Pretty is as Pretty Does


My father was fond of reminding buyers during their horse hunt that they would not ever ride the horse’s head. In other words, don’t get derailed by good—or bad—looks when shopping for a steed. At the end of a day, it did not matter how pretty your horse was. It mattered a whole lot more that he had straight legs and sturdy feet, a good temperament, some athleticism.

Pretty is as pretty does, dad would say, scoffing when one of our clients passed on buying a proven riding horse in favor of a prettier one with zero training. Of course on some level we agreed with him. At the same time, though, I wondered if our penchant for attractiveness came hard-wired, making it impossible to over-rule. My own diary entry at nine years old sure seemed to posit this possibility. One day in November it read: Sheba bucked me off today. I was dragged. I love her.

To clarify, I did not love Sheba for the adrenalin overload of getting dragged. I actually despised the bucking and dragging, along with the pony’s other unruly antics. In spite of the fear and bruises Sheba doled, I held her in an affection that bordered on reverence. Why? A glossy black little mare with a wide white blaze and thick tail, Sheba was stunning. From every angle, Sheba turned heads. Her beauty exceeded every measurement. Her temperament measured significantly less, and her trainability even lower. But no matter how many times she frustrated or dumped me, I adored her.

My parents never talked me in to replacing her until I grew too tall to ride her anymore. Then I had to grapple with that hard-wired preference for good looks over the next several years I owned a series of horses with plenty of work ethic and soundness but decidedly no frills in appearance. Sometimes I looked at these plain brown horses and wished for at least a minimum feature to improve their attractiveness—a crisp stocking or bold star, a flaxen mane, anything to make them less plain brown.

What I failed to realize then, but later learned from the teacher Manolo Mendez, was that beauty could be made. It could come through their training. While it sounded initially like an ambitious ideal (who ever heard of good 20-meter circles transforming ugly ducklings to swans?), his commitment proved true. No longer did we hard-wired folks have to grapple with whether or not to buy prettiness; we could make it.

Through perseverant conditioning and care, I watched my plain brown horses bloom. Their healthy insides glowed outside, their bodies trimmed up with impressive but graceful muscling. Their necks shaped to beautiful arches and their calm but alert demeanors captured bystanders. Manolo proved correct. They really had transformed. They were the types of horses that buyers would draw to with wallets steered by prettiness. Obviously, these transformations involve a lot of sweaty hard work and consistent upkeep, but they gratify me immeasurably. In fact, I have come to love facilitating these changes more than beholding an innately attractive horse. One that is made attractive satisfies my soul more.

I still hear my father’s words from time to time when students head out horse shopping. But now I alter them slightly. Pretty is as pretty can be made.

Rave Reviews about a Jec Ballou Clinic

Classical & Western Dressage Clinic with Jec Ballou on Nov. 3 & 4, 2012

Written by Pat Eisenburg

Ten riders participated in Ashland, Oregon’s first Western Dressage clinic with Jec Ballou at the lovely Redbud Ranch Facility. Most of the participants arrived on Friday to be ready for a 9 AM start for the group clinic after a great breakfast provided by Lynn Tidd, the clinic organizer and owner of Redbud Ranch. While most were in western tack, I was one of the two riders in a dressage saddle. Jec stated at the beginning of the clinic that she would use exercises to develop adjustability in stride and tempo and achieve lift in the back and softening in the neck. It has been many years since I rode in such a large lesson group but I was very impressed with how Jec set the stage for all us to be successful and find improvement in our partnership with our horses. We started with walk trying to “catch” the rider in front of us on the long side with going as slow as possible on the short side. This exercise was also done at the trot. Jec used ground poles to lengthen and shorten the stride at the walk and to create a square that we trotted into, halted and then turned on the forehead and trot out. All riders discovered the need to plan ahead and do what we call a “half-halt” in dressage lingo. It was very apparent the exercises had the desired effect and were more beneficial than just “telling” us what to do.

Jec was adept at using words riders of all disciplines could relate to, such as “stride” and “speed” ( rather than “tempo”), or “sitting up and deeper in the saddle and bringing one’s shoulders back” to prepare for change in gait or speed. I was very impressed we never collided in our big group! After one hour as a combined group, we split into groups of five. Jec really works on each rider’s feel. Since most of us ride most of the time without any one telling us what to do, we need to develop our own feel. Ground poles were once again used in some of the exercises as we practiced feeling a steady tempo or rate over the poles at the trot and canter. I appreciated how Jec always used positive language even when a rider needed correction. For example, I was pulling my right hand in and up on the right turn and she used the words “keep you right hand lower and in the pocket next to the horse’s withers”. Another rider stated she benefited from the suggestion she imagine she is trying to bring her soles of her boots under the horse to help her lengthen her leg and open her hips. Jec would pick one or two things to work on with the participants. This made us all feel successful and encouraged in our riding. I can safely say I never heard Jec utter a negative or degrading word to anyone all weekend!

On Saturday night we had a wonderful dinner and lecture time with Jec. She provided us with some illuminating information about conditioning our horses. What stays fresh in my mind is how it takes four to six months for the horse to achieve fitness on the cellular and tendon and muscular level. If a horse is on rest or confined with no work, in 12 weeks she will not be fit and will need slow, steady work to start up again. Horses respiratory fitness can be met in one to two weeks so this is not a good measure of a horse’s fitness. The power point presentation provided some great visuals of proper and detrimental muscular development. A horse ridden improperly with the head up, back down with tight dorsal muscles will actually have permanent, skeletal changes. These photos made me even more inspired to ride and train with the horse’s well being in mind.

Also that evening we were able to look at the latest Western Dressage tests and hear about the progress being made toward wider recognition of this discipline. On Sunday we had our private sessions. Some rode western and others, myself included, were working on our “classical” dressage skills. Jec pointed out Sugar and I tended to be in “no man’s land” with our connection. She was not really lifting her back and stretching into the contact. Using some shallow, five-meter serpentines at walk and trot helped with
this. Jec also had me use straight lines in the transitions rather than depending on the circle. Even if the transitions were not “perfect”, it gave us a chance to work on being
straighter. Also during the warm-up the horse needs to have a chance to truly loosen up. The circle can always be used it things are really “falling apart”. We also worked on me being “looser” in my seat when riding the canter. Jec used the visual of letting the saddle “move” me. This has been a helpful image to use while I ride at home on my own after the clinic.

One other highlight of this clinic for me was watching Jec use the bamboo poles I brought with me. As the rider and her 9-year-old Swedish/TB mare discovered, poles establish the half-steps which are the beginning on Piaffe. I felt like cheering and applauding when under Jec’s direction this pair had four, very clear diagonal steps of the Piaffe. Jec showed how this exercise could be introduced in a calm and non-threatening way.

My hope is that Jec will be back in the Rouge Valley in 2013.