Riding the Inside of Your Horse

wm-spirit-eyeWhen I was just a dressage-princess-wannabe, before I became a full-blown Dressage Queen, I thought dressage riders all wore a kind of glazed-over look on their faces. Sure, some had furrowed brows and some looked distantly amused, but for the most part, they looked dull. They’re stuck in the arena, after all.

Other riding disciplines seemed more exciting. Eventers and jumpers cranked their heads toward the next jump. Western disciplines moved like they were looking for livestock. Endurance riders checked their watches and heart rates, on the move to the next stop. Jockeys perch like birds and looked under their arms, behind themselves, trying to stay ahead.

But dressage riders look like over-dressed Buddhas. No jumps, no cows. Dressage arenas have letters around the edge but it isn’t like they spell anything. At the upper levels, there are some pretty fancy tricks, but the majority of horses and riders never get that far. What’s the big deal?

You could name-call dressage riders the librarians of the horse world. We all look alike in our helmets. We wear dowdy, neutral clothes. We try to not intentionally scream and flap in the saddle. But librarians? Is it an insult?

Have you known any librarians? It’s a bad stereotype; like most things, the view from the inside is different. Book lovers know that the entire universe is at their finger tips. They are thinkers who value learning the hows and whys of a thing, as well as loving the telling of a good story, for the emotional terrain it covers. When I was younger, I took a crash-and-burn approach to life. I just didn’t know any better. Books led the way to awareness and choice. In other words, freedom.

By the time I found dressage, I’d already competed horses a few years. I had a gelding that people called “push-button”. It was how they excused our hard work. Dressage seemed foreboding; an institution of history and intelligence. I certainly wasn’t smart enough to belong there. But I pushed inside anyway. There was something about the way their horses danced. They had what I wanted, even if I didn’t have the words for it. In other words, a library.

Dressage might be the most misunderstood, but strangely alluring, riding discipline of all. But when I ask my riding clients what their goals are, the answer is always the same. They say they want a better relationship with their horse. Well, don’t let the shadbelly fool you. If your horse is relaxed and dancing under saddle, it’s all about the relationship.

Now back to those glazed eyes; dressage is an internal art. It isn’t intellectually elite, but it does involve mental focus. Because we don’t ride the outside of our horses; we ride the inside of them. How is that even possible? We learn to ride from within ourselves. Am I making it worse?

Think about it; if the rider is sitting still in the saddle, not kicking or pulling or even moving, and the horse is gliding through the gaits with balance and ease, how else can it we communicate but internally? It isn’t like a horse can respond to the words single tempi changes like a dog does to the word sit. And the very best part of how we ride looks as dull as a stack of books. From the start, we teach our horses to walk on a long rein, relaxed and forward. We have a cue for calm.

We rely on being physically aware of their bodies and communicating in small, nearly invisible ways. To ride inside of a horse is to feel more. It isn’t just intellectual and physical; it’s connecting with our senses, spine to spine with a horse, and experiencing being there–listening. We gain that awareness of them by quieting ourselves. Library talk, not a barroom brawl.

We use saddles that can feel more of what a horse has to say, we ride on light contact, using our reins to hear our horses more clearly. We ride in an arena that expands to the size of our knowledge, imagination, and creativity. We know that horses are sentient beings with feelings and opinions. We choose to meet them as equals, and have a dialog, calmly building trust and understanding. It’s a slow process to a relaxed hand-gallop, as free as the wind.

Sure, there are monsters intimidating horses and calling it dressage. All riding disciplines have pretenders. They take the short cut; watching violent video clips that say domination is the answer. They go to war against their horses, with ignorant fear that celebrates destruction and feeds our most base instincts. In other words, they aren’t your usual library patron.

Dressage riders are works in progress. We believe that we will be learning forever. It’s like a lifetime library card; as long as we are breathing, we’ll be striving to know more, communicate better, and most of all, be worthy of our horse’s intellect and greater trust.

It might be science fiction; a line of understanding humans could cross, to find that horses and other animals were ahead of us all along. That they’ve been nurturing us, instead of the other way around. It would be a place beyond our egos. In other words, a place of imagination–a library.

The next time you look at an empty arena, see it the way we do. It is a sacred space as infinite as a horse’s heart, with all the stories ever told about honor and courage. There are obstacles everywhere, but just like life, they’re invisible. And in a place that looks like a flat desert, there are mountains to climb. It might look like a boring textbook to the outside world, but it’s the science of movement and the inspiration for a masterpiece. It’s a library of secrets and possibility. Maybe it takes some maturity to appreciate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go there as kids.

They say it’s the foundation of all riding disciplines. The word dressage literally means training. I think it’s a magnet for true riders. In its best sense, dressage is training from the inside out–of the rider mostly.

And I wonder how many closet dressage queens are out there.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Halt, Rein-back, Cha-cha-cha.

WM LesAndante This is how it feels: It’s a trot that’s resistance free. He glides with relaxed strides. At first you think it might be slow, but no, his strides are longer. He has time to push from behind. Every vertebrae in his back is loose. His movement is fluid and soft, like riding a wave.

 His poll relaxed without fear or tension, knowing there will be no pain in his mouth. Your elbows and hands float on the reins with no pull and no slack. You can trust him to keep his head steady because he’s balanced by the forward movement; true forward relaxes the poll and his spine, all the way to a soft “S” movement to the end of his tail.

You’re sitting the trot. You’re not posting and this is no western pleasure jog. With every stride you feel his hind legs push underneath you and lift your sitbone, one and then the other. Instead of trying to drive your seat back into the saddle, you lift just enough. You ride the up-stride. Lift, lift, lift. Light, light, light. And his stride gets a bit longer because your sitbone has created a space for him to step into. His back lifts and there’s a magnetic quality between your seat and his back. This is where the conversation happens. It’s small and quiet, but his movement is so much more than that.

As you finish the long side of the arena and come through the corner of the short end, toward “C” at the centerline, you give your good horse a half-halt. It’s an inhale, your shoulders straighten a tad, with a light pulse of the thighs, you release quickly enough to feel the tiniest pause as he lifts his shoulders. He’s ready. Then one, two, three strides and your seat melts.

If following his stride with your sitbones continues the trot, then allowing your seat to soften and rest, along with a squeeze of your thighs, means he will come to a halt, right at C. Let a three or five second eternity pass. Breath in, exhale. Let your body be soft, your hands quiet. He is immobile at the halt, standing square, but you both maintain a forward attitude; the shared awareness that you are not done. Inhale and allow your calves just an inch forward with light energy, and as he takes his first stride back, release a sitbone and move with the backward stride in the same way as a walk. One two, three, four. Exactly four strides back, and a halt from a thigh pulse. Immobile.

Notice that you’ve done nothing with your hands. Continue doing that.

Especially now, do not rush your good horse. Inhale and cue his trot confidently with both calves. Go with him on the first stride, light and connected. Exist together inside every stride; feel freedom and cooperation as equals. As you approach the corner, think about your outside aids as you turn your waist. Feel the inside hand open while the outside hand and leg close on his shoulder. Feel him turn underneath you, bending softly through his body. Because it’s natural.

As you begin the long-side, let your legs stretch down and your shoulder blades come closer. Inhale, let your legs ask for longer strides as you extend your elastic elbows just an inch so he can reach forward to the bit and carry you effortlessly on, dancing cheek to cheek.

I believe the halt/rein-back movement is as beautiful as any upper level dressage movement, piaffe or canter half-pass included. Some version of this movement has existed in dressage tests, from Second Level on up, forever. One clue about its difficulty is that a gait is skipped; from rein-back to trot without walk steps. It’s deceptive in its simplicity.

The first thing I love about this movement is that it clearly reveals the quality of communication between the horse and rider. Are the steps diagonal? Is the horse’s mouth relaxed? If your horse’s head and neck can stay soft, if the rider can hold a neutral position, and if your horse can do the movements with out bracing, your partnership will shine. This movement is relentlessly honest about your riding.

The other thing I love about this movement is that a Warmblood doesn’t necessarily do it better than a backyard horse. Where a trot is a subjective thing but this is not abstract. It isn’t about gaits or breed or athleticism. Tack doesn’t matter and any rider is capable. It’s about cooperation and oneness. Much more challenging than upper level party tricks.

Ride the transitions without a horse. Imagine it in slow motion, training your brain to relax and notice details. Become so familiar with the movement that when you’re in the saddle, you can let your brain rest and focus on your seat.

The easiest way to ruin your rein-back? Use it as punishment, pulling the reins, see-sawing hands, using hyperflexion or pulling your horse behind the vertical. Shame on you.

How to train it? Like everything, start with small pieces and do them separately. Remember the top half of your leg cues half-halts, halts, and downward transitions. It might feel more like your knee than your thigh, but it definitely feels different from your lower leg, meaning calf, ankle and foot, which are used for forward cues. Learn to use upper and lower halves separately and correctly.

Start with the halt, give him time to get past not feeling the bit, metal on bone, and feel your leg instead. Even if he just slows a bit, reward approximation. Be aware of your seat in every stride. Ask for longer strides melting to stillness. He is on contact but no pulling. None.

Be clear, ask for his best effort, and reward generously. Then give a long rein and be cheerful. Don’t think too much. Instead, look for any opportunity to say good boy. When you have a soft peaceful halt with no rein, followed by an easy walk off, then begin schooling a rein-back of the same quality. Expect it to take time to become habit. Like piecing a patchwork quilt, stitch one square at a time.

In riding, don’t be fooled by smoke and lights. Anyone can intimidate a horse into speed and jerk them to a halt. If you want to know the truth, look for partnership between the movements. Because the art is always in the transition.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Enough with the Bliss-Ninny Platitudes!

WMNubeDoorYour horse is escalating. His prance is coming apart into a full-blown Flamenco dance with a furious stomp to his hind hooves. It’s audible; you’re on pavement in front of an indoor arena. His front hooves alternately pop the ground and swim in the air, as he tosses his head, jerking side to side, with his poll so tight that his mane stands straight up, then down, then up–matching his changes in altitude.

For what it’s worth, he has been at this same show the last two years running and he was perfect. So you brace. No bliss-ninny platitudes about breathing and positive reinforcement; this is a disaster.

A crowd is starting to stare in the way that people can’t take their eyes off a train wreck. Your friend, who has had horses as long as you have, says through a clenched jaw, “Can’t you do something?” It’s not like you haven’t been trying, so you pantomime offering her the lead rope. She isn’t crazy enough to take it. Your horse’s snit continues and now it’s as if you were fishing for trout and hooked a Great White.

Like all good wrecks, time slows down. You’ve seen mothers whose kids are howling and kicking out a tantrum in a grocery store aisle that have your look on their face. Then your horse lands a bit closer to you, and for an instant you get a look at his eye, or more notably, the white all around his eye. That’s when you get it–your horse is toddler-hysterical. Maybe he isn’t being disobedient, maybe he’s terrified. It’s a valuable perception but he’s flying on the end of the lead line like a kite in a ground blizzard. You’re probably really squinting by now; it’s gone on for ninety seconds.

Consider your options. You would like to whisper to him, but he’d never hear you above the roar in his ears. Should you go nuts and attack him with a whip and show him you’re alpha? Whack him in the face a few times; use that whip with the clever name. Back him up till he hits a wall and intimidate him in a quivering, terrified pile. Eventually, he shuts down in overwhelm and you win because you watch horsemanship videos. (Grocery store moms learn this fast–picking a fight with a hysterical toddler is never a good idea.)

Option two: Pretend you’ve never seen this horse before in your life. You could shrivel up from embarrassment, let go of the rope, and make a run for your truck in the lot before anyone recognizes you. After all, the horse is nuts and truth be told, you’re scared, too. Don’t try this. Some do-gooder always takes down the license plate number.

Option three: You’re a Dressage Queen. And you’ve read the fine print, past the competition rules, and you understand the actual intent and beauty of dressage; the lesson masters have taught for centuries. In dressage we believe that forward is the answer. We know that the best way to get a horse’s attention is by asking for transitions. And it’s time to help your horse.

Your horse seems unreachable. He can’t hear you breathe, yell, or anything else and is probably past any rational response. Breathe anyway. Do it for you.

He really needs a reward for something but it has to be a truthful exchange, so find a tiny thing to ask for. Here’s the tricky part–you need to distract him from his fit for an instant. There’s no telling what will work, so be cautious and creative and ad lib; you might shake the rope differently, or maybe bark a sound, or stomp your own foot, but give him a small startle so that you break the chaos of his fear and catch his eye.

That’s the instant to slack your energy and say Good Boy! You just reminded him you can help. You might need to repeat it, but go lighter and not louder. He doesn’t enjoy fear. He’s begging for solace, so give him a path to peace and reward. If you can, ask him to walk on. Whether it’s a tiny step or a huge jump, keep breathing and let him cover ground. Moving forward is where he’ll find his breath, too. (You’re staying alert, right?)

Now for the transitions-to-attention part. A transition is much more than a change of gait; it’s anything your horse isn’t doing now. If you managed to get him walking, ask for a turn, and good boy. Then a few longer steps, good boy, now shorter steps, and good boy. Keep it simple. On the ground, or under saddle, if he’s slow or doesn’t give the perfect answer, no nit-picking. If you’re looking to return to your usual sweet conversation/work with your horse, you have to accept him where he’s at. Fighting his behavior when he’s stuck doesn’t give him a way out. Less correction, more direction. You have to go into his hole with him and lead him out. That’s why they call it leadership.

Then let the transition-cycle work: Cue to connect with him, let him answer, and then reward his response. Politely ask for a bit more, reward that connection again. Perfect or not, now he starts to feel better about things and he tries a bit more. Reward his bigger effort, continue the cycle, and before you know it, it’s all hearts and flowers again.

It’s genuine horse communication when he follows your feet—the real natural horsemanship blends with the old-fashioned dressage principles. Positive training works; it’s the difference between partnership and dominance; the difference between putting the horse first or having your own tantrum.

The irritating thing about bliss-ninny platitudes that sound inane in the middle of a wreck–is that they work anyway.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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Dressage Fundamentals: One Day at a Time.

WMCleanslateClaraA few weeks ago it was cold and dark; winter is miserable horse weather. It was impossible to ride some days and the best we could do was plan our summer riding goals. Now it’s almost the middle of summer. How are those plans coming along?

Maybe every ride is perfect, and you and your horse are experiencing a sense of oneness and peace like never before. Maybe things have gotten a bit sticky, there’s disagreement, or one of you has lost confidence. A seed of resistance started to grow so passively that it is almost unnoticeable. Until now.

Either way, if you want more or different from your horse, it’s time to freshen your perspective. If you keep doing things the same way, you will get the same results, no mystery there. Go back to the basics and hear them with newborn ears.

The basics, the fundamentals of dressage, never change. They are as timeless as the dream to ride. It’s the rider that has to change and find a deeper meaning and embodiment of the fundamental principles. In order for our horses to progress, we have to grow our skills and perception.

Here is what they don’t tell you: “The basic techniques, or what they call basics, are more difficult than what comes later, this is the Trap of Dressage. Correct basics are more difficult than the piaffe and passage.Conrad Schumacher. Oh, no wonder.

So, I’m a stickler for the basics. Fundamentals are my very favorite thing. You wouldn’t think it of me; I tend to ridiculously open minded, I have a decent sense of humor for being a Dressage Queen, and dogs like me. But there you have it; I am a Dressage Fundamentalist. I am flat out giddy about the bottom step of the Dressage Training Pyramid. It’s Rhythm, the miracle cure.

The words that best define rhythm for me are relaxed and forward. It gets me out of my head and brings me back to my horse. Rhythm is how my horse finds his center again, too. It’s how every ride starts and ends, it makes us consistent and strong. Rhythm is the best tool a rider can own.

What I like most about rhythm is how much horses like it. All things good to a horse happen with a cadence, a rhythm: relaxed gaits, grazing, chewing, and the pulse of their own heart. Anything bad for a horse, starts with a break of rhythm: head tossing, stumbling, spooking, bolting.

So step one is to restore your horse’s rhythm, his relaxed forward movement. The quickest way to do that, is so do the same thing for yourself, in your over-thinking head. Let It Be. Sing it if you need to, but breathe and just go forward, training should be a jovial as a trail ride.

Some riders think a return to the basics is a stint in detention, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Riding in rhythm is a simple concept, deceptively challenging to maintain in training, and the absolute path to advanced work.

I repeat: “Correct basics are more difficult than the piaffe and passage.”

Be patient and consistent. Find your rhythm, it’s the horse version of One Day at a Time. It works on humans as well as it works on horses.  Relaxed and forward is a resistance-free place, all things are possible.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Couples Therapy or Horse Agility?

WMObstacleClaraYou both show up at the appointed hour. One of you is more enthusiastic, the other one is second guessing being there at all. Maybe you avoid each other’s gaze. The extrovert in the couple is moving around charming everyone, while the introvert tries to become invisible. Self-conscious discomfort is the mutual truth. How long till this is over?

Everyone wants a better relationship, but a few things stand in the way. After what he has done, can you trust him? Is her nagging and complaining making you wish you were deaf? Do you wish he would relax and just try to get along? Does she say one thing and mean another?

Are relationships supposed to be this hard? Do you remember what it was like when love was new? Should you break up or live on in quiet desperation? You could spend expensive hours in lavender-colored offices with a box of Kleenex on every table. You each perch on opposite ends of an expensive but unattractive sofa and recount past mistakes. It’s enough to cause an ulcer.

If working with your horse is starting to feel like detention, stop everything! It’s time to play a game.

Horse Agility is perfect. First, it’s done in hand, that means equal footing to start. One of you has a halter and lead on, but since the goal is to work off lead, no one (you know who you are) has to get their face pulled on. In this game of finesse, communication matters more than speed and there are no wrong answers.

Think of Horse Agility as a human/equine game of 20 Questions. You start with an obstacle, like a horse-sized teeter-totter or a kids wading pool. Then you start asking your horse questions. Can you touch it with your nose? Can you put a toe on it? Now the hard part, you wait for an answer, and when you get his answer, you accept it. If your horse answers with I would rather look at that sweet little mare, that’s your first obstacle.

Just like in real life, you can’t force behavior. Some folks think being adversarial is good leadership, but it soon becomes its own punishment. And demonstrating- standing in the pool and pleading- makes no sense to your horse at all. That’s when the instructor reminds you that the horse does the obstacle, you just ask the questions.

So you go back to basics. Ask a simple question politely, reward your horse for volunteering an answer. Be generous, whether he is right or wrong, so you draw him into the game and he finds the confidence to try again. It’s just as easy to train curiosity (in horses or humans) as it is resistance, but one is much easier to live with than the other.

Now get creative with the questions. If your horse already does the tarp, can he stop on it? Back over it? Put only the left rear foot on it? Because this game is not about the tarp at all, don’t let the obstacle distract you from the real goal of training problem solving and responsiveness in you and your horse.

More direction, less correction. And at the end of the day, you and your horse are friends again. Maybe you don’t need therapy after all. Maybe the cure is to find a way to say yes to each other more often.

Why is a dressage instructor like me so wild about Horse Agility? One definition of dressage is the ability to ask any part of your horse to do anything you want. It requires relaxation, communication, and resistance-free partnership; that sounds exactly like Horse Agility. The only real difference between Agility and Dressage is that the obstacles at the letters in a dressage arena are invisible. Start easy and go up the levels, in-hand or mounted, and by the end, your equine partnership transcends games or riding disciplines and becomes that soul connection we all seek.

How does the game of Horse Agility end? That’s the best part. It doesn’t…

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Sign up for HORSEPLAY ALLOWED, our Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue Benefit coming up on June 8th. And more information is on my events page.

And remember, first Saturday of the month is Horse Agility here. Come play with us.

A Very Thin Line.

WMBlueEye

A client and I went to see a horse this week. He belonged to her in the past, but I have known him through 5 owners, each time given up reluctantly. This horse is 10 years old. Our Boy is a sensitive, athletic horse, smart and honest. In other words, a wonderful horse. In other words, a horse not just anyone can ride.

He was donated to a riding program. They had lots of older horses that give kids a good safe start, but the program also had young riders wanting to compete, and in need of a different sort of horse. Enter Our Boy, elite by their standards, healthy, strong and solid in training. The program had a dressage trainer to help, and it was a perfect match.  There were grateful, happy emails exchanged, everyone cheered.  Then the young rider graduated and went to college. Our boy got left behind.

Now, there is no longer a young rider dressage program there and the economy is hitting the entire riding program extra hard. This horse, who was a wonderful asset, has somehow become a liability and he must go. He isn’t the first good worker to get laid off in a hard economy. My client has right of first refusal, so we went to see him. It was a farewell visit, the circumstances that forced my client to part with this horse still exist and she knew she couldn’t bring him home.

When we got to the barn, we met the kind rider who has been working with him. She’s new to the program. As she walks us to his pen, the rider tells us that it has been a slow process; he was very nervous, much too dangerous for other riders. What?

As we get near, Our Boy recognizes us. It’s obvious, there’s an undeniable look on his face. His eyes don’t blink, he stands stock still. And we recognize him just as clearly, but the shiny, well muscled horse we knew is skin and bones now, his back seems dropped, his hooves are horribly over grown and uneven. And yes, absolutely no doubt that he knows us.

Our Boy is nervous as the kind rider tacks him up. In the arena, he jigs a bit for her mounting, and walks off tense. After a few steps, our boy rears up. Twice. She says that it’s unusual, that he hasn’t reared in a couple of months. The rider cares and is doing her very best for him. We are shell-shocked.

We thank her and ask if we can do some ground work. My client begins their special work, his responsiveness gives them both confidence and when my client climbs on, and it isn’t immediate, but he slowly comes round and soft, just breathing. He blows cautiously. How long has he been waiting?

There is such a thin line between a wonderful, well owned and loved horse and a rescue horse. This is how it happens. A horse might misbehave, out of pain and loss, and he might get unstuck in his job. Change is hard, things fall apart. Even if people do their very best for him, it can feel like abandonment. Once he loses confidence he becomes undependable. A few months of feed costs later, there are no good answers and the bad options start to look good.

Sometimes a horse becomes a rescue because he is just a little too good for his owner. Or maybe he loses touch with his human, (5 owners in 10 years), and ceases to be who he was. Now he’s in free fall, and he knows it. In the end, good horsemanship always means not blaming the horse. Our Boy did nothing wrong. How many horses are in just this place?

How did he go from the program’s elite horse to this sad place? There were contradicting stories, defensive moments, hurt feelings, all stirred up with the passion that we all feel for horses. Does any of that actually matter? In the perfect world, things would look much rosier than this, but the perfect world is not visible from here.

My client and I left him there, and drove home in a car packed with dark emotions. We plotted the what if of our situation, of his situation. We are not naïve horse owners. Yesterday we drove back up and brought him home, it’s bittersweet.

Please don’t go all hearts and flowers on us. Long term for this horse is uncertain. This is what we know for sure: We can give him the care he needs. We can remind him who he is.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Humor Deficit Disorder: Serious Riders and Stoic Horses.

Clara and Nube

“Seriously, you are no fun at all. I hate to say it, you’re my human, but really, lighten up!”

Humor Deficit Disorder: It’s time someone brings this condition out of the closet.

Seriousness might be the biggest obstacle in getting a good ride. Ever had that feeling that the harder you try, the worse it gets? You could have Humor Deficit Disorder.

It starts in a positive place: If we did a better job of riding, our horses would be happier with improved partnership and understanding.

But Humor Deficit Disorder encourages over-thinking with an attitude of gravity, solemnity, and persistence. And it makes you a killjoy. Horses care about that; they get mad or they shut down. Some are stoic and hold it all in as long as they can, develop ulcers, and then get really mad or really shut down.

“Is my contact too long? Are my heels down? Should I half-halt now? Is this good enough? Will I ever learn this?” Too much mental activity will corrupt the physical rhythm. It’s a disconnect if a rider converses with herself instead of her horse. And then harder she thinks, the more disconnected she becomes. It’s impossible to listen to your horse if your internal chatter is deafening. Quiet that critical mind. Take a deep breath and don’t be surprised if you horse does the same.

It’s good to take your riding seriously, but can you do it with a light heart? What I notice about seriousness is that it seems to always be negative. Constant correction will kill try in a horse (also dogs, kids, and men.)

“Some people find fault like there is a reward for it.”  Zig Ziglar

Some H.D.D. riders think that schooling a horse is as monotonous as a rat running on a wheel. Well, that would not be the horse’s fault, would it? Left untreated, H.D.D. can disable a rider- resulting in rebar sit bones and vice-grip hands, with a heart to match.

Riding is not an intellectual activity. It is kinesthetic– that’s the method we must use to connect with a horse. A horse might seem psychic somehow, but he is reading our physical body. To ride well, we have to learn to communicate back the same way.

Do you have Humor Deficit Disorder? Ask your horse. Is there a cure for H.D.D.?  Yes. A smile will do the trick. A laugh is the strongest weapon a rider can have because humor has the power to transform negative to positive. Never underestimate the power of a laugh.

Want scientific proof? Research shows the act of laughing increases circulation and blood oxygenation which in turn relaxes muscles, relieves stress and stimulates endorphins producing happiness.  Humor and laughter facilitate learning. (It’s science!)

Smile, not because you are afraid your face will get stuck the other way, or because it’s pretty. Smile to give your horse a soft entrance into your mind. You can’t force him to good work, but you can invite him -and the most welcoming invitations come with a smile.

I spend a lot of the day standing on the ground watching horses and riders. The fast learners are always the ones who laugh at the mistakes and stay positive. Strangely, they seem to enjoy their horses more too.

Here are a few suggestions from horses in my extended herd about how to deal with a mounted attack of Humor Deficit Disorder.

Noah says I never ever get tired of hearing ‘Good Boy!’

Rolan says This is my favorite song. I love this music!

Seri says Dismount and reboot. If we are too sticky, I like to relax and then start again.

Andante says See me as a dynamic dressage horse, and I am.

Jet says Less is more. I really like a small cue.

Clara says I like transitions, I get bored easy because I’m so smart.

Boots says When I get it right, I like a walk on a long rein to think about it (while looking south.)

Scarlet says Please stop pulling on my mouth- I hate to fight.

Maggie says Listen to my tail, my poll, my breathing and I will tell you when you get it right.

Then Dodger says I’m giving you exactly what you are asking for. Perhaps YOU could evolve!   … And welcome to Dressage!

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

What’s More Natural Than Piaffe?

“Will you come over and ride our horse?” she asked. “We know he’s a dressage horse, we just don’t know how to cue him, but if you rode him…  He does that trot in one place thing.”

(I already knew they bought this elderly horse from their ‘trainer’, who tranquilized him for them to try out. That was when I asked them to refer to their ‘trainer’ by some other name.)

Piaffe?”  I said dubiously.

“Yes, he does it a lot,” she says enthusiastically!

“Does he do it going towards the barn?” says me, not so enthused.

“Uh-Huh!”

My inner dressage queen is pretty sure it doesn’t count if you don’t cue it. Besides, getting happy feet towards the barn doesn’t mean he’s a dressage horse, or does it? Maybe one rider’s barn sour is another rider’s piaffe.

Back in history, when horses domesticated man (read about it here), we looked at the skills horses had and tried to partner with them. They were agile and fast and strong. It seems obvious that hunting would be more successful with a horse. I think sometime around then, a horse did something like a piaffe and got rewarded for it.

When men hunted men, warhorses were trained to piaffe in battle- to keep a horse warm and moving. Not to mention the intimidation factor for enemy foot soldiers.

Centuries have passed, but piaffe has stayed. I think a few calf roping horses do a kind of western piaffe in the box, waiting to chase. Lots of horses on the race track have a prancing step to the gate. Eventers can get happy feet anticipating the launch from the start box. And even trail horses who turn toward home are known to dance that happy jig.

Some people think Dressage is unnatural work for a horse, maybe it’s the weird outfits we wear. Lateral movements, flying (tempi) changes, asking for quick response: all are as natural for a horse as a piaffe- as natural as building energy and releasing it.

In Dressage, we ask for piaffe with the stipulation that the horse be relaxed and rhythmic, in a strong and collected frame. And that other little thing: We cue it.

On a related note: My young mare is on the mend from an injury and I have bringing her back slowly, with a bit of lunging.

Clara is home bred, not the most elite mare. She’s sweetly conservative, not overtly flamboyant. And she has a confidence that doesn’t give much away. But there’s something simmering in her, just under the surface.

We went into the pasture to lunge one day this week, for the fun of it, and Boy Howdy, was it fun! She leaped and bucked and her hooves could barely reach the ground. She arched her neck and threw her tail up over her back. Her trot had exaggerated hang time.

I watched in awe, for a moment she wasn’t my mud-rolling filly. Instead, she moved with the timeless grace and strength of a warhorse, as natural as the sun and mystically ethereal as a ghost.

Then it happened: Clara’s exuberant trot, high and rhythmic, just stopped covering ground. Five or six more strides bounced effortlessly on the spot, then stillness. She looked me in the eyeball- proud of sharing her secret.

It was her piaffe- elegant and un-cued. For now.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

P.S. I don’t have a photo of Clara’s piaffe. This is her muddy broad jump. It isn’t the same thing at all.

 

Duck Dressage at Infinity Farm.

My ducks are growing up and they need a hobby. Dressage seems the obvious choice. Dressage has an elite, almost aristocratic elegance that ducks appreciate.

Duck Dressage has a lot going in its favor: no abusive shoeing practices for their webbies. No nasty rollkur, since a duck bill can’t actually get behind the vertical. Come to think of it, none of the other questionable training ‘aids’ work either. But I train old school- nothing but peas.

Earlier this summer the herd at Infinity Farm got a new flock. (Actually a group of ducks is called a brace, but I don’t like to use that term around horses.) I complimented a friend’s Cayoga ducks. They are a beautiful black, with iridescent green, purple and blue feathers- the black opals of the duck world. A while later, my friend called to let me know that my surprise(s) had arrived: a dozen 3 day old duckies!

They were tiny, and as I loaded them one by one into a cat carrier to bring them home, they scurried to huddle in a tight ball. All except for one duck who turned his little body away from the huddle and towards me. He stared right at my face and quacked fearlessly. A tirade continued, I had time to take note. I shall call him Henri, pronounced ornery. He still speaks for the group.

Later they traveled in a bucket, Henri is bottom-right. I think ducks have the same range of vision that horses have, they are just more honest about it. They turn their heads to profile and give you the one eyeball stare. Very effective.

Another of the ducklings was weak, she didn’t eat well and if she got wet, she didn’t always preen her feathers dry.  I nursed her through one especially hard night. I still know who she is too. She stands back when the peas come out, preferring to not dive into the fray. She knows I will distract the others, and toss her some all for herself. Maybe she is a bit slow, or maybe she is the smart one.

And did you know that ducks are monogamous? Like Fred and Ethel?

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BIG NEWS: An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus.

If you read the link, there are some giant words explaining that with the advent of more testing methods, scientific evidence is increasingly showing that most animals have conscious states similar to humans. It’s proof animals are sentient.

Science has proved –scientifically– something that ducks, and dogs, and horses, and even a few humans have always known. We are more alike than we are different. I wonder if the real missing link is in our communication skill. I know we can do better with horses.

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I’ve been training ducks off and on since I was 13 years old, but this is my first attempt at Dressage. Is it crazy? What would a duck dressage test be like? (Warning: obscure dressage humor.)

“A, Enter working waddle.   X, Halt and Quack.   C, Track right and HXF- Extended Waddle!!

It’s truly is a thing of beauty: good webbed break over, lots of push from behind, and a ground covering gait sure to score a 9 from the most conservative judge…”

Okay, maybe individual dressage tests would be silly.

But then it came to me: Quadrille! Ducks are better suited to quadrille! It’s a sure thing, just look at their flying Canadian cousins.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Is My Horse Suitable for Dressage?

The 2012 Summer Olympics concluded this week. Dressage got a bit more attention than usual, partly because of Great Britain’s wonderful win on home turf, and partly because of political satirist Stephen Colbert’s take on the sport. Sometimes I think dressage is as misunderstood inside the horse world, as it is by the average football fan.

Still, anyone can appreciate the beauty of a Grand Prix level horse competing in his prime: the best training on an impeccably bred Warmblood, guided by a talented rider, and brought along with all the advantages.

I notice my client’s horses don’t all look exactly like those horses. Not all of my riders are working on piaffe. (Huh?) And no one has asked me to fly along to Europe to coach them there. Is it still Dressage?

Henri L. De Bussigny was a French equitation master, living and working in US from 1872. He said, “I have, …, always been criticized for not buying good and sound animals for myself, as other masters do. But to educate such an animal teaches the rider nothing. It is too easy. The master does not prove his own ability nor the practical usefulness of his art by training horses already made nearly perfect by nature. The test of his science and his utility lies in his ability to correct the natural defects of an ordinary animal and make it useful.”

Yikes, a quote from someone even more cutting and blunt than me!

I doubt that it’s “too easy” to ride an Olympic caliber horse, but I agree with Henri in principle. The word Dressage means training, and if this method of training is all it claims to be, then the real question is how much can dressage training help midlife, off-the-track Thoroughbreds, or hot Arabians, or whatever horse you ride now.

Some Dressage trainers exclude certain breeds, or excuse horses whose talent might be less obvious, but they sell dressage short in the process- as well as the horse.

Disclaimer: If your top priority is show results, you’ll always do better with a horse bred for the event. I know some very quick ponies for example, but Thoroughbreds are the breed to bet on in a horse race.

I’ve been fortunate to be trained by such great client horses- from rescue horses to expensive performance horses, from babies to geriatrics; everyone has something to gain, and something to give.

Let’s begin by agreeing that none of us are going to be Olympic competitors with our current horses. (If that changes, so much the better. It’ll make for one of those tear-jerking human interest stories.)

Once we have relieved ourselves of Olympic performance anxiety and ego, let’s see what good we can do, horse and rider. The promise of dressage is balance, relaxation, and strength for any horse, at any age, and in any discipline. And there is so much to be gained by wanting what you can have: a great riding horse.

Sure, Dressage has endless levels, and good training takes time. Maybe your horse wasn’t born with uphill movement, and maybe you weren’t born looking good in white breeches. Get over it.

Start by setting a goal. Add the support of a trainer, if you like. With a little focus and consistent work, you might be surprised how well your good horse might do at a local dressage show.

But even if you never leave your arena, you can still have the gold medal ride- that’s the one where you say no to an invitation to the top spot on the podium, because it’s just not worth it if you have to get off your horse.

Is your horse suitable for Dressage? If he is sound enough to ride, and you can rein in your Olympic dreams, the answer is yes.

How far can you go in Dressage? I’ll leave that question up to you and your horse.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.