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There are so many layers to riding a horse, and one is certainly related to your emotional and spiritual well-being. When my mind is quiet enough to hear my true voice, not the inner critic or ego, but my inner wisdom, that is when I am able to truly connect to my horse.
Of all of the voices, whether internal or from those around you, clamoring for your attention, saying you can't or you won't or you shouldn't, be sure to listen to the small voice saying you can. Your energy flows where your focus goes.
Ever since I bought my Friesian gelding, Douwe, I had hopes of teaching him performance movements to use in exhibitions, such as lay down, bow, rear, and Spanish walk. After four years of persistence, and a lot of patience, he is beginning to understand what I am asking of him.
When I started teaching Douwe how to rear in December of 2012, he was confused and the normal way of asking wasn't working; he was just shutting down. I taught my Andalusian/Lipizzan gelding, Rovandio, to rear simply by lifting his head with the lead line and tapping him on the chest with my whip. I would reward him for a small lift of his shoulders and after a few days, he fully understood what was expected and enjoyed performing the rear. Douwe, on the other hand, would lean into the whip, trying to perform the Spanish walk, because that was all he knew. He is not naturally a vertical-moving horse.
Some trainers will teach a horse to rear in a stall by backing the horse into a corner until they can not go any further, and instead lift their front legs. That reminded me of equine dentist experiences and how horses will rear to avoid him when they are in the corner! I didn't want the stall to be a place of tension for Douwe so instead, I backed him into a corner of the indoor arena. I then asked for him to lift with a hand and whip motion, rewarding the slightest inclination towards lifting his head, leg, or anything vertically. It took about a week for him to think of lifting both front feet off the ground, and even then he only gave a couple of inches.
I persevered with his training and he eventually developed what I fondly call his "bunny-hop"- a tiny rear performed multiple times. Eventually, he progressed to a rear with no tack on and then I tried it under saddle. I used the same corner of the arena each time we practiced (that was his "rearing corner"), and that way he knew what to expect. I had developed a vocal cue: "Annnnddd...UP!", which worked well, only he started anticipating and would rear on the "And" instead of the "Up"! At least he was doing what I asked for.
Fast forward to 2013 in Tallahassee, FL. I wanted Douwe to lift higher in the rear but I wasn't sure how to go about it. The difficulty lay in his avoidance of transferring his weight to his hind end, and instead pushing off his front legs. He would do the same thing when schooling piaffe, and avoid tucking his pelvis under and engaging his abdominal muscles. I started to use my spur towards the girth when asking for piaffe, which better cued him to lift his back. I then started to incorporate the piaffe-in-hand with the rear-in-hand, back and forth between the two, so he would think of lifting his front feet up in the piaffe. His rear started to become more balanced because he was thinking more about engaging his hind end and wasn't pushing off his front legs.
After a week or two, we had a successful breakthrough with the rear. I was able to gently use the spurs and he lifted higher then he has ever gone before! I am so happy to see his progress and feel that his balance has greatly improved. This work is also helping his canter collection and balance for the flying changes. Everything I have taught Douwe has been a learning experience; he is unlike any other horse I have trained. He has come into my life to be my tutor and he has opened my eyes to the awareness I must have when working with any horse. You must listen to the horse completely and think creatively about how to reach each individual animal. Here is a short video clip of Douwe working in the rear. I am so excited and proud!
My friend, Lydia Rose Spencer, and I brainstormed a photo shoot in the snow for the winter of 2013. I spend my winters in Florida and was leaving the week we decided on, so I asked Jesse Schwarcz (www.jschwarczphotography.com) to come back (she had done a shoot with my Frisian gelding, Douwe, and I a few days before). Of course it was extremely WINDY and cold, but we are both tough Mainer girls, so we charged ahead into the shoot anyway! (I put hand-warmers in my gloves, fit a turtleneck under my corset, and wore my thick winter breeches under my skirt.)
We found awesome fur shawls/hoods at JCPenney, as well as jewelry.
I wore a "Snow Queen" inspired outfit: a blue and white corset with a white shirt, white fur, and blue skirt.
Lydia wore a "Red Riding Hood" inspired costume and rode her chestnut Warmblood gelding, Valimar, with a mixture of red/black/and brown costume pieces.
We started in the indoor riding arena, and Jesse used the doorway to silhouette our figures. I had Douwe rear in the doorway, though he is not strong enough yet to move very high. Douwe also performed Spanish walk going out the doorway (shown above).
We went into a big field and took trotting and cantering photos towards the photographer. That was the moment the wind picked up, and I mean PICKED UP! It was an instant ice cream headache when we were facing into the wind and it was hard to see because the snow was getting blown around. It was well worth braving the elements, as the lighting was fantastic and the wind made for some wonderful snow effects.
I received the book, 365 Days of Tao, Daily Meditations, as a gift from my mother-in-law, Bethanne Ragaglia. I thought today's meditation was appropriate for dressage riders; it talks about devotion.
"If we have devotion- total faith and commitment to our spiritual path- our determination will naturally build momentum. Fewer and fewer obstructions will come before us. Our path becomes like a crooked one made straight. No matter what tries to keep us from our purpose, we will not be deterred.
Proper devotion lies not simply in a headlong course. It also requires fortitude. Our bodies, our hearts, and our spirits must be totally concentrated upon what we want. Only by uniting all our inner elements can we have full devotion.
If we see our path clearly and our personalities are completely unified, then there is no distinction between the outer world and the inner one. Nothing is faraway anymore, nothing is not open to us. That is why it is said that the world is like a single point. So strong is devotion that there is nothing that is not part of it." ~Deng Ming-Dao
What do you think of this excerpt? Does this relate to anything in your life requiring devotion? Share with the Begin the Dance "tribe" and leave a comment below!
Balance is the #1 most important skill for a rider.
How can a rider help the horse to achieve balance if the rider themselves cannot find balance?
I see riders every day, Training Level all the way to Grand Prix, who rely on their legs to grip for balance, knee rolls to hold the thighs down, or the reins to keep from falling back in the saddle. Finding balance on an animal that is moving is not easy and can be a constant struggle. However, if the rider cannot ride without holding onto the reins for balance, it will be nearly impossible to create true self-carriage in the horse and will cause problem areas in the horse's body. If the rider cannot relax and trust their body, the horse will always hold tension in the neck and back, and will have difficulties moving freely.
I spent over a year working on my position on a lunge line. My instructor, Carolyn Rose, made me ride without stirrups at all times, to allow me to find my balance without relying on any external devices. I encourage everyone, of all ages and skill levels, to take periodic lunge line lessons. Having the horse controlled by a ground person allows the rider to focus on their body and position and to feel the horse's movements through the seat.
A great example of this method is the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. The instructors there keep the riders on the lunge line for months to help each rider develop an independent seat. Many riders associate the lunge line with "lesser" beginner riders. Considering that the totality of the sport of dressage is about balance, why would it only behoove a beginner rider to focus on this foundation? Why would it be seen as "below" the rider to learn the bio-mechanics of themselves and their partner?
The rider can also develop balance through riding the horse bareback, without the saddle. This should not be done too often, as the direct pressure to the horse's spine is not beneficial for the horse. It is informative to feel the horse's back muscles without the obstruction of the saddle, as the rider can better understand how the horse moves and how their own body affects that movement. Feeling the energy move through the horse's top-line is an incredible experience.
Here is a video of me riding Gryphon, a Friesian gelding that I had in training in Florida. In the video I demonstrate riding bareback at the walk, trot, and canter.
I had my Friesian gelding, Douwe, tested to see if he had any deficiencies or health issues using Computerized ElectroDerman screening. I have had electrodermal screening done on myself with wonderful results, learning numerous things about my adrenal glands and that I had a magnesium deficiency. I then took prescribed homeopathic remedies and supplements to help balance my body. I had Douwe's hair sample tested by Claudia Garner and his saliva tested by Cheryl Bergstrom, the same woman I was tested by. Douwe was prescribed Bach flower remedies for his past emotional issues (Rock Water, Wild Oat, and Rescue Remedy) and some tissue salts to help with his muscle endurance. Amazingly, I noticed an immediate change in his personality; he seemed happier and more lighthearted. He tends to be introverted and can be less sweet than other horses I have worked with. When I first bought him he seemed depressed and didn't want me to pet him or give him my attention. Over time, he has come out of his shell and I continue to learn new things about who he is, daily.
I highly recommend Claudia Garner's testing to anyone wishing to gain more insight into their horse's well-being
More information about ElectroDermal Screening:
"CEDS is a technique registered with the U.S. Federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as “Galvanic Skin Response”. The computer is classified as a Class II device. CEDS balances the meridians with energy or harmonic frequencies. CEDS focuses heavily on homeopathy, Herring's Law and Homotoxicology.
Meridian Stress Assessment (MSA) is used to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the horse's energetic health and balance. This process involves measuring electrical conductivity at responsive points (meridian points) on the skin.
According to European medical research, acupuncture points are related to the body's organs and organ systems. Major groups of points are connected through channels, or meridians. As a result, stress associated with the corresponding organs can be surveyed using the indicated points. If stress values are above or below equilibrium, the System's extensive computer database will allow consideration of a wide range of possibilities that might help the horse regain a healthy balance. The MSAS allows consideration of thousands of herbal, homeopathic, and nutritional products, as well as toxins, viral intrusions, bacteria, pesticides, water contaminants, heavy metals etc. Overall, an MSAS provides a completely non-invasive method for gaining valuable information about the body's vital functions."
Gryphon is a 9-year-old Friesian gelding that is trained in the walk, trot, and canter and basic leg-yielding and has been ridden a lot on trails. I rode Gryphon while he lived in Maine and my friend, Marsha Hartford-Saap, has been working with him since his new owner purchased him. Like most Friesians, he is behind the leg aid and has trouble connecting in his top-line. Marsha has improved his connection and he is able to trot forward, feeling through in his back.
Picking up the right lead in the canter. He needs a lot of help to coordinate his body for this transition.
To help him get the right lead:
1) When he tried to pick up the left lead, I made very clear half-halts with the rein and my seat to help give him a compelling reason to not take the wrong lead.
2) I used my voice to say "No," when he got the wrong lead and highly praised him when he got the correct lead.
3) After cantering on the correct lead for a few strides, I would ask him to halt, and then I fed him a treat so he would start to have positive associations with this lead.
4) I "unbalanced" him by counter-bending and thinking of physically pushing him onto the inside shoulder at the right moment.
He successfully picked up the right lead about 1/3 of the time and he started to understand the "game". I wanted him to have fun and look forward to his training sessions. I believe his difficulty lies in his having formed a bad habit and his lack of coordination. Most young horses have a difficult lead to pick up, much like people are right- or left-handed.
Today, Gryphon had plenty of energy and I hardly had to use my leg or whip aids to keep the impulsion. I asked for leg-yields from the center line to the rail, followed by shoulder-in. I asked for canter once on his good (left) lead before trying the difficult lead. On the left, he lifted beautifully from the walk and showed an improvement in his engagement and uphill jump.
- Moving to the right, he anticipated the canter transition and tried to pick up the left lead. I half-halted strongly and used my voice.
- I asked again, and again he anticipated and attempted to pick up the left lead. I repeated my actions.
- I then asked for the walk and re-grouped.
- In the walk, I counter-flexed him and shifted my weight to the outside to push the energy towards his inside shoulder.
- From there, he jumped into the correct lead and continued to get the correct lead every time afterwards. Each time I asked, I straightened him a little more, until he had the correct bend and was not "falling into" the lead, but lifting correctly into it.
Day 3 of Gryphon’s training was gloomy. He felt a bit tired from our previous rides and a little stiff in his body. We worked on basic trot and canter work. He picked up the correct lead to the right without a fuss.
- I added: half-pass in the walk to our routine, performing simple half-turns towards the rail and then asking him to step over with his haunches. Gryphon is responsive to the leg for other lateral work so he could perform legitimate half-pass steps to either direction. I also taught Connie (Gryphon's owner) the aids for the turn-on-the-haunches. The aids are almost identical to the half-pass, so this will give her a way to practice the aids to eventually ask for half-pass.
I also asked Gryphon to bow at the end and he was so good that he went down so far he got sand on his forehead!
This day was interesting. Gryphon had gone out to the pasture with my Friesian gelding, Douwe, for the day and it seemed to bring out his "alpha" attitude. During the session, Gryphon was distracted and constantly looking around. On a positive note, he was energetic! I asked for half-pass at the trot, since he had the impulsion, and he performed nice steps tracking to the right.
- I added: simple changes in the canter using a large figure-eight. This would help fine-tune his leads and make sure that he is balancing and listening to the rider’s aids. When I asked him for the left lead, he volunteered his difficult lead, and instead of transitioning to the walk I pushed him to keep cantering and then asked him for counter-canter. He held the lead beautifully with no tension or resistance.
To end the session, I asked for piaffe in-hand and it seems Gryphon will learn the piaffe fairly quickly. He had a few engaged strides and he is beginning to figure out how to connect his body. Connie is doing an awesome job riding Gryphon and is learning balancing techniques for herself and her horse that will help improve their relationship.
Today was a fun day! I did a few new things with Gryphon today- riding with my veil and riding him bareback.
I started the session with softening work, and he was feeling energetic so I had to really remind him to keep his hind end underneath him when he went forward. He is such a funny horse; now he just wants to take the right lead no matter what direction he is going and I had to work much harder to get the left lead. The clear message to not pick up the left lead and the praises and treats for getting the correct lead really changed things for Gryphon. So today I asked for more cantering on the left lead, and gave him the same rewards as the right lead, to balance him out.
- At the end of our session, I rode with my belly dance veil. I put a knot in the reins so they weren't too long and just did simple trot with transitions while I held the veil up high behind me. Gryphon did great, but the fabric spooked some of the other horses in the arena! I also rode Gryphon bareback at the trot and canter- what fun!
For a 9-year-old horse that has had chronic issues, Gryphon is doing wonderful!