Like a northern breeze across the prairie: just an instant of a moment in an hour of her life.
Forever in my mind.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
“Asking your horse to hold your weight at the halt, like gossiping cowboys with their legs hooked over their saddle-horns, is much harder for a horse than moving with weight on his back. When you’re not riding, kindly get off his back.”
This quote is from last week’s blog and Cathy asked me to elaborate. I promised I’d hold it to a moderate rant.
Let’s start by having a good ride. That means a warm-up that is patient and pleasant. The horse has longer reins and is striding up with a nice rhythm. His poll is soft and the rider is breathing deeply. You turn your waist and ask him to reverse and in that movement, you feel his ribs stretch to the outside while his inside ribs soften around your leg. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. Repeat a few times, asking for longer steps with your seat, and then shorter. Sweet. Good boy.
Relaxed and forward, just like the training pyramid says. Now some walk-trot transitions, still a long rein and you can feel him lift and carry you. The strides are slow enough to be big and from the tip of his nose to his tail, there’s a swinging rhythm that flows under you like a river. He’s using himself well, and his back is starting to lift.
What happens next depends on riding discipline and the level of horse/rider proficiency, but whatever happens next is aided by the 15-20 minutes you just spent helping your horse slowly warm his muscles. He feels good in his body and he is ready to work. Reining, dressage, jumping; he’s warm and willing. So let’s say you do a light bit of training and when he tries, he gets a scratch.
“Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.” It’s always smart to channel Nuno Oliveira.
The horse is happy, the rider is happy, and after 15 or 20 minutes of training, there is a long cool down that feels just as good at the end of the ride as the beginning. Moving forward, swinging big lets him step under with his hind leg and he gets stronger with every stride. So the rider asks for a halt and gives her horse a pat. Then maybe there is another lesson to watch, or a friend to chat with. Now might be a good time to check messages on your smartphone. Is there anything better than sitting on a horse?
Except that you just had a generous, fluid ride, asking him go light and forward, and now you’re parked in the saddle being dead weight pushing down on his spine, which he has just politely lifted for you. Kind of squishing all that happy, round work. It’s not great for a young horse, but for a mid-life or older horse who has the beginnings of arthritis, the benefits of the ride get minimized, just when they’re needed even more.
A brief physics lesson: Carrying a stack of books while walking forward is an example of dynamic force. Similarly, a forward horse spends less effort carrying weight because of that dynamic movement. Standing still and holding a stack of books is a static load, the force is downward. Can you feel it, maybe in your back? So we shift weight from one foot to the other because it’s harder to hold static weight and maintain balance. Make any sense?
That’s when you hear her, “Drives me nuts!” It’s Kim Walnes–she’s in your arena! “Your horse is not a sofa!” Okay, she isn’t in your arena, but it would be nice. She did write this on the blog last week, just after Cathy asked for clarification. (Took you at your word, Kim. Err…actually, I took your words. Thanks.)
Physics is reason enough, but there is an even more important reason to get off, and like usual, it’s about your horse’s state of mind. Riders underestimate the importance of the last thing they do before dismounting.
Horses learn in hindsight. They always remember the thing-before-the-thing. They are smart that way, survival often depends on it. So if bad things happen every time he gets caught, or if riding in the trailer bothers his stomach, or if what happens after the mounting block feels like punishment, they are bright enough to do the math and the thing before, whatever that is, becomes a cue to resist.
But with beauty and grace, the reverse is also true. If we give a horse a happy release just as he has done good work, he remembers that just as well. Release is the best reward, it’s honest, loud and true. Giving him a long rein and a scratch makes him remember the previous thing. Parking on his back like a cinder block after good work deflates the value of the training moment, but vaulting off, loosening the girth, and letting him be done will tattoo that moment in his mind like a big red heart with your name across it on a blue ribbon. Think of dismounting as an effective training aid.
Sometimes in competitions, you’ll see a wonderful rider finish, jump down, and walk their horse out. I always think that’s what makes them a great rider; the ability to say thank you in another language.
Quitting on a high note leaves your partner positive and wanting more. Let that be enough. Don’t linger–get off and say thank you. Then maybe he’ll volunteer to noodle with you at the mounting block.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
More warm-up info (here.)
I wrote this review by request–for HorseJunkiesUnited, a site that posts my blog, and the Producer of this audio book said thank you with a discount for my readers. (See bottom.) Beyond that, I was not paid, and this is the only time I will endorse a product. I get asked often, but I don’t accept sponsorships on my blog, because loving horses is free. I agreed to this book review because I yell these quotes at the top on my lungs in riding lessons, and they just sound so much better here. Thanks.
Maestro Nuno Oliverira spent his life in the study of classical dressage, which he defines as a conversation with a horse on a higher level, one of courtesy and finesse. Times change but classical principles remain: The horse should be a partner and not a slave. The goal of Equestrian Art is the perfect understanding with our horses, which requires freedom of mental and physical contraction.
The joy of the horse is the ultimate goal and the Maestro talks often of love where horses are concerned: he explains how to show love from the saddle, riding in classical terms of kindness and compassion.
In our world today, we see two approaches to training horses and they can easily be traced back through history. In societies that valued culture, like the Greeks, horses were seen as sensitive creatures to partner with and in cultures that were more interested in war and domination, like the Romans, horses were used as tools. Oliveira writes eloquently describing the virtues of gentle work in chapters that cover all aspects of training, start to finish. The final chapter is entitled “Brilliance,” and it’s an anthem to work done well.
I confess, I have been familiar with Oliveira and this book for over two decades. There is no one who explains horsemanship more clearly or who I quote more often in training. This book is a treasure of information that the serious rider will refer to again and again.
“Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly,” is the Maestro’s most common reminder.
The teaching is not new, but the format–an audiobook–is new. Technology has brought the opportunity to have the Maestro in your ear. The reader’s voice is calm and meditative, reading with clarity, making the text very understandable. Most of the chapters are short, around four minutes, making it an easy aid to listen to in available spurts. It’s truly classical information, delivered in a form that is a contemporary, real-time aid.
The process of learning to ride effectively and kindly is complicated. It takes time and study to comprehend and becomes most complete when all of our senses have a chance to take it in. Meaning we need to see it, think it, feel it, hear it–to assimilate it fully. An audiobook is a valuable technique to experience the information, quietly in your ear while driving to the barn, or as you are warming up your horse. It offers the classic method both personal and assessable.
The confidence and respect that Oliveira had for horses, and working with them, settles into the listener slowly, without arrogance but with humility. It gives the student a template to begin work, or if this peaceful approach to training is your current method, it will renew your pride in doing correct work, for the love and respect of your horse.
But more than that, listened to in the whole, this audiobook affirms why a philosophy of kindness in training make the horse/rider bond stronger. It explains the reason harshness fails a horse, and how methods using love and respect will always lift a horse and rider above the mundane to a place of art without mental or physical contraction. Another term for that is Oneness.
“Riding is a school of humility and selflessness, its practice if it is done well, tends to make better Human Beings” Nuno Oliveira
Reflections on Equestrian Art by Nuno Olivera, Audiobook available to download or stream at Gold Leaf Farm’s Classical Horse Books (http://www.audiohorsebooks.com/) Originally published in 1964, with translation and reprints in following years, voice work by Sara Morsey.
Watch a video of Oliveira riding (Here) and see the very definition of less is more, a perfect pairing with this book.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
AND this isn’t my first blog about Nuno Oliverira -Read here.
PS! Gold Leaf Farm has offered free shipping for my readers. Coupon code will be: InfinityShip and it will be good till April 30th.
Are you are just too fat to ride? Then go wait in your room.
Did that work? Did you actually go? Of course not. Can we stop this now?
I have a video a friend shot of my horse and I competing many years ago. Showing was challenging in the beginning but we progressed. This was a second or third level test, and things were really coming together.
I remember this video especially because my friend was reluctant to give my camera back to me and the reason became obvious. As my horse and I started the test, the first movement was an extended trot on the diagonal, and that was when I heard them. There were two unfamiliar voices recorded; they must have been standing next to the camera. The first voice mentions how bad she thinks I look in my show coat. The second voice agrees that we’re unattractive–and that riders my size always look dumpy on a horse.
Next I hear my friend clear her throat loudly, twice, and then a small gasp. There was conspicuous silence for the rest of the test.
International competition is one thing, and amateurs showing at the local fairgrounds is another. For the record, I wasn’t wild about my coat either but if you manage to get your horse past second level, you really have to focus on more than fashion. Too many times, women are their own worst enemies on the subject of self-image. We let extra weight betray us, or give us the right to betray other women. It’s a cheap shot. Judge the ride, judge our understanding of dressage principles, but can we air-brush out superficial rail-birds?
Educated opinion advises that a rider and tack be about 20% of the horse’s weight, give or take. This arbitrary number doesn’t consider the horse’s age or conformation, the type of riding being done, or the rider’s balance and skill in the saddle.
Don’t misunderstand. Nothing makes me crazier than seeing a grown man on a small pony or a rider so out of balance that the horse’s stride is tense and uneven. At the same time, I’ve seen plenty of horses struggle with light riders as well. A horse/rider partnership is a bit more complicated than a math equation.
Serious obesity is a concern, but if you are killing yourself over 20 pounds, lighten up. I’m going to make an assumption now, since I’ve never in my life met a woman so pleased with her body that she was physically confident, and give some tips for over-weight riders. Yes, I would know.
First, feed your horse as you tack him up. Horses are grazers and create about 2 liters of stomach acid an hour, so he’ll do better if he has something in his stomach. And watch your own blood sugar and keep hydrated. If you’ve been on your horse for more than 90 minutes, give him a break to eat. Riding a horse all day long is cruel, no matter what you weigh.
If you want to look better in the saddle, put a helmet on. Then work on your riding position. Let your body move with the horse, don’t brace your legs, let your elbows breathe. Remember, horses have a stronger opinion about bad hands than any other body part.
Riding well is about transitions. Be gentle; ride rhythmic and smooth gait changes. Be soft in the seat of your saddle, go slow and be polite.
Asking your horse to hold your weight at the halt, like gossiping cowboys with their legs hooked over their saddle-horns, is much harder for a horse than moving with weight on his back. When you’re not riding, kindly get off his back.
Think about positive energy. Horses are good therapists, but leave your mental baggage it at the mounting block. It’s heavier for a horse to carry your depression and anxiety than a few extra pounds.
If you have no confidence, pretend you do. Fake it–breathe deep, ignore the outside noise, and know in your heart that you’re right where you belong. Then let your horse carry you like family.
This is my secret game…Brag about your weight now and then, followed by a big fat smile. It’s a stress-reliever for everyone. A woman who brags about her weight is someone who’s unpredictable and probably crazy. Oddly, it cheers people up.
Most certainly be concerned about your health–your horse depends on you outliving him. Eat healthy food, do your own barn chores, and inhale horse mane regularly. Get a good athletic bra, a saddle that fits, and reward your horse, all the time, for the tiniest things. Then let the kindness you show your horse, rub off on yourself as well.
Most of all, stop holding your breath. It makes you stiff and that anxiety is unattractive–to your horse. Pouch out your belly some, give your hips a wiggle and laugh out loud. Your horse will thank you. Maybe it’s just your attitude that needs to lose some weight?
In case I’m not being obvious, these tips for overweight riders are also my tips for timid riders, or novice riders, or intermediate riders looking to improve their skills. Put your horse first. In the end, it’s always about your horsemanship.
When people will judge you, it says much more about them than it does you. Horses will judge you as well, but they don’t care about your appearance, only that you actually appear, hopefully with a curry and a soft eye. You can trust horses, they will always judge character above the size of your breeches.
So set that weight free. It will never be the most important thing to your horse. Or people with any horse sense.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
Please consider following my author blog at www.annablake.com for news of my upcoming book. Thanks for your support.
My muck cart is blue, with perfect balance and foam-filled wheels, and I prefer wooden handles on my muck forks. I wrote about my love of mucking in my blog last friday, but I didn’t mention that my favorite part is the wall around my muck cart.
I know mucking isn’t for everyone, and I’m sad about that.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
We have a shade tree next to the barn runs that gives the sweetest summer shade, but reeks havoc on winter footing. Colorado temps frequently take 40 degree mood swings in a few hours. Fresh muck can land in wet spring snow, and in a brief moment, freeze so solid that a pick ax is useless. But an hour later, the muck has dissolved, indistinguishable from the mud underneath. Shovel that mess out and you end up trenching small puddles into bigger puddles that will re-freeze into a skating rink in each run.
It makes the walk to turn-out a cautious process each morning. An ice fall hurts more than an unplanned dismount at my age, and the younger horses are just as nervous. The Grandfather Horse is the most worried, so as he takes one slow skate of a step at a time. I’m his care-giver; it’s my pleasure to go his speed.
There’s plenty of time to wax nostalgic as we dodder our way to turnout. Back when he was a hot-rod 4-year-old, just at this time in the spring, we found him in his turnout pen barely able to stand. His hind-half had lost all coordination, he could barely balance upright. We got him to stagger inside and called the emergency vet. Naturally, I feared a damaged spine or something neurological. The vet’s best guess was that my horse had taken a fall, done the splits behind, and somehow torn his inner thigh muscles. He came away with Bute, 6 weeks of stall rest, and I was ecstatic.
I drove out every day and massaged mineral ice on his torn muscles, resting my cheek on his rump next to his tail and watching his eyes go soft, as I braved rude jokes from my barn friends. Embarrassment is part of the care-giver gig. It’s for better or worse, and if you do your utmost and are lucky, you get keep your job as they become old and frail.
And in some crazy way, more years of mucking feels like a reward to most of us. We don’t understand how others can look out the window and feel nothing as winds chill arthritic bones: horses with no shelter or dogs that live on chains.
The upside of spring mucking is that it’s also itch season in the barn. So a curry stays in the muck cart and there are some sweet shedding moments with the herd, even if makes the job take twice as long. These slow, hairy hours are the very best. Sometimes I hire-out my mucking but in the end, I always miss it too much.
It isn’t that care-givers love manure, but it’s part of the package. Horses understand the law of reciprocity as well as we do, and we strive for integrity with each other. We can’t control the world, but we have a say in our herd.
It isn’t truly giving if you keep score, so I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve bandaged their injuries or worn out muck forks poking at manure-cicles or felt such magic dancing beneath my saddle that, when my eyes close, I notice I’m filled with light. I believe that these acts are all interchangeable, and I get back so much more than I give.
Sometimes when new people come visit here, the first comment is how much work it must be. I appreciate their honesty. I’m not nuts, I don’t just love frolicking on frozen toes in ground blizzards but I notice that the less I can tell the difference between work and play, the stronger I am. Through good days and bad days, there’s an overall tendency of sweetness. It’s just the simple truth that we all share a very small life here and try to do our best for each other.
There is an art to being a care-giver. Not everyone has the patience for it. You have to want to be there fully, grateful for every stride, rewarding every pause for confidence, holding faith in every conscious choice made together.
In other words, the care used on the ground with an elder walking on ice, is the exact same care we use in the saddle, with our hands on the reins–every day that we are blessed with these precious, sentient creatures. Amazed at our luck, we take special care, mold it with good intention, and give it back in the purest form we can.
Mother Teresa’s words are true: “I cannot do great things. But I can do small things with great love.”
So, for as long as there is something that needs mucking, we’ll keep hold of our forks.
Because the world is filled with spite and ego and indifference. People do unconscionable things, leaving others to pay for their shortcomings. But we still have a voice. Even if we are no more than the sum of our intent, each time a whiskery muzzle searches for a hand, it’s undeniable that for that life, a small act changed the whole world.
For my Starfish friends–
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.