used for one year of training/racing. Feel free to email, text or call Rick with any questions at 509-xxx-xxxx”


$350 “Fixie bicycle for sale. Wheels were $350 by themselves. Get the whole bike for 350$. Will trade for marine stereo equipment, amps, subs, speakers, deck, etc. …call or text 406-xxx-xxx five
Thanks” (This bike has no gears and no brakes.)



Jeff Jones space frame steel: $3,500  This bike has 27 gears (you can climb a tree with it) disk brakes and a fat front tire.


Three different options:

Buy the Carbon bike at the top at $2,300, and have the bars too low, and seat too high and it will hurt your back and your crotch. Perfect for a 28-year-old triathelete.  Will you love riding it? (Maybe.)

Buy the “Fixie” at $350 Live at the bottom of the hill and you will neither get up (no gears) nor safely down (no brakes)  Okay for a bike messenger in New York.  Will you love riding it? (Maybe.)

Buy the Jones at $3,500 and try to jump those hurdles without years of practice?  Hope for a parachute in the bag!  Will you love riding it?  (Maybe.)

The love riding it part depends on who you are, where you live and what you want.

But if you do not love riding it, the bike will sit in the garage gathering dust and you will get no fitter or have no fun with it.

Back to dressage:  if you have a horse who you do not love to ride, or are frightened of, you will not ride it.  So, get rid of it and get one you like to be with.

If you dream of breeding and raising one–akin to having a custom frame made for you at six times the cost of “used stock”–make sure you have ridden stock related to your dream horse, and then go about having it made.

(If you decide on this route, please take into account that “making a horse” is not a Craigslist sort of a deal–in fact, if not very lucky and carefully managed,  you are much more likely to be passing the project on in similar venue than grinning like the happy gambler.)

Why do so many people think they want the expensive Olympic model that is not comfortable, safe or fun? My guess?  Being in the optimistic future is sometimes more fun than facing reality–and as noted at the base of this other post–also human nature.

Please see previous post

Do you buy a young horse? Or a bike?

There is a temptation, looking at the price of good-quality “going” dressage horses, to want to buy in early.  A weanling is generally pretty reasonably priced, after all. And one’s imagination of the quality in the future can be seductive.

On price: I have cited this piece before, but it is a good wrap up of costs–though keep in mind again that I do not know these people–though I admire their thought process:

They mention that buying a young horse can be a bargain in “money now” but there is a lot more to consider.

In purchasing a youngster, the temptation to attempt to “beat the market” should be resisted unless all of the following are present in your life and ride.

1. You own or know of a suitable place to “store” your youngster.  This place need not have rolling green hills and board fences–though these are nice–but it must have several acres, safe fencing, a good worming program and companions for your youngster.  Ideally several horses of the same age group and size.  A pipe coral in northern LA is not ideal.  Playmates over the fence teach all the bad habits of a stalled horse, and none of the good.  Keep in mind that if the board at this place is $250 a month you will have “invested” $12,000 in board and likely have $20,000 in an unbroken four year old.

2. You are a professional skilled at working young horses, or know of (and are willing and able to pay) a short string of professionals to cope with the basic tasks your young horse must learn.

3. You are a professional skilled at working young horses, or know of (and are willing and able to pay) a short string of professionals to cope with the basic tasks your young horse must learn.

4. Read items 2 and 3 and go no further if you have any doubts about this.  Handling and riding a young warmblood is very different than handling and riding an older horse–or breaking a Quarter Horse. The goals are different, the tasks are different.    The budget for this training is $8-10,000.

5. If you have gotten this far, how do you choose your youngster?  The short answer is the apple does not fall very far from the tree–the young horse is quite likely to be very similar to its parents.  So when you pick your young horse you should choose something whose mother  and father you have ridden and liked–or something that is very, very closely related.

And you?  If you are thirty, in four years you will probably ride exactly like you do currently–unless you plan to do something radically different in your education.  If you are 50, we all hope you will not ride worse at 54!  (I’m sorry, but most 50 year olds who ride, and are not professional riders, usually have desk jobs, long commutes, family obligations and do not get enough exercise.)

Horse people are notoriously bad at assessing their own level of skill.  They are also very, very good at retaining a fantasy of someday it will be better.  This is a human trait.   See New York Times Three Cheers for the Nanny State

A sample: We have a vision of ourselves as free, rational beings who are totally capable of making all the decisions we need to in order to create a good life. Give us complete liberty, and, barring natural disasters, we’ll end up where we want to be. It’s a nice vision, one that makes us feel proud of ourselves. But it’s false.

But you say you want in the end to breed and have a horse like Totilas?  (The ultimate Carbon Fiber.)

Please make sure you are equipped to ride him!


The ten-million-euro wonder horse from the stable of Paul Schockemöhle.

I am sure broken and trained by an adult amateur.


Not the tale of The Black Stallion?


A horse backed up by a team that looks just like your local professionals?

Sjeff Janssen and Edward Gal, Totilas’ former rider.

From an article

Is this a more suitable choice?


Having ridden my share of young horses (and having ferried to the emergency room a number of people at several barns riding unsuitable young horses!), almost ten years ago I bred the spotty one above.  (No he is not a quarter horse. 100% Warmblood.)

Grand daddy:


Mother was a hot three year old mare from Grande and Davignon (Donnerhall/Pik Bube) lines.  Sire a Dutch horse in AZ who was an FEI horse, but known for throwing really solid temperaments.  The professionals in all the barns I worked in raved about the character of this horse’s offspring.  Nice jumping horses too.

How come I did not breed to something flashy and hot?  The mare was that already and what I thought at the time (and still do) is that we don’t have enough horses bred specifically to be easy for adult amateurs to ride.  And guess what?  The spotty one above is super easy to ride–and if you know what you are doing he is a very nice dressage horse too.  More than that, you can put anyone on safely and go for a trail ride.  He’s nine now.  Worth his weight in gold–AFTER three years with several professionals all of whom knew exactly what they were doing in their various tasks.

Could I sell him for what went into him?  Not a chance.

Therefore the tale of the bicycle–see this post:

Use of the seat–passage

Correct use of the seat  and back of the rider to influence the gait of the horse are always important, but they are seldom more evident than in piaffe and passage work.

And, because so very many riders sit so very badly–or in a completely unsophisticated way–it is hard to defend their “influence” on the horse.

In our school, the seat and use of the weight aids are a focus.  Some people emphasize different things with good results, but this is the way I like to see it done, so here are some examples for you from this morning’s school: a rider Melynnda Thiessen, learning how to initiate and ride the passage of this very nice thoroughbred cross, bred here in Spokane.

In this first tape, the  attention gathering “please sit a little”  at the first step is a little overdone–but better this response than none at all!  Notice how influential bringing the frame of the horse up is after the passage has been established.

In the tapes below you will see Melynnda make adjustments in her back and seat to influence the timing, and how the horse is landing and rising in the passage, also some changes in tempo and frame.  Like most things in riding this is an interplay between back, weight, hip, leg and hand.  There is none without the other.

Also note, how “from the inside out” the carriage of the rider is.  As Melynnda commented after the school, it took a great deal of core strength to lead that dance.  The rider’s internal strength is not used against the horse, but instead to stabilize the rider through the upward shift of the balance. Her seat, back and weight are not the ONLY aids she is using, but what other way would make a more clear “template” for this very nice and responsive horse?

Step by Step

Dale Forbes

Last week, Melynnda and I chatted while cooling out the horses we had just worked.

The subject came up of the long and often varied learning curve of mastering dressage.

Melynnda related,

“My students are often frustrated because they cannot consistently do it right.”

“How so?”

“Well, they get the horse round, or they get a step of half pass, or shoulder in, and then they fall out of it, so they think they have failed.”

This was a novel idea to me!

So I explained to Melynnda how I think about this.  Perhaps it will help.

When I ride a horse, particularly a young horse or one needing retraining, I feel it is my job to get the horse as close as possible to a place where they could do the work required.  But it is actually the horse that volunteers and steps into the movement.

*(Really, riding students are the same–they just take longer.)*

Example: Schooling flying changes: On a calm but green horse who knows how to be positioned, I can lift the new inside shoulder in canter, getting ready for a change.  I can count the timing of when I should ask for that change.  Then I can feel if the horse is getting backed off or upset (or confused or anxious) and move on if necessary without asking for the change, instead praising the horse’s willingness to set up–a feat in itself!  And I figure that as success.

Sure, my intention, if all worked out well, was to do a flying change.  But without a calm and proper set up this is not possible.  And asking when the horse is not prepared, or in a place to do a change, is asking for trouble.

Sometimes, it just happens as you are going around, that the horse is in a place where they could change the lead.  And if you recognise that feeling, there is nothing wrong with asking.  But if you want them routinely, the horse must let you get them ready.

So imagine the rider, new to changes, on a horse who may or may not have done them either.  The rider is probably not well-versed with the importance of leg positioning in canter–keeping the positioning stable and clear to the horse.  (Riders not yet working changes have a tendency to be sloppy about where their legs are. Why?  Because on a horse that knows the changes, if you allow your legs to fly around they probably will try to offer some unplanned ones.  That teaches the rider to be careful about this.)  The rider may not have felt a change, or a horse getting ready to do the change, or know the timing of the leg, hand and seat positioning.

Why would they?

So, one step at a time, we teach the rider how to set up, at the same time as keeping an eye that the horse is not getting apprehensive.  And we might get a change today, or we might get a nice set up that will lead to a quiet one next week.  That would be okay for me.  I am familiar with the tasks and so not in a hurry.

But the rider probably imagines it is failure if they do not accomplish the change–and do it perfectly!  Riders are often in too much of a hurry!  And why are they in a hurry?  They misinterpret how long it takes.  Even if you are schooling every day–which many riders and horses do not–it takes a lot of practice to gain the skills and feel you need to guide the horse.  Particularly if a movement or practice takes a string of small set up gestures that must be done in order.

Piaffe and Passage are interesting examples of this as well.  Melynnda has been working diligently for years, riding young horses and some more schooled ones, working on her seat, timing and posture.  Her mustang was not particularly a natural at doing many of the tasks asked for, but still Melynnda persisted, and the mare will do a credible piaffe and a beginning passage.


This last fall Melynnda bought an older half Thoroughbred horse (above) with some good training in his background.  Kelly, my student (since he was 13, and I 21!) took this horse, Wesley, to Rudolf for a year or two.

In the intervening years Wesley had also been ridden by a very amateur woman who was not as skilled as either Kelly or his German trainer.  Therefore, the horse had some apprehension–and more than a few bad habits in with the good.  Over the fall we have insisted on  a clean trot, required that he do his counter canter properly.  Taken it slowly.  The basics are always the basics!

As for the passage–it is quite good, but Melynnda has not ridden a great deal of this and on many  horses it is more important to know how to create a clean trot than let them “sort of” passage around–though that seems popular of late.


So after months of working swing in the back–and doing well–they are schooling passage routinely. Yesterday was a breakthrough.  Going through the corner, suddenly the two of them joined.  It was no longer the rider asking for passage, and the horse doing it underneath.  The rider was doing passage with the horse, literally part of the balance–connection!  Perfect lift, coordination of the half halt, seat and leg.  A shift into a new gear–and quite lovely really.

We walked. The horse was very happy. (He LIKES passage!)  The rider was ecstatic!  So we talked about it for a moment, I being very careful to let her say what the feeling had been.  (Words can as easily pollute and encumber the process as help it.)

So she told me what it was like, but then said, “It takes a while to find it.”

Yes, it can.  But not nearly as much when you know what it feels like.

We were about at the end if the ride, but I asked her to pick him up again.

“Put him in front of you, get him ready–no not yet,  just get him ready.  Ask him to wait.  Now think about what that last passage felt like.  Let that feeling come through your body and give him permission to passage for you.”

On the very first step the horse lifted himself into a beautiful passage.

It is not making the change that takes the time–it is getting ready to make the change!

for an example of lifting to passage please see:

So how come I am not frustrated when it takes a while to school these things?  Because if I feel the balance or the rightness of a movement for a fraction of a second, then I know it can be enlarged upon.  It does not matter if it is consistent or perfect.  Things are neither of those when you start!

While training the horse, if you have a bit of “it” you can make that bit bigger and bigger until it is visible–and then eventually consistent.  I think of progress as those momentary feelings of “rightness.”  I am thrilled if the horse offers even one step of shoulder in.  If they blow it at two steps I should have left earlier.  But I don’t think about the loss of balance, I remember the “right” feeling.  The problem with learning is people get it right for a step or two, lose balance, and instead of leaving and going back to the basics for a moment they try to struggle to keep the movement after the balance has been lost.

This is why it is very different training a green horse and training a green rider.  On a schooled horse who “contains” the movements, the rider must learn to set up the balance and then access the movements while keeping the balance. Like Melynnda’s new horse springing to passage: she got the speed right, the tempo right and the connection and lift right.  He knew what to do and so put in a place where he could do it, he did.

If Melynnda rode him too fast, or threw away the front–or strangled the front as some riders like to, the horse could not have done the work–even though he knew how.  It frightens even a well trained horse to be asked to do the movements in a balance that makes it impossible.  Imagine how the green horse feels?  And a green horses never springs to the work with even and balanced steps.  It is always a bit of trial and error and encouragement of the correct direction.  Helped with the balance, the horse must experiment, be motivated, praised and guided–not thrown off the cliff!

Speaking of that, the green horse I am riding just now is not a world-beater. But he is a good sort and I have been roughing in the movements.  Last week we started half-steps.  I have been praising his effort.  Ask him to set up and organize his feet.  Great!  Good boy!  Ask him to move his feet. Super!  Mistake?  Walk out of it, stay forward.  Good boy!  Step by step.

(I am sure people on the side think I am a fool: short steps, praise, short steps praise.  It does not LOOK like anything.  But it FEELS like something.  Fortunately there really are not always people on the side–it is too boring!  They are in the other arena, watching a clinic!  Now that is where the excitement is!  Frankly, I hope they stay there.  This is a quiet communication.  Most happily done with just he and I.)

* Oh, I gave you an asterisk back up there.  How come people take longer than horses?   Y

First, you can get a horse out every day, and work it.  If you tried that with a rider in the same manner, you would likely be arrested.

The rider has to volunteer, and not all of them do.  Then, unless they are riding a sound horse and getting the help of someone who knows the path, the chances of a linear route are small.

That and, even with daily riding, they say in Germany it takes seven years to make a horse–twelve for the rider.  One hopes after those twelve years the rider will go on and teach a few for the next generation. . . .

The ones that concern me are the graduates of “twelve” that still don’t have a system, have no clue of the seat and use a group of made up “it works for me” aids.  I bet it does work for them–just not likely to work for the larger group.  No genetically modified dressage for me, thanks.  There are systems out there that work–not connected to one person’s money, luck or even super-human work ethic.  In my opinion, looking at a minimum of twelve years, it’s too long a road  to turn it into fifty by guessing!

We live longer than horses, after all–but not forever.

Work With What You’ve Got

Here is a riding education strategy that involves no money in hotels, no money in airfare, limited stress and LOTS of community spirit.  The basic premise is Work With What You’ve Got–what you have got is it is most probably a LOT more than you thought it was.

Melynnda has pointed out in past posts that cross training is one of the strategies that helps other athletes along their paths.  The tendency in dressage is to school the same thing under different (hopefully foreign) eyes and hope that a “solution” will arrive.  This assumes we think of learning as a problem–which it is not.  It is a process. 

That process requires

1. A willing equine partner, who is sound and hopefully happy in the work.  (Not necessarily, but hopefully, talented.)  This creature must have tack that, (though not necessarily fancy), fits well and causes no pain or unnecessary encumbrance.

2. A rider who is fit enough to support themselves in the movement, and hopefully use their own body to influence the horse for the better.

3. A trainer to direct and instruct the process–augmented by appropriate study from the rider.  Trainers don’t like to hear this, but at a basic level they are pretty interchangeable.  If you are a beginning piano student, who cannot teach you the scales?

A lot is spoken of the horse, but dressage requires significantly more effort from the rider than is generally supposed.

The rider must be focused and be centered in mind.

This is harder than it seems, to quiet the often self-critical “noise” of the mind and become deeply aware of the body and the breath.  Before you can fix a problem–or make a good habit–you have to be aware of what is going on.  What schools are good at this?  Martial artists.  Singers.  Many disciplines teach this before anything else.  We should too.

The rider must have sufficient core strength.

You can ride like a bug, with an exoskeleton, or you can ride from the inside to the out.  The more one can stabilize the core, the more one can relax the joints to move with and guide the movements of the horse.  If you ride half an hour a day you have 23.5 other hours which might come in handy to practice cross training.

The rider must know what is expected of themselves and the horse–an idea of the current target.

The rider must know generally what they are to do.  Confusion about this results in stress.  That is needless, but defining the target does take time–best not done at $5. a minute which also causes stress!  (See post on  Inflation:

The Plan:  Once a month, for maybe four months, organize a training weekend. (Then let people have a break.  This helps too)

On the menu there might be seven items: (More or less–use your imagination!)

Some ideas:

Trainer of the month: If the norm for your area is fourth level, then invite all the fourth level trainers take a month.  If the norm is Grand Prix (so much the better) anyone who has ridden a Grand Prix and likes to teach gets a month.  They must be able to help not only the beginners, but the other pros as well.  (Doors closed if asked).  This helps with non-ownership and team building.  Plus a lot of alternate ideas!

Option of school horse: with second trainer of the month.  Maybe some people who want to come have too green a horse–or a lame one.  Or no horse right now–SAD!  They don’t have to be sidelined.  Let them play too. Team building as well.

A Pilates coach: Two to four sessions offered over the two days, teaching core exercises.  If you can find a rider who knows something about this, so much the better.


A Martial Artist:  Aikido is my background, so I like it, but most martial arts focus a LOT on finding the center, focus and discipline.  They all have beginning practices which will help to introduce these concepts.  The point is not to learn a hard fall–though those can be funDSC_0037_3

The point is to figure out how to be in connection with  your partner:


A Human Massage Therapist:  Football players have them.  Why not us?  Body pain and crookedness get in the way.  Get rid of them.

An Equine Massage Therapist: Again, body pain and crookedness get in the way.  Horses are filled with body stories that need to be worked out.  Locating problem areas helps us with our ride, and to be better partners with our horses.  If you can find a massage therapist who is a rider, more the better.

A wild card:  This could be a vet come in to do teeth at a discount, an acupuncture  session for the riders, a guest judge for a ride a test, a sports psychologist–something that you do not need every month but is easiest and more fun to do as a group.  (And buying things in a group makes sense.)

In short, we all have different resources in our communities, and it is more than possible to bring these into play at will.

The schedule is easy: give the riders a choice. Buy the whole weekend–say, $150.  Pick three things every day that they want–that’s $25 a session.  Not time for everything?  There is another one next month–and maybe a Pilates group at the barn on Fridays.

The point of cross training is to use other muscle groups (as well as thought processes) to augment the main goal.

One does not need to be proficient in any of the other sports or activities to have them help with the main one.  (And in fact it helps to be a beginner again and learn not to worry about it.)

Anyway, above is a sample plan that will not overly tax the budget and is proven to work–we have done this!  It is great fun.  If you do it, please write back and tell us how it works for your group.

Inflation has hit. (Hard.)

Yesterday I went to my computerized local purveyor of everything  ( and ordered the most recent version of the German National Equestrian Federation’s Principles of Riding  (There are a bunch of these nice books by the GNEF)

They say fantastic things like, go to your local trainer who is licensed either as a Riding Teacher or a Riding Master.  (Which is of course impossible here in the US as no one is licensed for anything other than judging–which is by nature extremely different than training–though of course useful in its own way.)

But the Principles of Riding is still a very good reference, and while I was shopping, I noted that  a copy of Advanced Techniques of Dressage, by the same group, was for sale.


Advanced Techniques of Dressage will now cost you $449.85



Inflation has hit–hard.

I’m feeling a little smug here that I bought multiple copies several years ago to give my students. (They cost $49.99 then and I thought THAT a bit extravagant.)

(I read this tome once a year–whether I want to or not.  It is dry, but supremely informative).

Out of print now I guess.  A collector’s item in English.    As are all those techniques it seems.

So I guess that is the way the dressage world is going.  We tip our hats to Mr. and (particularly Mrs.) Romney and board our private jets to join our trainers.  No?  Better yet, they come to us!

In the past few months, I’ve watched a few clinics–here in town, and elsewhere.

A lesson in one of these clinic would cost you $275.

The bargain basement price of the second offering was $175.

Mean $225

45 minute session:  that is $5 a minute.

And from what I can see, the best plan would have been to buy just one minute–because the rest was fundamentally company and entertainment for the rider.  (The horse?  Entertained? Not so much so. . . )

On a budget? I’ll save you a great deal of money:  The take home messages of the two clinics I watched were:

Sit evenly–not too deep, stabilize your core.

(Also known as: Don’t grind the saddle like something from a B-rated XXX flick.  Thank you.)

Engage the hind leg.

(Also known as: Don’t just sit there undulating, ask some questions with your extremities.)

Shape the horse’s neck.

(Also known as: Up!  No!  Down!  NO! More down!  Not so much down!  Down with bend!  That’s limited bend!  Where is your outside rein?  Yes, that’s it!  More lateral conversion of the innate energy to facilitate upward guidance and trajectory of the willing spirit of the horse within your horse!  Ah. . .now you see what I’m talking about?  That is SOooooo much better now!  Look at that horse!  Can you feeeellllll  the difference in that horse????)

(Who currently still looks like ****.)

Sad, but true.

So yesterday, done schooling the young Dutch horse in the outdoor,  (it is finally almost spring here and beautiful) I took the young gal (who rides with someone else but watches us a lot) out for a trail ride–her first on a new horse.  She wants to be a jumper.  We talked about schooling ditches and I told her of the grand bank in the jumper arena at Pebble Beach with no end of options for S-M-L efforts at banks and ditches.  Some VERY large.  (I fear I am getting old and sentimental)


This is not the bank, but I was there that year–1979 and jumped the hay bales about every morning, solo.

Ah, here it is, the thing behind the banner and horse is a multi-level bank.  A beautiful schooling tool that struck terror in the visiting show jumpers unaccustomed to such things: it is not hard to jump on and off a bank–but it does take practice.

Classic07 019

So the young gal and I  came home from the woods, and while I was blanketing the horses, the Mexican stable guy sidled up to me and asked, “What are they doing in there?”

“A clinic?”

“Yes, what are they doing?”

“She’s here from out of town, teaching.”

“Why don’t you ride?”

“Well, it’s pretty expensive–and I’m not sure how much I need it right now.”

“How expensive?”

(I told him.)

His eyes widened: “One lesson. . ?  I feed my family for a week with this!”

I know.

On leaving, one of the clinic participants was in the parking lot, a local professional  She moaned to a friend:  That was SO wonderful, but it will be six months until she returns.   What will I do?  What will I DO???

You really want to know?  The same very exact thing she has been doing for the past six months–and the six before that and–and that and that.

Because one lesson every three months does not a rider make.  Nor a bad habit erase, nor a body memory instill.

How did we get to a place where a copy of The Principles cost half a grand, and to listen to advice from an individual  who may have read them, cost the other half?

(And re competence, I don’t doubt the clinician: the person proclaiming was probably proficient.  But had she been sent from heaven with a choir of angels (instead of a Comtek transmitter), it still would do very little to improve the riders.

Do you achieve concert piano quality from a single weekend with Franz Liszt?  Would twice a year do it?


  • Franz Liszt (Hungary, 1813-1886). One of the most famous piano players of all time! He had piano superpowers, and used to dazzle audiences with his extraordinary abilities.He was well-known (and mocked!) for acting dramatically while performing, contorting his face with passion and swaying his body. He was the first person to hold solo piano recitals, and the first to sit sideways to the audience so everyone could see his hands in action.

In closing, I DO think that most clinicians really do know what they are doing–surely some better than others, but as a group, capable of good advice and a fresh eye.  The PROBLEM is that without backup help MOST riders will be unable to repeat the “performance” of the clinic.   And, as I view training the horse and rider as a series of small skills that build on each other, the idea of the “weekend revelation” does not make sense to me.

In my next post I will pose something that does work, does not break the bank and I think will make people more ready for the breakthrough–should it happen.

But here is the point, the breakthrough may never happen.  And that won’t matter if you have a sound foundation and a skill set that is well-developed.  People here tend to talk like we are inventing something.  It exists!  Has for a long time.  That is a good thing.