Thursday, March 1, 2012


Don't be discouraged.  It's often the last key in the bunch that opens the lock.  ~Author Unknown

We all need a good coach.

I struggled up there in my saddle (having decided against my previous thought to discard all tack on the arena sand), unable to "find" what W had me looking for. Looseness. I tried and tried and tried and it just didn't seem to come. He improved sure, but never found "it".

W asked if she could get on him.


I rarely get to actually observe my horse being ridden, and it's been a good 9 months or so since W was last on him. I wasn't sure what to expect. Would Moon be the same obstinate, stiff horse W last rode? Has so many months been a waste?

In three laps, she took him from high headedness to moments of sheer beauty. In some regards, I wish I had a camera. The horse moving before me was....not Moon. He was not some stocky, chunky QH. He looked like a talented little training level horse, neck long and horizontal, head just ahead of the vertical, chewing the bit and his little legs moved in beautiful sweeping lines, deep under his body. It was picture perfect.

But it doesn't really matter I don't have it on camera. The image is burned into my mind.

In that moment when I saw what my horse could BECOME, do you know the first thought that crossed my mind after the "WOW"?

"How do I do that?!"


Where do I place the greater value? Do I want a horse that walks-trots-canters beautifully around the ring and brings me ribbons at every show? If that is what I so desire, I've made a great error. And I bought the wrong horse.

For there are two ways to go about "riding". One way is to search out a talented animal, have a professional train it to the nines, get on it and learn to ride well. Discover where all of its buttons are, how to get the most out of it and then present it to the world. Come home with a couple of ribbons on your belt, smiling about how awesome you both are.

The other, for those of us who are either partially insane or desperately broke, purchase a horse with defunct training (or if you're lucky, non-existent training), imperfect confirmation and has never seen anything resembling professional education. And try to trot into the ring with those well-trained ponies and compete for the same ribbons.


My first thought was not "I WANT my horse to do THAT".

It was to wonder and ask, "How do I do that?". To desire to know what I need to learn to do, in order to teach Moon how to understand what I want and in turn, be able to learn it.

Doesn't that sound like a mouthful? Never mind saying it, try riding it!

I've once before said, that I had two options going into Moon's training. Option one was to send him to a trainer (say W) for three months of Pro training. And at this point, Moon would have a solid walk-trot-canter. I'd ride that walk-trot-canter and we'd get our ribbons.

The other, is to bring him to said Pro trainer and ask to be taught how to train him.

Yes, the process takes a whole hell of a lot longer. Because I'M learning! This is teaching me how to change and mold a horse. I'm learning the tools that trainers use when they teach your horse, what feel they look for, what steps they take, what tricks are used to handle the different problems. If this is merely teaching me to ride a horse, we'd be fine.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.
Nobody trips over mountains.  It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble.  Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find you have crossed the mountain.  ~Author Unknown

So subsequent to my revelation that I'm not here to learn how to canter, but rather to learn how to train, and learning to train means learning how to overcome a massive amount if tricks and talents our horses use to avoid having to do the difficult or complex things we ask of them.

At this point, I've gained a lot of feel and understanding needed to work through a lot of training issues one experiences when dealing with inexperienced horses. Moon perhaps, is my perfect teaching horse, since he loves to try every trick in the book.

But as W stopped to tell me after riding him, he's an incredibly moldable horse. As much as I call him resistant, he's really quick to say "Okay, I'll try that instead". We don't spend 50 minutes convincing him to do something different, proven by the mere 3 laps it took W to get him moving properly. The problem is that it takes 50 minutes for me to understand, believe, practice, perfect and then apply properly the correction.

W chastised me for not trusting myself. The biggest thing holding me back? Me.

But I already knew that.

W hopped off, praising us both for how far we've come. She claims he's not the same horse she sat on last year. The old Moon was not moldable. The old Moon didn't understand leg cues, didn't understand the bit, didn't understand seat or movement or having to carry himself. The new Moon understands but struggles to apply. I suppose it's kinda like W telling me to relax my leg. Oh, I understand to relax it. But I just can't seem to do it for very long. Ditto on telling Moon to not counter bend through a corner.

Another lesson I learned was that training a horse isn't simply a matter of removing a tiered set of problems. If I solve A, B and C, I don't have a perfect horse. If I solve A and B, nine times out of ten, the horse will throw you E. Then you fix E, thinking now you just have C to solve, when he instead offers you G, H and K. Solve those and there's 9 or 10 other issues to work through. THIS is why training a living creature is much harder the anything mechanic or computerized. Our creatures are able to make decisions on how to apply and respond to what they're learning.

We got Moon to stop being above the bit, we worked on getting him loose, we taught him leg and seat. Now he's torquing his neck, which means he's not straight. This wasn't a huge issue before, but the more he's asked to lift his shoulder and engage his quarters, the more he tries to find a way to continue to move as he wants. He chooses torquing. Now I have to solve torquing, and that will bring us back on track for training canter leads.
 Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it.  I never heard of anyone ever stumbling on something sitting down.  ~Charles F. Kettering


I hopped back on and W spent some time on the ground teaching me the "feel" of what I want. For starters, I want a solid feel of the bit. I'm a VERY soft handed rider, which is fine for upper level horses that are trained to "carry the bit". W explained to me that very few riders ever learn to hold the bit for their horse, because their horses are taught to sort of ignore it or bounce off of it. And WE must first carry the bit before we ask our horses to do it themselves.

The feel of the bit was strange to me. It felt "heavy". Not in a tight or pulling or bracing way. Just a lot more substantial then I'm used to. W also taught me that when he torques his neck, I need to envision placing the bit horizontal and waiting for him to figure out where he needs to be.

The other thing he does is to push his belly out against my inside leg. Solution: bump with the inside leg, create bend with the inside rein, and open and lift the outside rein, and if necessary, pulse it a little to encourage him into the opening. This corrects his bend as he'd fall over sideways if his belly was in and so was his head. The opening to the outside directs him back out onto the circle and voila. Horse with correct bend, moving correctly on the circle.

Moon and I gave it a try. It takes one hell of a lot of coordination and multitasking. I mean LOTS. Plus quick responses, a good feel and a lot of awareness. We struggled a bit to start (boy were we both plumb tuckered at this point!), but suddenly it started working.

...and Moon was there, on the end of the bit, he was moving in a nice circle, no funny head positioning, no stuffing against my inside leg, no bailing out of the circle.


Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.  ~Newt Gingrich


More cool?

Twice going around our improved circle, Moon offered me a canter depart. And both times, the correct lead.

W looks at me and says "When your horse is straight, it's not about asking for the correct lead. If you've already set them up correctly, then there's no other choice than to do it right."


I stumbled across a good blog posting and it's stuck with me. It's about a simple equation for success. The author modified it, and you should read her post. But in simple, I've learned that:

Commitment + action = habit = more commitment + more actions = results

Sounds simple, and it is. I must quote her, for anyone not compelled to follow the link. She said (highlights are things that just spoke to me):
Here’s how it applies to me—I bought Venus, and told everyone that I was going to do FEI Young Horse with her and then take her to Prix St George, which meant I needed help. So I took my first lesson with Scott Hassler, the USEF Young Horse coach.  That was my action to support my commitment.  I did my homework, and returned for regular lessons.

Before you get to thinking “well, she had this great opportunity and this great horse, of course that’s what she did.” Yea, no.  Venus was the best horse I could afford, and my budget was very, very small.  I could afford a nice front end, a nice back end, or a nice brain. I went for the back end, but the problems came out with her highly fearful, quick-to-temper brain. She ran away with me A LOT, especially as a youngster. 

Plus, have you seen the horses at Hassler’s? Hasslers arena was, and is, full of beautiful horses, being ridden by beautiful riders who seem never to move, or get ran away with, or get frustrated, and I was just trying to steer and stop enough to not run into them.

Many, many times I nearly quit going. I nearly bought into the stories I told myself -- I’m just a poor working horseperson just trying to get along, not like the rich, pretty riders down there, or I can’t afford to give up 6 hours, I could get a lot done, etc.   But I didn’t, not because of integrity, or honesty, or any other abstract term.  I kept going because going down there every-other Wednesday became a pattern, and everyone knew that was my pattern, and would ask about my lessons, which, of course, reinforced the pattern. Soon, that pattern became a habit.

After a while, that habit began to yielded results—Venus started to develop brakes, I started to develop a bit of confidence, and she and I competed in the FEI 5-year-old division. So for me, Gil’s equation began to look more like this:

   Commitment + action = habit = more commitment + more actions = results

Then Venus got hurt. I did the rehab, and put her back in training.  Frankly, I gave up on her becoming an FEI horse. I bought into the story that she had done a lot of damage to her body, and probably wouldn’t make it.

 But aside from that story, I had a habit. I was in the habit of climbing on her back and heading to the ring every day, and putting her in the trailer and heading down for Scott’s help on a regular basis. So I kept up my habit, but if anyone asked, I told them I hoped she’d get easier to ride so I could sell her.

Last winter her training became really, really frustrating, but again, my habit was to take her in the arena, so I kept going.  When I was off of her, I would lament about her lack of progress, and what to do with her, but my habit was strong, and I just kept putting my foot in the stirrup and swinging a leg over.

And somewhere, when I was doing what was habitual, Venus began to blossom.  She has become the light, forward, delightful horse I dreamed of when I bought her, and our short-term goal is no longer to sell her, but to compete 3rd level this year, with goals of moving up in the future.

All because of mastering a habit.
I've laid aside the story that we can't find success and that I need someone else to do it for me. I certainly need someone there like W to guide me, but at the end of the day, this is my experience. And in turn, getting on him every day, giving him the best ride I've got and being willing to do it again tomorrow, is what is going to yield my results.

And those results, will be my results, and those ribbons or scores or just the mere experience of walking a horse that is MY training, my sweat, blood and tears into the arena, will be MINE.
Don't let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it.  The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.  ~Earl Nightingale   


I pick myself up from the arena floor, and dust the dirt from my breeches. I look at the little white nose, the big brown eyes, the chocolate hind that stands before me. And I'll persevere.

The race is not always to the swift, but to those who keep on running.  ~Author unknown


  1. One word: LOVE. You said it so well.

  2. Awesome post! Love the quotes - I'm posting that equation in my tack room asap. Sounds like you have a great instructor too. :)

    Two other thoughts came to mind after reading...

    One is, the pursuit of dressage should ultimately be for the betterment of our horses' fitness and way of going. To bring out the best in our horses, no matter what "level" that is.

    And secondly, it has been my experience that when the rider (finally) takes responsibility for what happens under saddle, the team makes great strides. It's all about the partnership.

  3. Amazing post! And timely for me since I had a similar (yet different) aha! moment today.