I tend to think that all of us in the horse world are pretty similar even if we participate in different disciplines. Surely, we’re birds of a feather and all that, regardless of the fact I ride English but you might ride Western, right?
Well, sometimes this rosy picture of oneness crumbles apart as I realize that there are indeed vast differences that accompany individuals from other disciplines. Last week, I bumped into this realization yet again while schooling a dressage horse in our arena while a Western lesson took place. The Western rider and I stayed out of each other’s way no problem. But I couldn’t help being distracted by her trainer’s instructions for schooling her horse. To be polite, they sounded far too simple. Almost easy, in fact.
You see, in the dressage world, giving your horse a cue to do something (which happens at minimum every half-second), nearly requires a Graduate degree in Physics. For instance, a dressage trainer would tell you to make your horse canter like this:
“Half-halt-on-your-outside-rein-and-then-step lightly-into-your-inside stirrup-and-lift-your-ribcage-on-that-side-and-now-deepen-your-outside-sitting bone-and-draw-your-hips-forward-and-count 1,2,1,2-and-and give a squeeze-with-outside-leg-at-2.”
It’s no wonder dressage riders carry around the stereotype of being too serious and slightly uptight. Constantly wrestling with that much data input and output would be enough to give someone an anxiety disorder. Interestingly, though, after a while we all get used to it. Until I observed the Western lesson, that is.
The Western trainer told her student to get her horse to pick up the canter by making a kissing noise. If you’ve ever hung around Western trainers, you’ll notice quickly that they use a kissing sound for pretty much everything. Want your horse to step over a pole? Kiss to him. Want your horse to turn through a gait? Kiss. Pick up a right lead canter? Kiss. Left lead canter? Ditto.
Admittedly, when I first encountered this Kiss phenomenon a few years back, I struck an uppity high-brow dressage attitude. Where were the nuances of training and riding? I asked. How was a horse supposed to tell from one slurpy wet kiss whether he was supposed to a.)canter, b.)go backwards, or c.) get in a horse trailer? Where was the micro-managing and hair-splitting of signals that we dressage riders had perfected? Surely, no horse could rightly perform without this impressive library of cues such as when, where, and how often the rider should contract her right inner thigh. And yet there were all those Western horses doing all kinds of things with just the prompting of their riders’ lips pressed together.
I won’t hide that my uppity attitude towards this Western riding came from a big dose of envy. Yes, my belief that the myriad of dressage cues ranked superior to Western training came from the simple fact that I had tried the Kiss… and failed miserably.
Several years ago, I was helping my lovable cowboy friend Mark compete some of his horses. I was doing very well with them except for one large problem: I couldn’t make them canter. Despite my years and years of training and instruction all over the world, I could not make his horses canter even one stride. I used the most sophisticated signals that my butt and legs could muster and still nothing happened. Embarrassed, I asked Mark for help.
His horses only responded to a Kiss, he explained. A what? Were we talking about training horses here? Mark got a good chuckle that I’d not only never heard of such a thing but likely could not pull it off. A quick note: Mark’s perception of New Englanders like myself is that we are, in his words, “frosty.” That’s his polite way of saying we’re tight-lipped and rigid. I prefer to think we’re simply reserved and cautious, but Mark had his own ideas, thus dubbing me the “Ice Princess,” which I guess for a dressage trainer is pretty suitable.
After demonstrating several rounds of an appropriate Kiss, Mark told me to ride off on his handsome stallion and give it a try myself. Already deeply humbled that I, the well-heeled dressage trainer, was taking advice from someone with a Texas drawl in blue jeans, I was determined to nail this thing. I launched into a big ground-covering trot with his Arabian stallion, aimed for the corner where I wanted to canter, and then squeezed my lips together. And made a sound like spitting out a cherry pit. I tried again quickly and this time sounded like I was sucking food from my teeth. The horse kept trotting. I pursed, blew spit. We never cantered.
Mark told me if I were ever going to nail that Kiss, I’d need to be a whole lot less “frosty.” That meant, of course, I needed to act like less of a dressage rider. Like not sitting stone-faced with a broomstick stuck down my jacket. Like not trying to cue his horses with one-hundred fidgety nuances of cues at once. Just relax a little… and Kiss. And don’t Kiss with that tight-lipped uptight look on your face, he said in his slow drawl. Maybe practice at home with a mirror like a teenager, he smirked, or read some romantic novels.
Of course, I’m reticent to admit this, but I did go home and practice. And I just never got any better than that sour cherry pit noise. I never managed any well-articulated slurpy sounds that even remotely resembled what I heard in Western arenas. Damn! Maybe what I previously thought was the world’s easiest riding cue would be forever elusive to me. I, however, prefer to think that my tight-lipped failure at the Kiss simply means I belong in a dressage saddle giving mind-boggling cues to my horses. So, nowadays whenever a Western trainer asks me to ride his or her horse, I politely decline because I’m still at home practicing that Kiss with a mirror.
Who knew Feng Shui could be so unsettling?
Here I was trying to add some harmony to my living space and all I’d met so far was disruption. Could this woman really be telling me to remove the horse photos and paintings from my walls? I understood that the sheer number of them might seem excessive to some people or that the fact I had only horse images and no humans throughout my house might appear anti-social. But did this woman really expect me to take down the pictures of pretty galloping horses with manes and tails sailing in the wind? Really?
She met my resistance head-on. Had I considered the fact I might have an obsession with horses?, she asked. Well, duh, that’s the nature of being involved with them, I blushed. Being “sort of” into horses is like being “sort of pregnant.” There’s no such thing. You’re either full-on or you aren’t. The way she said obsession, though, made me feel diagnosed. Like I had a problem. Perhaps a certifiable addiction or something that could be cured if only I would allow it.
To bolster my protests about removal of my beloved horse paintings, I tried to explain the equestrian community to Ms. Feng Shui expert. I steered clear of words like fanatical, devotional, and single-focused and attempted instead to convey us equestrians as exceptionally inspired about what we love.
I mean, it was perfectly normal for me to be wearing horse motif socks and a horse-patterned sweater and be drinking tea from my Thelwel Pony mug, I explained, because every other equestrian that came to mind would be doing the same thing at this moment. We all had horse towels and doormats, horse cutlery and Christmas ornaments, horse pajamas, horse key chains. When not at the barn, we read books and magazines about horses or watch movies like Seabiscuit or Hidalgo or Disney’s Spirit. If all this were such a problem, wouldn’t there be self-help groups or special therapists for us? To date, I had yet to see any listing for groups focused on “helping individuals recovering from horse addictions.”
The Feng Shui woman, however, ignored me. She wanted to hang photos showing me with my arms around family members, not childhood ponies. She wanted to frame images of me laughing and leaning into friends, not praising a sweaty stallion at a competition. She thought my office should have more candles and fewer horse show ribbons and medals. Ditto for the bedroom.
All in the name of harmony? Granted, I may have paid this woman to come to my house and share some of her expertise about the finer nuances of prosperity, harmony, and all that other good New Age stuff. But I now found myself in the odd position of pondering whether any of it was applicable to us horse folks. She could call us whatever she wanted. But obsessed or not, we with our cluttered homes seemed to have our own brand of harmony.
For an equestrian, prosperity means finding a good bale of hay for $1 less than normal. It’s finding that perfectly colored saddle pad to match your horse, or having spare change in your pockets to buy him carrots. Harmony is the ability to sit his trot without bruising your bum. It’s the compulsive desire to fill– and I do mean fill– your house with trinkets and images that remind you of all the special horses throughout your lifetime. Harmony is hearing your horse nicker when he hears your car tires arrive at the barn. It’s the moment your trainer chooses the right words to push your skills without making you feel hopeless.
Yet, I couldn’t find references to any of this sound knowledge in the Feng Shui materials. And the more I talked to this Shui expert, the more I started to think maybe we were a little nuts, we equestrians. Yikes. I babbled on and on about everyone I knew in the industry and how their passion for these four-legged creatures just doesn’t get left at the barn. My friend Mark, who has trained horses seven days a week for over 40 years, still wants his phone to “whinny” when it rings. For his birthday, he wants to ride horses down a pretty trail (never mind that’s exactly the thing he does 365 days a year).
Another friend of mine used to run home from the barn in order to watch horse videos on-line. Sale videos, Olympics, training videos, whatever– so long as they showed horses doing exemplary things. My own mother, who has been around horses for what seems like all of eternity, still gets excited to decorate her Christmas tree with about one thousand horse ornaments. Then, she anxiously puts out her holidays horse motif chinaware, which differs only slightly from her everyday horse chinaware.
So, the more I talked to this poor Feng Shui consultant, the more I realized two things. First of all, she had never before dealt with equestrians. Secondly, she may have been right that we were a bit obsessed. But I wouldn’t admit that part out loud. In the end, we struck a deal.
I hung some red cords around the knobs of exterior doors, said a few chants, promised to keep my bathroom door shut. But, if she so much as removed a single horse photo from my wall, I would break her fingers. Understood?
It was with a large slice of humble pie this morning that I paused and looked at myself standing in the tack room. I mean, really looked at myself. Mud caked my chaps in thick furrows. Horse slobber dripped off my elbow, and several strands of grimy tail hair stuck out from my jacket zipper. I pushed my rain-sodden hair off my forehead with fingers coated in molasses and oat debris.
In moments like these, when my unsightly appearance is beyond words, I like to reflect on how far removed the realities of the horse industry are from fairy-tale images in children’s storybooks. Or Currier and Ives’ paintings. Or The Black Stallion. You get the idea. Yes, the real portrait of horsey life is so unglamorous that I sometimes feel the need to blurt this out when I first introduce myself as a horse trainer to strangers. When asked what I do for a living, I want to answer “I train horses.. but it’s not as glamorous as you might think.”
Admittedly, I am probably just trying to safeguard myself from any misinterpretations that I am a well-coiffed, clean-pressed member of the cast from National Velvet. In reality, I am just like every other trainer– covered in horse drool, reeking of hay and hooves, picking sand out of my scalp. In fact, we equestrians rarely– if ever– resemble the amusing images of us portrayed by artists and Hollywood.
This fact re-confirmed itself for me this morning when, after taking in my dismal appearance, I reflected on a sadistic and bizarre event that my father used to compete in called Sleigh Rallies. Held in sub-zero New England winters, these frosty events involve several horse- and- sleigh combinations lurching around a judge in snowy circles. The objective: whoever does not freeze to death first or flip his sleigh over into the snowbank is deemed a winner. Other ways to get a winning edge include adorning your horse in lots of jingling bells and outfitting your sleigh with lap robes resembling large animals like bear and sheep.
A regular attendant of these events to this day, my father recently sent me a Vermont calendar featuring a photograph of him competing in a Sleigh Rally. To an uneducated horse person, the picture probably looked iyllic. A dapper looking gentleman wrapped in fur and resembling a member of the Russian army promenades merrily through the snow in his horse-drawn sleigh. It’s the stuff of Christmas carols and greeting cards, after all. I, on the other hand, know the real truth. A closer inspection of the photo reveals ice hanging from my father’s beard and snow balled so thick in the soles of the horse’s feet he can barely move. I’m guessing it was no warmer than 5 degrees Fahrenheit in that photo. Not to ask the obvious, but who wants to be outside in that weather at a sporting event involving cold metal buckles, steamy perspiring beasts, and lots and lots of icy snow? Left to Currier and Ives paintings and greeting cards, a portrait of the scene would indeed seem idyllic and glamorous. In real life, it’s a whole different story.
As a kid, I was once talked into participating in one of these Sleigh Rallies. Or, more accurately, I was tossed into some one’s sleigh and told to go drive in the “Junior Driver” class for participants under 16 years old. I was 11 and had never piloted a sleigh. I was blathering in protest. Nobody seemed to care. The pony’s owner tossed me the reins, slapped him on the butt, and next thing I knew, the judge was evaluating me. Within moments, my eyelashes collected snow, blurring my vision. My nose ran and I resorted to use my coat sleeve. My butt cheeks froze to the seat and my hands formed into such rigid claws around the reins that I couldn’t have let go if I wanted to. In the end, I won the class for the simple fact that the pony went on auto-pilot and I sat in a state of frozen misery.
If Hollywood had had anything to do with that day, the pony and I would have been the centerpiece of a joyful, fashionable picture, taking part in a pastime reserved only for the very fortunate or very wealthy. More realistically, I was engaged in an event reserved for the very foolish. So it goes with horses, especially when competition is involved.
In the movies, the star always wins his race, jumps the highest, or has a miraculous recovery from a horrifying injury. His owners are always jovial, never broke, never dirty. In real life, none of this happens. Plans get derailed, there’s constantly a strange illness or injury, mares become psycho at shows. Owners get frustrated, trainers have meltdowns, and everyone is always dirty. Always dirty.
My “to do” list now includes a note to contact Hollywood about this very point. I’m going to suggest a script that more accurately portrays my life with these magnificent (and drooly) beasts. I think I’ll pick Jennifer Aniston to star as me. I can’t wait to see how alfalfa slobber looks in her hair.
Let it Rain, Let it Snow!
My student’s husband said it best when he quietly murmured “you guys are insane” before climbing back into his warm truck and pulling away from the arena. We, meanwhile, watched him drive down the road to a warm office somewhere as we stood in a combination of rain/snow, wind/hail, and frigid temperatures. I had come to this small isolated town to give a day of instruction to local dressage enthusiasts, who actually showed up with horses in frozen trailers for the occasion.
We all stood for one brief moment looking at each other, or what little we saw of each other under layers of waterproof bundling. My feet froze to the insoles of my boots. My fingers throbbed, my eyes teared. We looked at each other with the storm swirling around our ears and questioned silently if we should cancel or proceed with the day. And just as silently, it was made clear that of course we would proceed as normal. A series of invisible gestures and gumption led us through our motions as if each of us said to ourselves “we’re horse people, for God’s sake, this is what we do, now let’s get on with it.” That “what we do” part could be translated as: routinely suffer extremes of weather.
You see, my student’s husband calling us insane had some truth. Horse people do activities with or for their horses in weather miserable enough to cancel any other event. Horse people will postpone weddings, cancel reunions and graduations for torrential downpours but they will still go to a horse show, clinic, or group ride. They’d never imagine joining friends for soccer or a hike or anything else outside when the wind whistles against their doors. But a horse event? Sure. When the weather is so inclement they can barely see their hands in front of their faces, they will hesitate only a fractional second before saddling up.
This is just another illogical thing about life with horses. It’s almost as if we all solemnly assume that foul weather is part of the deal with horses, whereas elsewhere in our lives we have more sense. A lot more.
I, for one, am an avid cyclist, yet I’d never dream of pedaling down the road for a long spell in rain, hail, or mud. The notion strikes me as impossibly unbearable. Given the same rain, hail, and mud, though, you’ll likely find me out on horseback. I can’t explain it. I recall recently riding a horse for a client while big chunks of icy hail bounced off my face and collected along the horse’s crest. In the same conditions, you would never find me on my bike, out for a walk, or for that matter doing anything other than huddling under a comforter in front of the fire.
And next time a hail storm pushes through, I’ll probably once again be out on a horse. I’m a horse gal. It’s what we do.