It’s a bright October day and Dr. Wendy Krebs is doubled-over Skipper’s hoof, doing the flexion test countdown. Her assistant, Anne, is at Skipper’s head and I’m at the tail end, whip in hand.
Anne gives the five-second warning and Dr. Krebs lowers Skipper’s foot to the ground.
Three, two, one, and we’re off at the trot, watching Skipper’s reaction. Without meaning to, I hold my breath through each flexion and am gasping for air as I trot alongside Skipper, motivating him.
My friends have reminded me, with varying degrees of smirking, that I’d been adamant that I’d never buy another horse.
How did I get here?
I went from liking Skipper to loving him back in August, when he was superstar at dressage camp — our first off the property adventure together. He handled the new setting and the two-lessons-a-day schedule graciously. When I turned him out in the round pen to romp, he followed me like a puppy.
When I returned from camp, singing his praises to his owner, she said, “You should buy him.”
Yikes. Suzanne has four horses, was preparing for a knee replacement, and was ready to downsize.
“I’d love to, but I can’t afford it,” I said.
My retirement plans didn’t include boarding a horse — I’d done some downsizing of my own.
I told myself not to panic, that it could easily take six months for Skipper to sell and that if I was really lucky, someone would keep him at our barn, letting me lease him.
This strategy worked until his ad came out on dreamhorse.com and someone made an appointment to ride My Horse. My anxiety and imagination kicked into full gear. Picture this: me standing in the barn’s driveway as Skipper is hauled off in a trailer, kicking up a small cloud of dust as he exits my life forever. Ow.
“I only have so many years left of riding,” I told my husband, Al. “I don’t want to waste them.”
Trying to explain the horse/human connection to an engineer is next to impossible, but I tried. Ever practical, Al suggested I contact our financial planner. I’m pretty sure Al was hoping Ken would deliver a death blow to my dream, so he didn’t have to.
I delayed a few days, afraid to make the call. Finally, I worked up the numbers: Skipper’s monthly costs, including board, medical, lessons, etc. and sent Ken an email. An hour later, he replied, “Let’s talk.”
We set up a three-way call, with Al, Ken, and I —and I braced for the worst. But here’s what happened.
“That’s what money is for,” Ken said.
Tears started rolling down my cheeks.
Sure, I can’t take lavish vacations or live more than 30 years without downsizing further (trailer park, here I come), but that’s ok. Skipper passed his pre-purchase with high marks and I’m telling everyone I meet, “I bought a horse!”
I’m not sure if I own him or he owns me.
Thank you to Mari Valceschini of Alliance Equestrian for facilitating my co-lease of Skipper, back in June, when I was between horses — and for facilitating the sale. Mari put the training on Skipper, transforming him from trail horse to dressage star. She saw the potential for a match long before I did.
In a sport that is considered to be an individual effort, a pas de deux is a clearly collaborative achievement that brings its own rewards.
Here’s how I went from clueless to competing in just over a month.
“You two should do a pas de deux,” Natalie said. “Your horses would look great together.”
Mary and I had just returned from Adult Rider Dressage Camp with Dooley and Skipper and we were flush with excitement. The horses had exceeded our expectations, meeting new challenges while handling the stress of working away from home. It was a bonding experience for all of us — but until Natalie mentioned it, I’d never really noticed how similar our horses looked: two smaller chestnut geldings with a bit of chrome.
Mary had ridden quadrille and competed in an upper level freestyle with her horse, Dante, so she had experience. Plus she’s fun and easy to get along with. To learn from Mary was a chance I’d be foolish to walk away from.
So I said, “Sure!”, without knowing exactly what I was getting into.
We set up a training session, to give it a whirl. We started with the basics: having our horses walk and trot within a few feet of each other, trying to match their tempo on straight lines, in circles, and across the diagonal. It wasn’t easy but we had a lot of fun.
Before we go further, I need to mention that Dooley is a rescue horse who’s come a long way in a short time under Mary’s kind hand. Dooley had done well at Intro Level at local shows and was schooling Training/First Level. He’s been under saddle less than a year.
Skipper’s had the benefit of more training, competing at Third Level with professional Mari Valceschini — but he’s still relatively new to me, so I planned to take him out at First Level in an upcoming League Show.
The bottom line? Dooley was the less-experienced horse but he had the benefit of Mary’s extra experience. It had the more seasoned horse but have less experience/skill as a rider. It made for a wacky kind of balance.
At first, the horses seemed a little confused by riding side-by-side, but they quickly caught on. In fact, when we went down center line together and parted ways at ‘C’, me going right, Mary going left, Dooley looked back at Skipper as if asking, “Where’d he go?”
At the walk and trot, Skipper’s faster pace meant Mary had to push Dooley on while I worked to collect Skipper back. At the canter, which we practiced in circles at opposite ends of the arena for safety’s sake, it was my turn to push Skipper forward. We laughed a lot as we made mistakes and learned from them.
“They look adorable together,” Claudia said, as she watched us.
“You guys should do a pas de deux at the show!” Laura said. The secretary for our upcoming League Show, she was serious.
I laughed, nervously. The show was only about three weeks out and I like to over-prepare. I’d never dreamed of competing in a pas de deux on such short notice.
Mary had a gleam in her eye, though, and I sensed there was no turning back.
That week, Mary took the music from her upper-level freestyle and modified the choreography to Training Level. She came back to me saying, “Want to give it a try?”
Of course, I did! In our next session, we worked on choreography. We needed to decide what level we’d be riding so we could incorporate the required movements. First Level would definitely be flashier but it’d be a step up for Dooley. It was time to get Natalie, our trainer, involved.
In a series of semi-private lessons, we decided to develop a First Level routine and fine-tuned the choreography, accordingly. During practice sessions, Mary and I gradually brought the horses closer together at the walk and trot, until we had moments where we were so close, our stirrups clanked together. That’s exciting!
We tried to coordinate our posting at the rising trot when riding side by side — it looks great —but is a lot harder to do than you’d think. It was a challenge to keep one eye on Mary and Dooley to keep pace, while remembering to ride my own horse — but in the moments when the horses were synchronized, my heart sang. I swear the horses enjoyed it, too.
The music Mary had chosen as perfect: light, joyful songs that were a pleasure to ride to. People say that dressage is dancing with horses … and when you add music, it really feels that way.
Leading up to the show, I had a lot of insecurities — I went over the choreography in my head in the quiet hours of morning and as I fell asleep each night, fearing I’d forget our routine. I worried about forgetting my saddle pad. Lots of little concerns that reflected how important it was to me to pull my weight as a part of our team.
Mary and I did our homework, found matching saddle pads for our horses, and Mary loaned me some show attire to match hers. On the morning of the show, we braided the boys’ manes. We warmed up together in the indoor arena, and then it was Show Time.
“How did it go?” you ask.
Fantastic. Beyond expectations. During the ride, I let go of everything else and embraced the sense of performance that a pas de deux can bring. It was time to show off to the best of our abilities. I took heart, knowing our boys would look great together — and they did, dancing their way down center line. We had moments of beauty, with our horses graciously doing everything we asked. It was truly a team effort of horses and humans. The sense of accomplishment was more than twice as big as any of my individual efforts.
The judge was kind in her comments and her scores, giving us a total of 73 percent …far better than we expected …and truly a highlight in my riding ‘career’.
Perhaps best of all, our ride retained a sense of play, even in competition. So many people commented, “That looked like fun.” It was.
While developing a pas de deux takes time, work, and the flexibility to coordinate with another rider, I highly recommend it. It takes the work beyond the self. What a joy to see our horses trusting us in this quirky activity … for humoring us in this crazy sport we call dressage. They truly were team players.
Credit goes to Mary Cuevas for pulling our pas de deux together, taking the lead in the choreography and stepping me through the process. We are both grateful to Natalie Perry for starting us on our way — and for her help in tailoring the routine to maximize the strengths of our horses. We’ll be working together through the winter to do even better next year.
Skipper arrived at our barn in early June, after enjoying several months of trail rides and pasture time. Mostly unemployed, he put on a few pounds and showed up looking like a guy who’d been on an exercise-free vacation. As we set about upping his training, I carefully considered his appearance.
While Skipper had a nice shine to his coat, his mane and tail were dry and brittle. I didn’t like the look or feel of either. His forelock was almost nonexistent, more fuzzy than flowing. I wasn’t sure we could do anything about the forelock but I knew the mane and tail could be improved. So, I set about looking at haircare products, ready to experiment.
I decided to give Equi-Spa’s Fairy Tails! Lotion and Orchid Oil Gloss a try. The company uses natural ingredients and aromatic (aka: smell good) plant essences. The products feel nice and smell great — which I can’t say is true for all equine products, some are much too perfumy for me. I enjoy using the lotions because both Skipper and I end up smelling good.
Within a week, I saw results — and other people noticed as well.
“His mane and tail look better already,” Eileen said as we warmed up before a lesson.
“I need the name of those products,” Claudia said, running her hand through Skipper’s mane.
When Skipper’s owner stopped by a few weeks later, she was impressed. “His forelock has never looked that good,” she said. (She should know, having raised him from a foal.)
In August, I prepped Skipper for dressage camp by trimming his mane into a shorter, more dressage-appropriate length. The trim, coupled with the conditioning, looked terrific. Better yet, check out Skipper’s forelock. We headed out to our first public outing together with me feeling good about the impression we’d make..
Through the summer, I’ve continued to use the Fairy Tails! Lotion and Orchid Oil and have seen a cumulative benefit. This weekend I braided Skipper up and took him out to our first League Show together — where he looked great and behaved beautifully, earning us two blues and a red.
Skipper’s makeover has been a combination of hard work under saddle and just a little attention to detail with his beauty regime. I’m so pleased with how much Skipper’s appearance has improved over the summer and I have high hopes that his tail will continue to grow in over the winter, adding to its fullness. This has been a fun, rewarding experiment.
Skipper taught me a valuable lesson this week, with Natalie’s help.
We’ve been working on a pas de deux with my friend Mary and her horse, Dooley. Part of the choreography includes cantering down the long side on the right lead, making a turn to the right onto the center line, then at the far end of the arena making a trot transition and a turn to the left.
As we approached the turn, Skipper threw in a lead change. We tried again, he did it again.
“Why’s he doing that?” I asked Natalie.
It seemed like an odd thing for him to do.
“You’re anticipating the turn,” she said. “He thinks you want a lead change.”
I wasn’t intentionally asking for a lead change but I rode the movement again — this time paying attention to all the little signals I was giving Skipper. I noticed that I turned my head to the left, anticipating the turn. And, much as I was trying to keep the bend of a right lead canter, with my outside leg back, I was shifting in the saddle in anticipation.
Which is why Skipper threw in another change of lead.
I stopped at the wall and laughed out loud, giving Skipper a pat.
“He was doing exactly what I was telling him,” I said.
Natalie laughed as well. What was a revelation for me had been obvious to her.
With my new knowledge, I rode down center line as if I was going to make a turn to the right. Within a stride or two of reaching the wall, I asked Skipper for a trot and we made the left turn. Success. I had made what I wanted clear to my horse.
It was another brilliant example of how horses listen to us — and the best ones try, even we’re less than perfect.
I’m so grateful to my trainer for remaining patient when I’m sometimes so unaware of what my body is doing. Instead of chastising me, Natalie gave me the time to feel what I was doing (aka: learn from my mistake).
This lesson reminded me that we’re always communicating with our horses and if they don’t respond the way we anticipate, we need to look again at what we’re telling them. Sometimes they’re doing the “wrong” thing because that’s exactly what we asked them to do!
When I started leasing Skipper on June 1st, I had a goal: to take him to Adult Amateur Camp. Our region puts on a great Camp, which I’ve attended the past several years with Micah. Since Micah retired, Skipper would be a whole new experience.
My first concern was getting Skipper fit enough to work for four days in a row, with a total of six lessons. Skipper arrived at our barn he was unfit and pudgy, after having had several months off. Fortunately, I co-lease Skipper with my friend, Mary, and we worked together to increase Skipper’s workload at a reasonable pace. As we did so, Taryn Yates DVM kept Skipper feeling good with regular chiropractic work. Skipper progressed well but I wasn’t sure how he’d handle the stress of a new facility and the challenge of back-to-back lessons. He’d been to shows with trainer Mari Valceschini and done well but a) she’s a professional and b) Skipper can get a little hot if he feels insecure or gets frustrated. With this in mind, I decided Camp was the perfect place to test out an essential oil, specifically Show Thyme Calming Oil by Equi-Spa. I’d never used essential oils before but research has shown that there are calming benefits from lavender and other oils, so why not? This one contains a blend of Lavender, Geranium, Clary Sage, Patchouli and Ylang ylang . I’d also read that the essential oils can calm the handler, as well as the horse, and that’s a good thing. I had butterflies in my stomach as we packed up for camp, not knowing what to expect. Before loading Skipper in the trailer, I added a few drops of essential oil to Equi-Spa’s Fairy Tails lotion (a mane/tail conditioner) and rubbed it into his forelock, temple, and muzzle. He didn’t mind and he smelled yummy. When we arrived at Camp, Skipper came out of the trailer calm yet curious. What is this place? My plan was to lunge him before our afternoon lesson if he needed it — and with Skipper, it’s easy to tell if he’s got nervous energy. As I debated, lunge? or not? I let Skipper hang out in a stall while I unpacked, then hand-walked him around the facility. Skipper was calm and curious — no anxiety. We walked around the indoor arena where we’d be taking our lesson and I let Skip look at the mirrors on the wall, the chairs for spectators, neat stack of jump poles, and out the open doors into the world beyond. We walked in, out, and around a few times and I decided against lunging. While I knew lunging would be the safest route, I decided to trust my gut and my horse. When the time came, I tacked up, led Skipper to the arena, and got on. All was well, Skipper was relaxed, confident, and focused on his work. We had a super lesson and trainer Morgan Barrows was pleased with how agreeable Skipper was. On day two, Skipper seemed a little amped. He wasn’t used to being in a stall 24/7 and missed his pasture time. I put on the essential oil and we did a hand walk to let him stretch and look around. Again I debated, should I lunge him? Skipper was a little high-headed when I walked him around but, when I turned him loose in the round pen, he followed me like a puppy — no running or bucking. I decided not to lunge and we had a great lesson in the outdoor arena. He jumped out of the dressage arena once but that was my fault and it was a real crowd pleaser! He found the canter shallow loop frustrating and threw in flying changes, but kept his cool.
One day three, Skipper seemed really settled but now my concern was that, despite his mighty little engine, he’d be getting tired. By now using the oil was a ritual I found comforting.
Susan, one of my camp-mates confessed that she always uses an essential oil for clinics and shows. “The one time I didn’t,” she said, “my horse started up with a rolling buck. He never does that.”
Skipper was a champ through the entire Camp experience. I’ll never know to what extent the oils affected his behavior, but they certainly didn’t hurt. And he smelled so good, trainer Stephen Birchall said, “Wow! It smells like a cologne I’d be happy to wear.” I was so happy with how Skipper handled new surroundings and situations, I’ll keep using the oils for adventures that might be stressful to either us. Smelling good was an added bonus!
For some time now, Natalie’s been telling me to bring my shoulder blades back and together. I understand what she’s saying and I try. It works temporarily, and then I forget. It feels forced and I tense up. It hasn’t stuck.
This week, Natalie tried a different approach.
“Open your chest,” she said. And what a difference it made.
Opening the chest achieves a similar result to “bring your shoulder blades back” but, for whatever reason, the image works better for me.
While it takes effort for me to open my chest, it doesn’t feel forced. I can feel my shoulders going back, my elbows sitting more naturally at my sides, and my pelvis opening up. I can breathe more deeply.
“Open up” makes me realize how much I tend to curl up, when I’m trying hard, which is most of the time.
A large part of riding Skipper, my* new horse, is that I need to ride with more relaxation. When I relax, he relaxes. When I tense up, he assumes I’m going to ask something from him. He’s an excellent communicator.
‘Open the chest’ is a subtle thing but the results are noticeable. My position is better and Skipper relaxes in response, moving his back and hips more freely. He’s more comfortable to ride and that creates a positive biofeedback loop — he’s relaxed, I relax, and so on. It’s pretty wonderful.
What amazes me is how important subtle changes can be. And, how the words we use can shape the images that influence us. Lots of lessons learned today.
Skipper is new to me and I really want to be a positive influence in his life. If I want him to be relaxed and responsive to me, I have to open up to him. Breathe deep and show him everything is ok. If I curl up my body in a defensive posture, how can I possibly convince Skipper to relax and trust me?
When I turned Skipper out to pasture today, he stopped to hang out with me. I scratched his neck, he sniffed my hair. He was in no hurry to run off with his friends. These are the moments I cherish. You can’t force a horse to like you. When you open yourself up to them — and you’re lucky — they open themselves up to you in response.
*I am co-leasing Skipper. I don’t own him but he is in my care … which makes him ‘mine’ figuratively. In short, I care for him as if I own him.