Who’s Your Dressage Coach? Or, er, What’s Your Name?

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Probably, she did not intend to sound snooty. But her initial greeting came across that way. I wondered if it was a strategy of one-upmanship. “Who do you train with?” she blurted as I prepared to reach for a handshake and introduce myself to this new face. She hadn’t gotten my name yet, but she wanted to know first what large named coach I aligned under.

It was not the first time I encountered this kind of interrogation replacing polite introductions among dressage students. I’ll confess it makes me chuckle every time, which I’ll get to in a second, while recognizing it as a means of establishing your validity. “Who do you train with?” translated, more or less, to “how legit are you?” It was a way to show your plumage without outright posturing. And yet, as straightforward as the reply should have been, I struggled to answer it.

The problem, of course,— and the reason I was trying not to chuckle this time—was that this kind of prodding relied on what I call the Rub-Off Principle. This is the idea that, by proximity to a top tier expert, one’s skills automatically gain ground. Some of the expert’s greatness rubs off on you. As both an instructor and a chronic student myself, I can promise that the Rub-Off Principle is a dodgy one to trust. Great riders and trainers don’t just possess skills we might hope to replicate; they have reached their success through innate talents, genetic strengths, and in some cases luck.

While we can admire and respect them, we should be careful not to see ourselves differently through them. Trust me, no amount of coaching from Michael Phelps would make a swimmer out of me. Regardless of the focus and trust and admiration I brought to my training, I could in no way hope that any of his greatness would rub off.

The gal whose hand I was trying to shake began listing her current trainer’s achievements, since I had balked at offering my current trainer’s accomplishments. I have had the privilege to study with exceptional trainers with lifetimes more knowledge than I could hope to acquire. Naming them to this stranger, though, felt presumptuous to the point of disrespectful. Listing their names and accolades felt like I was assuming a sliver of their greatness myself. In reality, I’m still working to hone and refine what they each have tried to teach me.

Certainly, traits have rubbed off during my close studies. But, as yet, none of these include my coaches’ exquisite individual dressage talents. In fact, the Rub-Off Principle seems to favor passing on an odd batch of quirks that do not lead to results in the saddle. So far by hanging around with my coaches, I have picked up a fierce coffee addiction, a fondness for art galleries and country music, a tolerance of bad jokes. I have adopted the use of analogies to explain concepts in the storytelling ways of Manolo Mendez, nurtured a child-like pride for my own horse like Georges Malleroni possessed. And just like my mom, I never tire of reading dressage theory books.

Do any of these add credibility or stature as a rider or trainer? Not really, though I could argue that the coffee keeps me perky. I never did get around to shaking that dressage student’s hand and making a normal introduction. She walked off to someone else at the gathering before we got that far, probably bored with my polite smile. Maybe she was hoping we could engage a volley of credibility points while posturing for each other. I wondered how far the Rub-Off Principle might extend. Was it possible that some of my politeness might have just dusted off on her? That was something about which I could spread my tail feathers in a big, proud plume.

Here we Grow Again

It never gets old. Maybe it owes to some obsessive wiring I have, but I could find satisfaction schooling shoulder-in every day. The finesse and precision and challenge of it never tire me. Fortunately for my horses, though, I’m prudent not to indulge that satiating sameness day after day. I’ve come to accept this as a crucial element in responsible stewardship of horses.

So much of the time without realizing it, we humans repeat exercises and training concepts more for our own sake. But we convince ourselves we’re doing it for our horses. For instance, I had a student who swore her Quarter Horse gelding was afraid of tarps. She believed the sight and sound of the plastic startled him. So she set about walking over, around, and near tarps on a weekly basis, long past the point her horse had grown so bored with them that he shuffled over them half asleep. My student still insisted on the consistent tarp practice, failing to recognize that it was for her own sake, and a phobia she had developed, not for her horse.

Another student committed to refining her groundwork with her horse well past it being already very solid. Almost daily, she put her horse on a 12-foot line and trotted her around in circles ad nauseam, changed directions, made more small circles. After six months, the horse could have done it in her sleep. The mare was uninterested, un-challenged. Some days she acted out; other days she offered hardly any effort. I encouraged my student to see that it was time to leave behind this foundational phase of training and move on. Otherwise, negative outcomes can result from horses performing by rote. The clever ones can begin entertaining themselves with games that turn in to behavioral problems; the quieter ones can become duller, detached.

I make this point not to poke criticism. I, too, catch myself wanting to practice the same exercise or routine with militant regularity until I catch that I’m doing it for myself and not for my horse. This brings up an open-ended philosophical conversation about training horses. Mainly, do we have a responsibility to continually engage our horses and leave behind exercises that have grown comfortable like a pair of bed slippers? Or is it okay to focus on the same things again and again?

It might be that there is no overarching imperative to this question. Where a person stands on this might be entirely individual. But what matters is that we DO stand on it. To be a clear and responsible leader for your horse, you need to have a plan. That plan needs to take an honest look at your approach to your riding and training. Do you tend to focus on things that you need or desire or have made habit? Or are you always assessing and adjusting the arc of your horse’s development?

In my own personal approach, I say, yes, responsible stewardship involves helping our horses to the next step and the next and beyond, improving them in every physical and emotional way we can. This means, as difficult as it can be, leaving behind each training stage as you out-grow it. On this point, I want to cite the succinct advice of jumping trainer and Olympian Peter Leone. He summed up what I view as an ideal approach to owning, training and enjoying horses. In his book Show Jumping Clinic he writes:

“ It is our job to establish a routine and at the same time make the daily ride interesting to our horses. Always try to reinforce with routine and stimulate with the unexpected. Each ride should combine a mixture of expected daily exercises with unexpected questions.”

When I first read this a few years ago, I felt a clear commitment rooting in me, one that requires daily focus. By sticking to this philosophy, we avoid the behavioral challenges and performance plateaus that result from boredom, disinterest, or dullness. While I still enjoy schooling shoulder-in whenever the horse might need it, I avoid schooling repetitively or comfortably past any point of value. I encourage you to reflect on this in your own riding life.
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The Perfect Horse

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What is the perfect horse? We trainers should have the experience to define one, to measure challenges versus desirables. After years of hands-on work and education, envy over other trainers’ successes, and hours flipping through trade journals or watching YouTube videos, we can pick the perfect horse from a crowd. Or can we?

A few years ago, a friend of mine bought a promising weanling that we hoped would become my horse for the future, a prospect with gobs more talent than some of my clients’ horses I’d been wrangling the past several years. “Paris” had the pedigree for dressage excellence, and a trainable temperament to make good on all that promise. During her first two years, sport horse judges confirmed our dreamy impression that Paris was exactly the horse I wanted and needed– capable of high performance, beautiful, athletic, and sane.

Finally, I could lay to rest the what-of and if-only thoughts that had nagged me professionally, in which I fantasized about the trainer I could become with the right horse. Really great rider-horse combinations need talent on both sides. For years as a professional, I gave so much sweat and effort and reputation to horses that were difficult, un-sound, or just plain untalented. At the end of every day, I always felt like the other side of the rider-horse combination was a dead-end.

Now, with Paris, I began to imagine myself alongside other trainers in glossy magazine photos atop enviable mounts. Here was a horse I could pour my skills in to and watch them take shape, bloom. I watched her as a two-year old float across the ground on the end of my longe line and began mapping out our future show career with a tingle of excitement. Her long agile legs, three of them splashed with high stockings, swung effortlessly each stride. Her natural rhythm propelled her around the arena with strides of perfectly suspended arcs. I began indulging daydreams about future schooling sessions that included canter pirouettes and tempi changes.

Paris spent the winter before turning three at home growing up more before I planned to break her to ride. In the spring, my friend called to say something was wrong with the young mare, but she couldn’t quite explain it. Overnight, our young superstar had developed an erratic goose-stepping movement in her left hind that sometimes froze the leg in a lifted position. After a full year she had not matured out of it as the vets hoped she might. The left hind still snapped and jerked and swung sideways every step. Eventually diagnosed as the generic neurological condition of stringhalt, vets suggested surgery while adding that it most often minimally corrected the problem.

Since the vets agreed she was not lame nor in any kind of pain, we opted to skip surgery and break her to ride anyway even though her dressage career looked hopeless. Except for her snapping left hind leg, Paris proved straightforward and easy to train. She took to riding with ease, progressed quickly through her fundamentals and introduction to trail rides. She was the kind of horse that gave me energy as a trainer—the sort that never feels like a job– rather than draining me. I looked forward to working with her every day.

As I write this, I reflect on a student I met in a clinic recently. She started by telling me how much she enjoyed her brown gelding, but then began listing, almost apologetically, his shortcomings. He could be pretty stiff on the left lead; he was clumsy over cavalletti, sometimes he twisted his poll to resist the contact. I could tell these things frustrated her, but I could also see in her eyes the gleam of pure affection for this horse. In light of how solid their bond appeared, I thought her complaints were trivial. I urged her to not think of them as failures or shortcomings of a less-than-perfect horse. Trust me, I said, every horse has something that needs work. There always exists something to fix: a trailering aversion, fear of trail-riding, a bone-rattling canter, a soundness issue.

There are perfect horses, yes. But there are not flawless ones.

It would be false or me to pretend that there have not been times when I wished Paris were less complex physically, or fantasized what I might have accomplished by now if we did not have to contend with a neurological condition. Sometimes that old familiar sliver of self-pity pokes me, imagining that other trainers have all the un-complicated horses. But then just as quickly it fades. My thinking clears up.

Were I the type of rider to fixate on dressage levels and awards and notoriety, then, yes, Paris’ career took a disappointing turn a few years ago. But I’m not that kind of rider, which my wise friend knew when she bought Paris as a weanling with me in mind to be her rider. She bought exactly the horse that suited me: beautiful and curious, kind and sane, willing and athletic. She bought me the kind of horse I could create and show harmonious, classically correct dressage movements on, as well as fly down the trail and ford creeks. Paris is still that horse, random stringhalt moments be damned. She was, still is, and will continue to be the perfect horse for me.

Age and experience do not bring more preferences to be added to the description of a perfect horse. They land you at the acceptance that a perfect horse, as with any partnership, is one that is not only enjoyable but that leads you to a better version of all your capacities as a trainer. So. What is the perfect horse? It’s the one that suites you, individually.

Have Horse, Will Travel

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Corazon spent the majority of yesterday morning tied to the fence, which for reasons I’ll explain more in a moment has become a daily routine. One hind leg cocked in a resting position, he stands dozing in the sun while our daily activities unfold around him. Except for some interest in commotion around the grain room, he stands slack-lipped and content.

There is a point to all this standing around. He does not know it yet, but his near future includes a couple of overnights of being tethered to a fence, a tree branch, a tie post. In the last several days as the bright orange poppies have erupted from the rich spring soil, I’ve had horse camping on the brain. Acacia blooms have filled the air with syrupy sweet smells, frogs croak from streams throughout the early evenings, pollen floats across water troughs. In no time it will be full-on summer, and this has me excited about horse camping, which has become quite unexpectedly one of the great pleasures of the season for this stiff-lipped Dressage Queen.

Until a few years ago, I kept my camping adventures and my horse activities separate. Born and raised on the northeast horse show circuit, where the concept of overnighting with horses included barns and hotels, I imagined sleeping on the ground next to one’s horse as something that only happened in Western movies.

When I got involved with Ride and Tie racing about six years ago, I got a simultaneous introduction to camping out with horses due to the remote location of these events. The first time we arrived at a race, I looked around a giant meadow with dozens of horses tied to trailers and realized that they were going to stand there all night. There was no barn, no hotel rooms for us humans. We would not be mounding fresh shavings around our horse’s legs and then driving to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Instead, a few short hours later, I was eating a sandwich from my lap under a sepia sky as our horse swished his tail at flies. I sipped wine from a plastic cup, leaned back in my canvas chair, and absorbed the fact that we were not at all part of a Western movie.

Later, I rolled out my sleeping bag on the lumpy ground next to our steed with a restless anxiety that he might disappear by morning. What if he got bored, impatient, spooked? Would he break his rope and run off? And, if he did, what the heck would I do in my pajamas in the pitch dark in the middle of nowhere?

I slept only a few winks here and there and then woke up for good before sunrise with a stiff spine. Our horse still stood tied to the trailer looking rather at ease. I watched his silhouette through the darkness, listened to his breathing against the backdrop of camp sounds: enamel pots being readied for coffee, a horse behind us pulling hay from his net, the dry rustle of someone walking through the field towards the porta-potty.

Something inside me loosened. Maybe it was the clench of worry, the acceptance that this whole scene—dozens of horses standing tied to trailers or trees all night—was actually quite natural. Horsemen and horsewomen had been camping this way for a long, long time, I reminded myself. Right then I began to fall in love with it.

Despite its lack of hotel room comforts, horse camping at our Ride and Tie races has become one of the anticipated treats of each summer. I have come to love the fresh scent of wild sage in the cool mornings before a hot day on the trail, yipping coyotes in the middle of the night that sound close enough to touch. I’ve learned to savor waking before sun-up to walk our horse around camp and stretch his legs while the dog trots beside us silently, have become entranced reading by headlamps at night while listening to horses outside our tent slurping water from buckets or readjusting their positions at the trailer. I have sunk down in our camp chairs pleasantly tired at the end of a long day and watched a hawk looping across the clear blue sky, while a cluster of fellow riders huddled under the shade of an oak tree, and camp filled up with the smells of barbeque.

These times have held an old world magic that I can’t quite put my finger on. But I know Corazon, with his adventurous spirit, will enjoy it. This summer, if all goes well, we’re planning to ride and camp a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail. To me, this feels about as natural, and at the same time highly skilled, that horsemanship can be.