dressage, dressage training, natalie perry dressage, Poodles, training

Of Ponies & Puppies

Less than a week ago, we brought a new puppy into our lives and the training has begun in earnest. As I watch my dear husband puzzle through the process, it strikes me just how much we equestrians learn about training from our trainers and horses. The insights and experiences are as relevant with household pets as with our barn buddies.

Alert & energetic, it will take careful training to develop our puppy’s best self.


On day three of new puppy parenthood, we overtired our puppy, underestimating how much sleep she needs. As a result, I headed off to an evening get-together with girlfriends only to receive a string of texts from my husband indicating that our 10 pound ball of fluff was out of control: jumping, biting, and unable to calm down. Of course Whimsy fell promptly to sleep minutes before I returned home, presenting a picture of angelic sweetness.

While Al claimed to have a wild child on his hands, I came home to an angelic ball of fluff.


As Al and I sat on the couch, enjoying a moment of peace, I described to him the process we use with horses. The trainer teaches the horse to be manageable, then teaches the owner how to achieve these results themselves.
While that’s how it’s supposed to work, it’s not an easy process and tends to move forward in fits and starts since most owners lack the quick reflexes and physical skill of a professional trainer, as well as a thorough understanding of why horses respond the way they do. Looking at our sleeping puppy, it struck me how thoroughly training can improve or ruin an animal.
Having ridden horses for years and raised several puppies, much of Whimsy’s training is intuitive for me. Al, however, was a newbie —inadvertently bring out her wild side — flashing, razor-sharp puppy teeth enthusiastically applied. While I could calm her down, Al was at a loss.
“Just as my horse trainer can bring out the best in my horse, she can’t do it for me,” I said. “You have to learn the skills and practice them.”
We watched several training videos as Whimsy dozed peacefully and developed some training ideas for the following day. I left Al with the goals of bite inhibition and stopping play before it escalated, then headed to the barn for a riding lesson.
During my lesson, Natalie encouraged me to be more firm with Micah when he ignored my leg aids. As it turned out, it was just the right advice. Being tentative is one of the most damaging things you can do in your animal/human relationship. A horse or a dog will look for a leader and if you don’t insist on the leadership position, you’ll quickly lose it. After a couple of firm canter/walk transitions, Micah shaped up and gave me more prompt, correct responses.
I was fortunate that Natalie was there to strengthen my resolve. It’s hard to exude confidence when you’re not quite sure what to do. As riders, we’re lucky to have trainers to guide us, telling us when to be firm, when to give, when to repeat an exercise, and when to move on. They help us choose which battles to fight and when to wait another day. We gain confidence from our trust in them … although at times we need to fake that confidence until we have enough experience to make it real.
At home, Al is learning the skills and developing the confidence to keep our bundle of joy from turning into a tiny terror.
“Imagine what it’s like to deal with a 1,000-pound animal when you’re feeling unsure,” I said. “Now that’s scary!”
As we correct the problem of over-tiring our puppy, letting her settle into our household routine, we’re all working things out. Training is a big job, requiring thought, consistency, and diligence — the time spent is well worth it.

Note: In September we lost our 16 year old Standard Poodle, Skittles. She loved going to the barn and visiting with the other dogs up until her final month. She was truly an exceptional dog. Little Whimsy is also a Standard Poodle, and I have high hopes that she’ll one day be barn-worthy. Her joyful presence has filled a hole in our lives.

Related posts
Aimee Witherspoon, dressage, dressage competition, natalie perry dressage

A Personal Best, for Many Reasons

Micah & I after a rewarding show day. Photo by Barbara Dudley Photography


Yesterday I overcame adversity.
Today the memory dances in my head, strengthening my resolve and helping to heal my battered heart. I came home with a blue ribbon and a score that was a personal best — reaffirming that pushing on through pain is not just possible, but necessary.
I owe this win to my trainer, Natalie Perry, and my friend, Aimee Witherspoon. Both taught me much.
To say that the past few months have been challenging is an understatement. August brought bad news; September the loss of my dog; and just weeks later Aimee was thrown from a horse and died.
Aimee’s death was both terribly sad and a harsh reminder of the inherent dangers of equestrian sports. Her death rattled me emotionally and shook my confidence on my horse. I asked my trainer for help.
“I need you to help me keep my riding positive,” I said, explaining what had happened. “Please help me keep my confidence up.”
Natalie, who is always positive, was on it.
“We can do that!,” she said.
Her support meant the world to me. I made the decision to ride only with her supervision until I regained my sense of self. We had a show coming up quickly and I couldn’t afford to un-train my horse. Micah’s a great guy but, like most horses, will take charge if he senses a lack of commitment.
And so Natalie helped me keep my mind in the present moment — on my horse and the job of riding. Her comments were positive and supportive, even when I faltered.
Come the morning of the show, I knew I was better prepared than I’d ever been. And yet, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wanted to scratch out of our two classes — even hoped Micah would throw a shoe to give me an easy way out.
As my determination waivered, I knew that to quit would be an insult to Aimee. She’d be furious if I used her death as an excuse. One of the bravest riders I’ve known, Aimee loved competition.
I also felt I’d be letting Natalie down. She’d worked hard with me and was telling me “You can do this.” I needed to believe her.
And so, I tacked Micah up for our class despite my doubts, trying to maintain focus. He felt fresh, energetic, and willing to listen.
“Let’s do this,” I told him.
I even remembered to smile at our show photographer as I went by.
When my efforts were rewarded with my best-ever score, I was elated. I truly needed to be reminded that I can and should carry on, even when it hurts.
This weekend I’ll be attending Aimee’s Celebration of Life along with many of the Northwest’s finest equestrians. As we share stories, laughter, and tears, I’ll thank Aimee for helping me push on past fear and discouragement.
My sense of gratitude toward my trainer remains tightly wrapped around me. While non-horsepeople will never understand it, it’s always more than ‘just’ about the horses.

Related posts
Ode to a Fallen Friend
October 10, 2017
Aimee Witherspoon, dressage, Eventing

Ode to a Fallen Friend

Last week a friend of mine fell from her horse, suffered an irreparable injury, and died a few days later. While Aimee is beyond suffering, those of left behind are reeling, trying to make sense of the suddenness of her loss. Sorrow swirls through the season’s autumn leaves. The brilliance of their color is bittersweet.

Aimee & Alex (aka: Marshmellow). A beautiful partnership.


Aimee was an avid eventer and perhaps the most brave rider I have ever known. She knew the risks, studied the sport, and worked relentlessly to improve her riding. She loved the Northwest eventing community and took full advantage of the opportunities to train, compete, and celebrate with fellow riders.
I suspect that on that final October day she saddled up with a training goal in mind, eager to improve herself and her horse. I like to think that her final moment of consciousness was full of that joy and sense of anticipation.
Years ago, I accompanied Aimee on schooling sessions on the trails around Battleground Lake. She was developing her horse, Alex’s fitness and we’d do laps, galloping up the hills like maniacs. We scared more than one dog walker off the trail, yelling “Sorry!” as we passed. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a horse. Alex (aka: Marshmellow) was beautiful, fit, and full of himself. Aimee taught me to stand up in two-point, grab mane, and hang on.
We had a small group of friends known as ‘The Misfits’ and would kayak, hike, ride, and drink wine together as much as possible. We all knew we’d temporarily lose Aimee during the eventing season — when competing took priority. It was truly her passion.
And so, much as I miss my friend, I know she lived her life – right up to the end – pursuing what she truly loved. May we all be so fortunate.
As I saddled up this morning, I realized that I’m still riding in a dressage saddle I purchased from Aimee several years ago. As I care for it, I keep alive the memory of my friend. As I ride in it, I invite her to ride with me in spirit – perhaps infusing me with some of her courage and passion.
I’ve asked my trainer for a little extra help this week, admitting that the loss of my friend has been a blow. More than ever, I need to keep things positive with my horse and not let my confidence waiver. Aimee would want me to ride on.

Related posts
A Personal Best, for Many Reasons
October 16, 2017
dressage

Smoked Out!

In the Western United States, we’ve been hit hard this year with wildfires. In addition to checking the weather forecast each morning, we check the air quality index. Today’s air quality is Hazardous, yet again.

Micah grazes in a hazy pasture. Normally we can see the Cascade Range in the background.


Here in Bend, Oregon we’ve had a consistent streak of some of the worst air quality in the nation. It’s affected our overall lifestyle to a great extent, causing normally athletic people to spend time indoors, getting cranky.
This sort of event makes you realize just how much joy your day-to-day time at the barn brings you. I’ve used this down time to body clip my horse (evening temps in the 40’s kick-started his winter coat while daytime temps in the 90’s make that coat a hindrance), tidy up his mane, and take my boots in for a zipper repair.

This year’s wildfire season has brought hazardous air quality to much of the western U.S. My town is located under the purple (Hazardous) dot in Oregon.


As for riding, our local veterinarians are warning us that the health risks of riding are great for man and beast. For the past two weeks, I’ve cancelled and rescheduled my lessons, frustrated yet resigned that I need to do what’s best for my horse and my self. My husband will attest to the fact that nothing makes me more grumpy than cancelling a lesson.
For now, the only riding I’m doing is in my mind. I’m signing up for our region’s next league show, scheduled for October 15th, hoping the fires will be out and the air will have cleared. The clock is ticking.
While I’m a bit stressed by not being able to ride, I know it’s far worse for my friends who are preparing for the region’s Championship Shows, this coming weekend. While riders in the Portland/Willamette Valley have had some smoke to deal with, it’s been far less and they’ve mainly been able to continue riding. After working all season to hone their skills, Central Oregon’s riders are having to sit out much of their practice time.
While this isn’t life-threatening, and it’s certainly a First World Problem, it’s a shame for those who have worked so hard to be sidelined so close to our region’s big event.
Here’s hoping that you’re reading this from somewhere safe, far from hurricanes, floods, and wildfires; that your loved ones are healthy and happy, and you’re able to embrace and appreciate the simple pleasures that make life a joy. While we know this too shall pass, it’s not an easy place to be, in the meantime.

canter, Charlotte Dujardin, dressage, horses, natalie perry dressage

You’ve Gotta Have Go

The art of dressage is continually realizing you don’t really know what you thought you knew. Or you don’t understand it thoroughly.

So has it been with my coming to terms with the basic premise: You’ve gotta have go.

Leann Johnston and HS Black Magic have go – beautiful forward movement. Magic is owned by Tina Billings.

How many trainers have tried to get this idea through my head? Too many to count.

Yes, even at the walk, you’ve gotta have go. HS Black Magic, owned by Tina Billlings, ridden by Leann Johnston.

Happily, last week’s lesson brought a breakthrough. Here’s what happened.
Micah and I were working on the canter/walk transition. Mine tend to be either a) abrupt or b) sloppy. I pointed this out, as if perhaps Natalie hadn’t noticed. She laughed, agreeing that this would be good to work on.
My tendency has been to immediately start asking for a shorter, more compressed canter, then ask for the down transition. There’s a major problem with this approach.
“You have to have him going forward before you can get the collection,” Natalie reminded me.
Something clicked. The week before we’d worked on 10 meter circles at the canter — which was terrifically helpful. “Really feel like you’re sitting him down,” Natalie said.
This meant that I had to really ride — as in a) steer, b) drive Micah forward with my legs, c) sit deep in the saddle, and d) guide the shoulder around the circle using outside rein and leg.
This was really challenging at first — especially with Natalie standing at the edge of the circle saying, “Go in front of me.”
I was strongly motivated not to run over my trainer.
The great thing was, this really engaged Micah’s hind end, giving me the sense of forward power I need to feel before asking for a great canter/walk. In short, you’ve gotta have Go before you can ask for collection.
A voice in my head hearkened back to the Charlotte Dujardin symposium we attended two years ago. Charlotte’s primary emphasis to riders of all levels was on what she called The Go Button. Wheels churned and clicked in my brain. Rusty memories arose … all with the same message. Without Go, you have nothing.

HS Black Magic shows off a gorgeous hind end – ably ridden by Leann Johnston, owned by Tina Billings

Related posts
Ride Like You Mean It
April 25, 2017
I Wish You Rode
April 11, 2017
Working Out with the Outside Rein
February 1, 2017
dressage, dressage lessons, Nonhorsepeople, riding

Why do you STILL take riding lessons?

If there are non-horsepeople in your life, it’s likely that they have asked you why you still (emphasis on still, tone of voice indicating disbelief) take riding lessons. One friend of mine even went on to say, “I thought you’d be teaching by now.” This is someone who has never seen me ride and who clearly knows nothing about dressage. The fact is, most people just don’t get it.
For them, I’ve come up with the following analogy, which you may feel free to use when the subject comes up in your life … at your child’s school, at cocktail parties, and even in family gatherings.

Dressage, like piano, takes a lifetime to master.


Dressage is somewhat like learning to play the piano. Almost anyone can learn to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a reasonable length of time. But to play Bach, you study for many years. To play at a concert level, you study for a lifetime.
Adding to the complexity of dressage is that, unlike with your piano, you are working with another living being with its own set of physical and mental strengths and limits. While your piano will need occasional tuning to perform consistently, you and your horse will need regular tuning as the demands increase as horse and rider move up the levels. The rider, like the piano student, will have good and bad days but the piano will remain tried and true throughout the years. The horse, on the other hand, will have ups and downs of his own, which the rider must constantly adjust to, sometimes asking for more, sometimes less.
While your piano may weigh as much as a horse, it will never refuse to play, wake up sluggish and/or stiff, or feel naughty. Your piano will never try to outsmart you or remove you from the piano bench.
This, my friends, is why I take lessons week after week, year after year. I’m trying to bring out the best not just in myself, but in a living, breathing instrument with a mind of its own. When it works, it is beautiful music, indeed.