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dressage training

Barn, dressage, dressage training, equestrian, horse/rider communication

Eyes Up, Looking Where You Want to Go

Through the darkest, most difficult times in my life, horses have been my safe haven — a source of joy and a reminder to live in the present moment. Your mind cannot, should not wander when you’re in the presence of a 1,000-pound animal, no matter how gentle and good-natured he or she may be.
Through this past year, as my mother and I held one another up, watching my father’s health decline, horses remained my reminder that life holds happiness even when sorrows are deep. While I sometimes arrive at the barn with a heavy heart, the familiar faces of my friends and their horses help me set my troubles aside for hours at a time. The barn is a world where priorities are clear and simple. A place where I define myself as a horse person, striving to meet the mind and spirit of another species. I find it deeply satisfying.
As I approach my horse in pasture, his halter in my hand, I bring my best self to him. I’m asking him to leave the leisure of his pasture to come with me, not simply for treats but to do a job that is my idea, not his.

Skipper sees me coming


As I approach, Skipper hears my voice, lifts his head from grazing, and strolls up to me, knowing I’ll have a carrot in my coat pocket. His ears prick forward and he chooses to leave his herd. My heart lifts at the sight. He is saying, “Yes, I’ll come with you.”
Even on the most painful days, where my dad’s memory stings with loss, the simple steps of caring for my horse soothe my soul. I brush Skipper’s coat, admiring its bright chestnut color. I comb out the stubborn shavings that cling to his tail and tidy up his mane. With each grooming, I check to make sure he’s healthy,his shoes are secure, and there are no new lumps, bumps, or bites from pasture mates that need attention.
Before I saddle up, I rub Skipper’s forehead in the spot he’s taught me is his favorite — the white star at the base of his forelock. He nods his head in approval but stands stock still to tell me he appreciates the attention. Skipper likes having a person and I love having a horse. Like happiness itself, a horse is not a thing to take for granted.
As I swing my leg over Skipper’s back, settling gently into the saddle, I remember the words of my trainers … all of whom have reminded me to keep my eyes up, looking where I want to go. Don’t stare at the ground, unless you want to go there, they advised. These words ring true for any riding discipline you choose. And, after this tough, trying year, it strikes me that this is good advice for living, in general.
I chose to buy Skipper just months ago, when I realized that after losing dad, I couldn’t bear yet another loss. My little horse soothes my sorrow and gives me hope for the future. With each riding lesson, I make a plan for what I need to work on, looking for ways we can improve, with hopes for a strong show season. As my relationship with my horse blossoms, my heart heals. My eyes are up and I’m looking toward the future.

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Opening Up to Skipper

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. 

When I turned Skipper out, after our ride, he was in no hurry to return to his friends. We’ve turned a corner in our relationship.

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.

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Ride the Ears

This past month I’ve had the pleasure of working with a new horse.

I had been leasing Pfifer and, much as I love her, it was time for owner to take back the reins. Pfifer will always have a place in my heart. She truly is a sweetheart and I am really grateful.

Happily, Natalie and Mari helped to orchestrate a new lease for me, one I share with another rider at the barn. Please welcome Skipper, a cute as a bug Morgan gelding with Third Level training. Skipper is smart and sweet and has been working hard to figure me out.

Here’s a short video of my first lesson with Skipper. Natalie is patiently coaching as we struggle through. There’s nothing like a new horse to humble an amateur rider 🙂

The move to our barn has been a big life change for Skipper. He’s had one owner and lived at home his entire life. He’s been to shows, out camping, and on trail rides, but boarding is new to him. While I know it hasn’t been easy for him, Skipper has been settling in, made some good friends out in the pasture (he’s having a bromance with Gatsby), and has come to accept Mary and I as his new People. 

Skipper’s been a big change for me, as a rider. He’s the smallest horse I’ve ridden in a long time. This means I’ve had to adjust everything I do into smaller increments. When Natalie says, “Move your leg back” I want to move it five inches, when all I really need is an inch. My rein aids need to be more subtle as well. And, Skipper feels every shift of my weight. He gives me flying changes when he thinks my leg position isn’t correct enough. 

Skipper’s been a good boy through our first few weeks together. He’s been a little insecure, with all the change, calling to his friend Gatsby and trying to keep a close eye on the comings and goings in the barn. I feel for him — how unsettling it must be to have your life turned upside down.

Natalie’s been helping us figure things out, which has been oh so helpful. I think I would have confused and frustrated Skipper to pieces without her. Nothing like a nervous horse with a clueless rider!

I also had two lessons with Tina Steward, who comes to Bend once a month to help us. She gave me the following piece of advice, which I treasure. 

“Ride the ears,” she said. “His ears tell you what he’s paying attention to.”

By watching Skipper’s ears, it’s easy to tell what he’s paying attention to. Is he listening to what’s going on outside the arena or focused on me? Now, any time I lose Skipper’s focus, I do something to bring it back — maybe a little more bend, a little more leg, perhaps a wiggle on the inside rein. The more consistently I say “Hello, over here please” the steadier he is in his work. I love the simplicity of this and hope you’ll find it useful, too!

Stay tuned for our continuing adventures.

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Happy With the Halt

It’s funny how horses have their own preferences for different types of work. Some like to Go!; others say No! Some like repetition, while others crave variety. The variety keeps things interesting. In the time that I’ve known Pfifer, this delightful mare has made it clear that she thinks the Halt is Stupid with a capital S.

Pfifer relaxes into the halt!

Thanks to Natalie’s hard work and my dedication to reinforcing her efforts, in recent weeks Miss Pfifer has overcome her aversion to standing still. It’s been a gradual, entertaining transition … as Pfifer has come to terms with a request that doesn’t make sense to her.

Previously, Pfifer would sidle into the halt and then adjust her position as if posing for a photo. “Wait, this is my better side,” she seemed to say. She would putter around at X, showing the judge that a Halt can be so much more than standing square. It was a movement to get into and out of quickly, hoping the judge wouldn’t notice, as fiddling with it didn’t improve things.

When I started riding Pfifer, I knew the halt wasn’t her favorite thing so I made it a point to incorporate into our daily work with lots of praise for effort. And because she was new to me, I wanted to test out all of her buttons. “Can we try the rein back?” I asked Natalie in one of our first lessons. “Sure,” she said, but I sensed some hesitation. Our attempts at a rein back were muddled. That’s when I realized that without a good halt, a good rein back is asking too much — and (pun intended) I took a step back, forgoing the rein back for the halt.

This decision paid off. Our halt is now reliable and prompt — not always perfect but so much better. And now that the halt is easy, we’ve returned to the rein back with better results. I’m only asking for one or two steps but I’m getting a clear response and no longer have the feeling that Pfifer is confused.

I never thought I’d be so pleased to progress with something that seems so simple. The work has improved without a fight — we just needed a little time to understand each other . It’s a reminder that each horse is different — and we have to measure progress accordingly.

Today, Pfifer comes to a halt promptly and without a fuss. I suspect that the halt still seems pointless to her but she is willing to please — and gets a lot of praise for this — plus a favorite treat (a banana) at the end of the ride.

There’s nothing better than a happy, willing horse and it’s been a delight to see this change in Pfifer … it’s not “just” halt, it’s the relationship that’s developing.

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My Next Adventure

How many tears did I shed when Micah left our barn? At least a bucketful.
Although I knew Micah was heading home to a well-deserved retirement, my heart broke nonetheless. Five years is a long time to spend together — parting was truly a sweet sorrow.
At the same time, I’d known for several months that our time together was coming to a close. Micah and I had gone about as far as we could — he gave indications that the work was too hard and it took tons of stamina for me to ride him. I needed frequent breaks to catch my breath, despite my effort to stay fit through cycling, hiking, and skiing. My shoulders and legs ached from the effort. Deep down, I knew it would be good for me to ride other horses, even though it would mean letting go.
As fate would have it, the horse I was most interested in riding is owned by my friend, Claudia. Her mare, Pfifer, is lovely, level-headed, good natured, and has received excellent training from Natalie Perry. I’ve watched as Pfifer and Claudia’s partnership has blossomed, earning them ribbons in the show ring.

Pfifer in the show ring with Claudia


Unfortunately, Claudia has been temporarily sidelined by an injury and hasn’t been able to ride lately. Still, she’s kept up our Sunday tradition of meeting at the barn, then going out for coffee. After giving it much thought, I worked up the nerve to ask Claudia if I could take a lesson on her horse. To my delight, Claudia was enthusiastic!
Soon after our coffee date I learned that Micah’s retirement had been moved up. And then moved up again. Things happened so quickly, my head was spinning. Yet the thought that I could ride Pfifer boosted my morale and helped me cope with the sense of loss.
I scheduled a lesson with Natalie and knew almost immediately that Pfifer had much to teach me.
“Quiet your hands, keep them lower! Keep your right elbow in,” Natalie said. “You’re going to need to ride her from back to front.”
Wow! What a difference from Micah. And, the benefit of Pfifer’s being in full training with Natalie was obvious. Several lessons later, I’m learning to sit more quietly, keep my hands and (damn) right elbow still, and ride from back to front.
Much as I love Micah, we had a history of bad habits together. We were like the old married couple who bickers and laughs together, sometimes having the same argument over and over again. With Pfifer, I have the chance to make a fresh start on improving my skills. It’s a new perspective, fun and exciting — and helps me to think about the future, rather than the past.
Having the chance to ride Pfifer saved my sanity when Micah moved out. And if that’s not enough, Claudia came to the barn to be with me on the day I said good-bye to my guy. She let me cry, gave me a hug, and then took me out for coffee.
As I ride Pfifer, I’m rooting for Claudia’s recovery — because I know exactly what her horse means to her. I want her back in the saddle as soon as possible, at which point I’ll
step aside and look for my next Next Adventure.
In the meantime, I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to ride Pfifer. She truly proved her worth this week when cold temperatures and high winds made for chaos in the riding arena. When one horse bolted and another bucked its way around the lunge line, Pfifer kept quietly to her work.
So, when my friends and family ask “How are you doing without your horse?” My answer is, “Surprisingly well!”
Once again my horse community has boosted me through an important life transition.

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Vest Causes Climate Change

aka: My Magic Vest

My magical vest is so good, I don’t even need to wear it to feel cooler.

To deal with the heat, several of my barnmates purchased cooling vests this summer. These are nifty vests you soak in water, wring out, and they retain just enough moisture to keep you cooler in the heat.
Clever friends, they purchased their vests while temps were tipping 100 degrees. They got lots of good use out of them. Me, I waited until the week before Adult Amateur Riding camp to order mine. Of course there were delays and my vest arrived the week after camp.
The good news is that my vest is Magical! While my friends brag that their vests reduce their body temperature by 10 degrees below the outside temperature, my vest dropped the outside temperature by 30 degrees — we went from daytime highs of 100 degrees to temps in the 70’s. My vest has brought about the end of Summer! I am not joking — Fall is in the air.
This vest is so good, I don’t even have to wear it to feel cooler. I keep the vest in my closet, tags still attached, and savor its magical powers. I actually wore a jacket to the barn this morning. It was wonderful.
I may try soaking the vest in water, to see if that helps to squelch the forest fires that are plaguing the Northwest. It’s worth a try!

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