Who Needs an Untrained Horse?

A Horse of One’s Own

BT cameraMy jokey refrain used to be that I needed my own horse as much as I needed a hole in the head. It was the clearest way I knew to express the fact that I absolutely did not need a steed to call my own. As a professional who already rides horses all day, the last thing I wanted at the end of a day was one more horse to saddle up and train. Not to mention the financial sacrifices involved with ownership. We horse trainers all seem to share a lack of cash flow; keeping expenses down is a daily necessity if we are to remain solvent in a profession we love rather than be forced to get a “real job” somewhere.

Last summer I departed from 15 years’ worth of commitment to sane logic about time and resources and physical fatigue. One weekend in July, I drove up the coast to teach a clinic. I came home the owner of an untrained five-year old Andalusian gelding named Corazon. Given that he was unbroken, scrawny, and sporting a dull summer coat, Corazon was unremarkable in every way. He was plain brown with sweet eyes and appeared to be a calm fellow. I wish I could say he stole my breath with fancy gaits or beauty, but that would be exaggeration. The fact is that the arena where I taught the clinic for two days faced his pasture. For reasons still hazy to me, I grew more curious about him the longer I watched him. I should admit that, being a lifelong fanatic for Andalusians, I harbored an undying dream to own one, but could never scrape together the means to make that reality. And yet here was one who for reasons I didn’t investigate fully was a bargain. Before further consideration returned me to smarter senses, I inked a check.

I now owned a horse of my own, an untamed one to boot. Untamed but someday fancy, I told myself. An Andalusian. Over the next few days, I surfed the combination of euphoria and buyer’s remorse that probably plagues mid-life crises victims once the new Corvette is in the garage. I alternated between beaming with pride over my soon-to-be-extraordinary new horse and wondering what the heck I had just done.

To align my conflicting emotions, I told myself that I would get Corazon broke and then sell him for a profit within six months. Yes, that would be the professional and logical thing to do. Yet, the I eternally 12-year old horse-crazy girl in me knew that this Andalusian was a dream come true. My wallet was doomed but my insides soared with excitement.

Buying Corazon was one of the least thought out decisions I have ever made. As luck would favor, it was also one of the best. Admittedly, his gaits and dressage talents are average. But his spirit, his steady mind, and the beauty that has bloomed in the past year renew my excitement for both my vocation and my own horse hobby. Until I bought my own horse, I didn’t realize how much I needed him. True, I am fatigued at the end of a sweaty bone-rattling day schooling students’ horses. I was mistaken, however, to assume that adding my own horse to the lineup would drain me more. In fact, being able to work with Corazon restores my energy, makes me smile and laugh and re-experience the raw joy of horses beyond a professional life spent analyzing them, setting goals, solving problems. With Corazon there are no timelines or paychecks or students’ wishes. There is only he and I and often a wide open field across which we do a semblance of cross-country dressage, which closely resembles my childhood riding style of wild abandon.

In one of his recent clinics, legendary horseman Buck Brannaman spoke openly about this very notion to one of his apprentice trainers. He praised the trainer’s skill with the horses under her care, but then he went on to offer some unsolicited advice over the microphone for everyone to hear. He told her to do herself the favor of getting her own horse. Without one, he said, it is nearly impossible to establish the continuity of training and relationship that fuels our passions and lends insight and commitment to future training responsibilities. Moreover, it can be difficult to achieve the refinement we trainers crave. Brannaman’s advice validated my thoughts about this over the past several months. Gone is the intent to sell Corazon for a profit even though I easily could. He has proven to be the kind of horse everyone wishes they bought. With nutrition, purpose, and daily attention Corazon has flourished to become not only physically stunning but an absolute delight in temperament. He is bold, humorous, and friendly—my dream equine partner.

A wise teacher once told me years ago not to spoil a cherished avocation by turning it into a vocation. She was a writer who found other means of paying her mortgage than by teaching writing or editing publications. A Pulitzer Prize winner, she believed that one’s beloved hobbies, when made to generate revenue, lose their luster. Our approach to them becomes clinical and detached, eventually burned out. She advised me no matter which path I chose in life to keep my means of income separate from my hobbies. If you teach something all day—writing, sports, riding—you won’t want to come home and then do it yourself, she said.

All these years later I can see her point. I would choose to amend it, though. When I am old and wise and get the opportunity to dole out advice, I will tell young horsemen and horsewomen to go find themselves a horse like Corazon. Find the means to allow your avocation to re-invigorate your vocation, I will tell them. Go out and get your cake and then eat it, too.

Western Dressage Exercise – Spiral Two Ways

If you have seen anatomical drawings of the horse’s upper neck, you have witnessed the vast number of important muscles inserted there. Most of these small muscles play significant roles during movement: stabilizing the shoulder, turning the neck, suspending the ribcage. This explains why lateral flexion creates softness throughout the horse’s whole body.

By loosening and balancing the poll, the horse is able to organize the rest of his muscular-skeletal system better. Not only does lateral poll flexion maintain critical spacing between spinal vertebrae (allowing them to rotate and flex better), it helps stretch the spidery web of tiny muscles behind the horse’s ears that otherwise become knotted and tight, leading the horse to brace his neck, jaw, back.

When most horses arrive for training they are difficult– if not impossible- -to bend easily on circles and lateral work. This is not due to them failing to understand my aids; it is from tightness and/or crookedness in their neck carriage and muscling. To resolve this physical restriction, I use the following two exercises, often alternating between each. This keeps horses responsive to my aids instead of performing with anticipation or evasiveness. With both of these exercises take your time to fully achieve lateral flexion each time through and then to ensure this degree of flexion is equal as you repeat them in each direction. Most horses have one direction where you will find the flexion trickier to establish. Continue to ask yourself, “Can I see his inside eye?” Any time the answer is no, cease the pattern briefly and re-establish lateral flexion before carrying on. Both of these patterns are best executed when followed by energetic forward riding to refresh the horse’s energy.

Spiral In to Turn on Forehand

  1. Develop working walk on a 20meter circle to the left.
  2. Begin to spiral inwards, reducing your circle size approximately three meters on each revolution of the circle.
  3. When you get down to a tiny circle and cannot shrink it any further, stop your horse’s front feet.
  4. Establish left flexion so you can clearly see the horse’s left eye.
  5. Then immediately execute a full turn on the forehand using your left leg.
  6. After a 360-degree turn, begin forward movement again and ride back out to your initial large circle.

Once polished, the two parts of this exercise should flow smoothly together so that your turn on the forehand begins fluidly as soon as you spiral in to a small circle. In the beginning it will be necessary to pause for a moment between spiraling in and doing the turn on forehand in order to organize your aids, develop lateral flexion, and so on. But after a few repetitions, they should flow together.

Spiral In, Leg-Yield Out

As I mentioned earlier, this exercise is a good one to ride after each repetition of the one above because it keeps your horse listening to and bending around your inside leg beautifully.

  1. Begin on a large circle to the right in working jog.
  2. Being sure to keep the horse’s poll flexed right, spiral your way down to a smaller circle.
  3. Aim to gradually shrink your circle until it is approximately 10-12 meters in diameter.
  4. Keep asking yourself, “Can I see his inside eye?”
  5. Ride once around this smaller circle. Maintain the energy of your jog, no slowing down!
  6. Then use your inside leg to leg-yield back out to your initial large circle. Maintain a steady rhythm in the leg-yield, no speeding up or slowing down.

It should take no longer than leg-yielding once around your circle to arrive back at the larger one that you started on. If it takes more than this, you will want to tune up your horse’s leg-yield cues.

Western Dressage Exercise – Change Through the Circle

This is a maneuver that lots of riders make to change direction, but rarely do I see it ridden correctly or balanced. When the horse changes direction by a tight turn like this, he needs a stride or two to re-organize his spine and balance on what will be a new inside hind leg. Also, his pelvis needs to get organized as well. Involved with this: lowering his new inside hip, stabilizing the outside hip, stretching across the outside quadriceps and adducting the turning leg. I don’t want you to over-think the biomechanical working of a balanced turn, though. I want to discuss how to ride this exercise well, so it helps strengthen and supple your horse. This exercise is, after all, a superb test of his suppleness.

The first step of this direction change is the horse turning his poll in the new direction. Unfortunately, many riders start by wheeling the horse’s shoulder s toward the new direction and then asking the horse to turn his neck, like an afterthought. Unless a horse positions his poll for the new direction, his only option is to lean on his inside shoulder as he tries to catch his balance. A horse can only draw his shoulder back—and therefore lighten its load—when his neck is bent in its direction. This is the piece I want you to focus on in this exercise. Rather than making a prompt but unbalanced direction change, I want to see you flexing the horse towards the new direction and then turning.

Your aids will need to be quickly administered and your horse responsive to them. Otherwise, as you will discover, this exercise gets tricky!

change-circleChange through the Circle

  1. Develop your working jog rhythm on a 20-meter circle, going left or counter clockwise.
  2. Ride at least twice around the circle to establish your rhythm and bend.
  3. Then, as your circle crosses over the center line of the arena, turn left as though you intend to ride a 10-meter circle inside the larger circle. Ride half of that 10-meter circle….
  4. And then change your horse’s bend to the right and ride half of a 10-meter circle.
  5. Now you will have arrived back out at your 20-meter circle traveling to the right, clockwise.
  6. Ask yourself how it went. Did your horse jerk his head up? Did he change speeds? Did you get a BEND on both turns or did it feel more like wheeling around on a bicycle?

You should be able to ace this exercise after a few attempts. If not, return to a walk and try it, especially if you are on a green or older stiff horse. If you are still struggling, practice some turns on the forehand to sharpen up your horse’s response to your leg aids. Then tackle the pattern again.

Western Dressage Weekly Exercise – authored by Jec Ballou | Copyright © 2013

Proper Nutrition Needed to Fuel Today’s Equestrian Competitors

When I get home from a horse show and all I want to do is eat. You see, if you’ve been to many horse shows, you quickly realize that it’s a darn good thing we don’t feed our horses what people stuff down themselves at shows. It seems proper nutrition at horse shows is not very prevalent any longer.

After all these years, I still cannot understand this irony. I mean, a show involves at least three or more days of grueling labor, sun exposure, often extreme weather, long hours, and performance. You would assume that equestrians would feed themselves in the nutritional ways of an athlete. Nah, quite the opposite.

I pondered this fact yesterday morning as I wandered the show grounds in a desperate search for something to eat that resembled nutritional food. My options included: sugary over-processed muffin from Costco being re-sold at the show’s only food vendor, the sugary complimentary glazed donuts and coffee tasting like jet fuel given out by show management, or a sugary baked good from the nearby Starbucks. So, basically, the only ‘healthy choice’ I had was in what form I wanted my sugar. I decided it was better to starve another day until I could get my hands on a piece of fruit or something without mass quantities of corn syrup.

What really amused me was that when I arrived at the show four days ago, people were carefully administering bran mashes and electrolytes to their horses, ensuring their fine steeds would drink ample water and handle the miserably hot weather in good health. Meanwhile, they themselves stuffed down glazed donuts, ice cream sandwiches and whatever else was more or less guaranteed to make them dizzy, red-faced, and worn-out in 100-degree heat. By the third day, competitors were seriously wilting… and I was dreaming about things like bananas and whole grain toast. The horses, on the other hand, fared just fine. Luckily they don’t have to suffer the offerings of horseshow food vendor.

I think somewhere around the mid-1990s, with a plethora of processed and imitation food products at their disposal, food vendors caught on to the very sage capitalistic knowledge that horse show competitors are a captive market. Usually, the nearest supermarket is a 20-minute drive from any show grounds and competitors are tight on time. So, their one option for nutrition is the show food vendor. Much like in the case of movie theater prices, this has resulted in things like $3 bottles of water and $8 hamburgers. It has also resulted in offering items that marginally resemble healthy food but cost as much as a restaurant entrée. After all, why prepare a fresh-made sandwich when a horse show competitor will shell out $7 for a corn dog nuked in the microwave for 30 seconds? Never mind that the competitor will suffer digestive duress for the remainder of the afternoon.

What is sadly missing from most shows today is a staple from my childhood spent at horse competitions all over the East Coast. The mighty fried egg sandwich; full of healthy protein, nutritional carbs and yummy goodness. Back in the day, almost every competitor downed an egg sandwich in the morning, because then they were bolstered for the day with strength and stamina. In fact, fried egg sandwiches become synonymous for me with horse shows. And I do not mean a pre-made plastic-sealed sandwich with imitation eggs and bright orange cheese. I mean the real deal. They were always fried up fresh by a slightly grumpy gentleman in a white aluminum trailer. They were served piping hot on toasted English Muffins with a slice of cheese. With one of those in your belly, you could tackle the stress of competition and inclement weather all day long and wake up bright eyed the next day.

It may not count as an actual revolution, but I’d like to start a movement that brings the fried egg sandwich back into style at horse shows. I say… out with the glazed donuts and in with the English Muffin goodness. Until my revolution takes hold, though, I’ll be here in my kitchen stuffing my face until my next horseshow.