Sandhill dressage

The Eddie

Literally at the very last minute, while our truck, hitched to the trailer, was warming up in the driveway, I decided to take Eddie hunting instead of Charlie.  Charlie felt a little funny to me yesterday, nothing I could put my finger on, and since I had the option to take Eddie, I went with it.  Eddie’s had a difficult month and I thought having some fun on a foxhunting weekend might be just what the doctor ordered.

So we loaded up and traveled the 6 hours to the sandhills of northern Nebraska for a weekend with our hunt, North Hills Hunt.  We put Eddie and Sammy,

Sammy, early morning showjumping in 2010

Jay’s ride for the weekend, in a paddock at the Rodeo Grounds in Burwell, NE, home of Iowa’s biggest rodeo.  The dazzling extravagance of pipe fences around a weedy sandlot would be home for the weekend.  They were cool with it.  They rolled in the sand and got weeds in their manes and tails, grinning and exclaiming that they were now Real Rodeo Horses.  Perfect, we’ve arrived.

Nebraska Sandhills

The sandhills of northern NE are basically an ancient desert, dunes now held in place by a sparse grass exoskeleton.  The sandhills are a fantasy land for riding horses.  Most landowners own vast stretches in the area because, with the sparse grass, that is what it takes to run cattle, the primary interest of the ranchers in the area.  If you get permission to ride the ground of 3 or 4 ranchers, you have a day’s trot to get from one end to the other.  But you won’t be able to do it, because this is the sandhills, and they aren’t just whistling dixie about that.  If you wanted to put some condition on yourself and your event horse, a week or two out here would do it.

Speck surveying the Burwell landscape in 2006

In Eddie’s work at home, we have been focusing on suppleness and elasticity, both laterally and longitudinally.  Job One, though, is longitudinal – over his topline.  His busy thoroughbred brain has him always thinking, analyzing, wondering, hoping, commenting and more.  He’s a chattering squirrel of mental activity.  He translates this wealth of drama into his body.  He stores it at the base of his neck, which he raises and tightens and then very cleverly squeezes it with the strength of a python out through his poll.  He has then become Rock Hard Monster Horsie.  Monster Horsie never uses this power for evil, but what would happen if he could use all that drama-muscle for good?

This was my experiment for the weekend then, to see if Monster Horsie energy could be harnessed for better movement or more suppleness or perhaps powering a small city.

I want to make it clear that I had a great time hunting.  I watched hound work, I rode beautiful country, I managed to be useful to the hunt a time or two when asked and I chatted with friends at appropriate moments.  But, in the same manner that a computer can run one program in the foreground and another in the background as we work, Eddie’s longitudinal suppleness was always running in the background of my mind.

As we trotted out to the fixture in the morning, I focused on elastic contact.  When he (predictably) tightened his poll, lifted his neck and dropped his back, I kept my leg on, kept the contact and waited him out until he relaxed the muscles that were causing him to go inverted.  He relaxed.  It lasted about 2 seconds.  He tightened, so I kept my leg on, let the contact passively resist until he softened, and then I immediately focused on being elastic again.  Yay, it lasted 3 seconds.  Lather, rinse, repeat for two hours.  Sometimes the softening of his topline would last for 2 minutes, sometimes it would last for 4 seconds.  It was not a linear process by any stretch of the imagination. I consciously avoided attaching any significance to the length of time he stayed loose over his topline.  Any proper step from him was welcome and any tightening was passively-resisted without assigning judgement or emotion to it.  I doubt anyone in the hunt field knew (or cared, they were hunting after all!) about the conversation Eddie and I were having.

What was happening was that he was learning to use different muscles.  Rather than pulling himself with tension from the front, he was encouraged to relax, get out of his own way, engage his hind end and push over his topline.  The terrain was helping, too.  As he was invited to change his balance while conquering hills and avoiding ruts made in the sand by the cattle, I think I heard him whisper, “Aha! I think I get it.  This kinda works better.”

He felt taller, and lighter on his feet.  In the best moments, I reveled in the power surging from his hocks across the live wire of the longissimus dorsi of his back under the saddle.  A live trampoline had been placed where once a tight hammock had been.

Sometimes a riding breakthrough occurs when I look very carefully at a problem with full attention, and work diligently to fix it.  Sometimes I have been the benefactor of some wisdom from a particularly insightful instructor, a good book or article, or thoughtful judge.  But sometimes, like finding a faint constellation in the night sky, the solution reveals itself when I don’t strive to find it, but rather use my peripheral vision, wait, and allow it to appear.

“Seems easier to push than to let go and trust, but it’s alright.”  Indigo Girls, It’s Alright.

Yeah, what she said


The stalling point


So the arena has been stalled at an unusable point for a month due to the construction crews moving to a cow/calf operation project that had to get done before calving. Um, arg.    This has effectively eliminated any chance of riding to days when the footing happens to be perfect in the pasture or on the gravel roads, which doesn’t happen with frequency in February in Iowa.  Of course, before the indoor arena project I had an outdoor arena which I could use with some regularity in winter, but the location of the indoor is where the outdoor was, so I am now effectively hamstrung for riding, until construction begins again in mid-March.

So I’ve been reading.  The latest book is “Dressage Masters, Techniques and Philosophies of Four Legendary Trainers”.  It is an interview book, simply written and it is really wonderful.  I bought it because it has my dressage hero, Klaus Balkenhol, as one of the four, but I’ve found also that the other trainers – Ernst Hoyos, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer and George Theodorescu are equally admirable.  It makes me feel good every time I realize that all good trainers sound fundamentally the same.  They all have first a love of the horse.  That seems obvious, until you meet a trainer who doesn’t love horses.   I bought this book for my Kindle for like $15 or something.


Ellen Schulten-Baumer

The quote from it that I want to share with you was spoken by Ellen Schulten-Baumer, whose father, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer, trained her.  She currently has 5 Grand Prix dressage horses in her barn that she and her dad trained from 3 year olds.  I’m just going to share this quote and get out, because I can add nothing to it.  Rock on, people.


“I learned something very important from my father.  When a horse doesn’t perform a lesson as expected, I first have to ask myself whether the horse is capable.  If the answer is yes, then I must think about how I apply my aids.  I must use them better so the horse understands exactly what I want.  This may involve riding more preparatory exercises.  If I can’t get it right fairly quickly, then I go to something else.  It is unfair and unproductive to drill a horse; this causes too much physical and mental stress.  I tell my students this also.  If they just can’t get it right, they can think about their aids overnight and try again tomorrow.  Then the horse and rider get a fresh star together.”

Perfect mirrors

The Newf, playing the role of recently awakened grizzly bear

Our Newf Peppa has to take a few pills per day.  I’ve been spooning out about a tablespoon of peanut butter, hiding the pills in it, rolling it up and giving the resulting peanut butter ball of goodness to the Newf, who eats them down like a champ.  This plan was all good until I started to get slightly annoyed with the reality of having peanut butter combined with dog goo on my fingers every day.  I love peanut butter, and without the dog goo, I would just like it off my fingers like anybody would.  But the dog goo makes it a no deal.  So I rinse it off with water, but, I’ve found I need to use very hot water, because peanut butter plus cold water simply equals stickier peanut butter.  Paper towels work too, but the process is still unsatisfying.

Peppa the Newf in delighted phase

Then one day, I took a spoon straight from the dishwasher, freshly cycled.  It was a little bit damp as I used it to scoop my peanut butter.  And voi la!  The peanut butter didn’t stick!  It was easy to make it into a little ball that the Newf ate right up and I was left with clean hands.  Amazing!  The Newf and I were delighted.  Little discoveries like this can make all the difference.

That is how it was last week.  A student was going to be a bit late for her lesson, so I decided to tack up her horse and warm him up for her.  I had about 35 minutes, so I was able to have a nice long walk warmup, and then did some brief trotting and cantering.  Charlie did very well, moving forward in a relaxed and polite manner.  I was just finishing up when my student arrived.

Charlie, Camie and The Newf observe the work on the indoor arena. Must have bought the cheap seats to be by the muck pile...

This was to be a lesson on riding out of the arena, so I mounted up on Elliot and she got on Charlie and out we went.  Now Elliot is a beautiful animal who, a little unfortunately, has about the most earthbound walk possible. He’s not about to set any land speed records.  I gave my student the mission of keeping Charlie’s ears even with Elliot’s, which I guessed would be an easy goal, with Charlie’s long tb legs and his good warmup.

But there was trouble in paradise.  She was having a devil of a time getting Charlie to swing along, as I know he is capable of doing, and as he had done just a few minutes before.  So I reminded her of all the things riding instructors say.  Make sure you are following the stretch of his neck in walk, with your hands in an elastic connection.  Keep your legs on in a rhythmic fashion to support the walk.  And she was doing these things, I could see.

Still he walked slowly along, a wobbly beast that belied the completely enjoyable horse I had just been riding.  Against my better judgement I told her to give him a good nudge, aka a kick.  We got one quick step from that, and then a return to the slogging blobfest he was doing before.  As I comparatively glided along on Elliot and watched her work so hard for the same walk on her horse, I wondered very quietly and very seriously why it was so hard to get Charlie to walk with intention.

Charlie and I hunting

I decided to intently observe what she was doing.  After a few minutes it was clear to me that it wasn’t what she was doing, it was what she wasn’t doing.  Though her hands followed, and her legs rhythmically supported, her hips and back were stiffly resisting the forward motion.  There was go in her calves and hands, and there was stop everywhere else.  I had a postulate that Charlie’s resistance wasn’t his own.  He was simply reflecting what his rider was telling him to do.

I explained this to my student and then showed her what I was doing in my hips and back and how she could do the same thing to harmonize her aids and give Charlie clear direction.  Less than a minute later, because she’s a very talented learner, Charlie was swinging along in a confident, sweeping walk.  Horses are perfect mirrors of the energy of their riders.  Riders only need to make their energy unified and clear.

It was pretty cool.  Hope it helps you.



Solstice lunar eclipse

Long-legged turtle-necked horses of the arctic

Winter is a great time for a lot of things but, quite disappointingly, naked pagan dancing is not one of them.  Cold weather and Seinfeldian shrinkage notwithstanding, tonight is the best opportunity for naked pagan dancing in winter in 372 years.  Why? Because tonight, starting at 00:33 CST a lunar eclipse will occur on a solstice.  That hasn’t happened since 1638 – pretty cool. NASA’s page about it is excellent.  My goodness, Dr. Tony Phillips is a scientist who can write concisely and understandably, and apparently he knows some good graphic artists.

So what do I plan to do with this information?  Well, I’ve been watching the visible satellite at intervals today to see if there is even a chance at a clear sky tonight. Visible satellite images are for total weather geeks, as we know that the usual satellite images that you see on television are infrared (IR) satellite images, which are really an indication of the temperature of cloud tops, which are then represented by differing shades of white.  Pooh pooh, IR is not real data.  Visible satellite imaging is ground truth.  Ok, cloud truth.  However, weather geek strategy falls to dust when the sun goes down, since visible satellite is just that, a visible picture of clouds taken from a geosynchronous satellite 36k km above the earth.  When the sun goes down, the clouds are not visible.  Wah.  But I digress.

Anyway, there appears to be a break, or at least a thinning of the clouds that may pass over our house in central Iowa just around the right time.  So, here’s my plan.  Set the alarm for 00:25, put on boots and a big coat over my jammies and go out on the deck and watch the earth’s shadow take the first small bite out of the bright white disk of the moon.  Then I’ll probably watch that for a bit.  Snap a few pictures.  Then I’ll get sleepy and go lie on the couch for a few hours.  Then the alarm goes off again at 0300, when I will get up and put on really warm clothes and take a few pictures of what should be a blood red moon.  I’ll go out and see what the horses are doing.  I love any excuse to walk out to the pasture  in the quiet of night and be with the boys.  Maybe they’ll be in the barn, where they can come and go at will.  I love that they’ll probably be awake as day, the same way they are dozey as night at 10 a.m. everyday.  Their sleep cycles aren’t like ours.  They don’t stay up 16 hours straight and sleep 8.  They like it best to stay awake 3 hours and sleep 30 minutes or something.  I once had an off track thoroughbred who laid down in his stall and fell into a deep doze between dressage and xc at his first show.  He popped awake for xc and galloped like a metronome around the course.  King of the catnap.  Crazy.

With all the puttering around tonight, maybe I’ll be a little tired tomorrow.  Maybe I’ll have to sneak off for a catnap.  I guess I’ll be sleeping like a horse.  Enjoy.