Friday, January 22, 2010


I used to equate dressage with the snobby clique I knew in high school. All perfect bodies and name-brand clothes. The snobby clique had nothing to share with me that I wanted to know. Or at least that’s what I told myself while begging my mother to buy me a pair of Guess jeans. Not to mention another body.

Certainly I believed dressage had a purpose, but it wasn’t hard to make snarky comments while watching those riders sit their perfectly turned out warmbloods, mouths set firmly in a grimace, white breeches velcroed to a black dressage saddle. They seemed too clean, too serious, too exclusive. I was a western girl. We know how to get dirty and don’t need any snotty cliques to tell us how to do it, thank you very much.

Dressage, of course, is really for everyone. It simply means “training” and you don’t need white breeches, a warmblood, or an attitude to do it. A few years ago I met a western trainer who emphasized the importance of its fundamentals and I became intrigued—secretly at first. I began reading books like Centered Riding and experimenting with techniques. Then I got Eli. A naturally good moving horse he seemed made for the sport. Well over my head with a green stallion, I quickly found a dressage trainer to coach us. I never imagined I would enjoy these lessons as much as I have.

Now, I am Ghetto Dressage (maybe I’ll come out with my own DVDs). Picture a circa ‘80s two horse trailer pulling up to a manicured indoor arena. Outside Lusitanos, Friesians, and various warmbloods lounge in paddocks. They are blanketed and beautiful. From the back of my trailer a scruffy Arabian stallion appears. He has no bridle path, mud on his hocks, and a winter beard under his chin. I put a western headstall over his rope halter, throw a synthetic Aussie saddle on his back and off we go. Fortunately, Eli has natural talent and my instructor is the kind of person who doesn’t care what saddle you have or if you are wearing jeans. I don’t think she was in the snobby clique in high school.

Each lesson there is something new to attempt and I am amazed at the subtlety and finesse that is good dressage. It’s hard work and I am confronted each time with my own limitations and bad riding habits. Let’s just say, We have a long way to go, Baby.

Last lesson, while riding a figure, my instructor told me something that has since captured my imagination in a powerful way. She was helping me understand the concept of being straight and balanced, bending on a curve yet never over bent.

“Imagine you are riding the edge of a sword.”

The edge of a sword? A picture of perfect balance, Zen-like in its beauty and harmony. I am taking instruction from Yoda.

One bulge to the right or left, one stumble, one over correction and I am off that sword and taking my poor horse with me. Right. I can hardly keep my diagonals straight and proper timing on a half-halt.

When I think of life, I also see it teetering on a very fine line—the line between choices big and small that place a person on one path or another; the ideas we cling to that shape us; even the razor thin line between life and death on any given day, in any country of the world. The edge of a sword. If I thought about it too much it might drive me mad.

Striving for balance is a good thing but I spend most of life, I think, falling off the sword. The most I can hope for is spiritual balance—asked (begged) for daily—and relying on God’s promises to hold me when I tumble off the figure.

As for the dressage, I’m keeping the image of that sword firmly in mind. And I’m visualizing lots of time with Yoda.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Happy New Year.

Don’t worry if you can’t come up with a good resolution or two on your own. The grocery store checkout is a reliable source of ideas (albeit a bit redundant), screaming in bold type on every magazine cover: Lose Ten in 2010; Ten Tips for Healthier Eating in '10. I'd personally enjoy more unique headlines: Top Ten Skinny People We Love to Hate; Ten Reasons Fat is Good for You; Make Peace With Your Cellulite in 2010. I’ll let you know if any editors like my ideas.

Last year I was full of worthy resolutions that were (mostly) abandoned by mid spring. This year I wasn’t going to bother until my husband and I had a great talk last week while exercising together (I must admit I am not immune to those screaming headlines). We discussed the tendency to get set in our ways and avoid taking direction, to resist being teachable. As often happens, I thought of life with horses—specifically the training experiences—and how it offers insight into this area.

I’m constantly fascinated with the difference between intelligence and trainability in horses. Highly trainable horses are always intelligent but intelligent horses are not always very trainable. Clinician Richard Shrake has pondered what attributes separate the normal, bomb-around, backyard animal from, say, the (aptly named) Smart Little Lenas or Khemosabis of the horse world. These animals had something extra and almost mysterious. They were special, and not simply because of breeding or outstanding appearance—though they usually had that, too. Uncommonly excellent horses have an uncanny ability to live up to potential. Shrake has developed an easy test that measures not just intelligence in horses but, more importantly, their trainability.

The highly intelligent, resistant horse is, in my opinion, the most frustrating horse to train. I have patience for the dim-witted members of the species; the ones who aren’t particular athletic and just can’t help it. But the intelligent ones can drive you to drink, lose your religion, and pull your hair out. If you thought you had any talent as a horse trainer the extra smart, resistant horse will convince you otherwise. They could be so much more, you think to yourself, as the horse persists in offering his own ideas in place of yours. While super intelligent horses always capture my imagination, with poor trainability it is much harder to get the animal to live up to potential. It has taken ownership of many horses to observe and appreciate trainability and how it trumps intelligence, every time.

I am no doubt spoiled forever since riding Eli. Of course one can scream,“Barn Blind,” (and be correct) but it will be hard to be satisfied with a “normal” horses after having one so highly trainable as well as intelligent. I have had pretty horses and smart horses and enjoyed them all, but never one that is such an overall pleasure to work with. Eli doesn’t need a reason to do what I ask he simply needs to know how and , overwhelmingly, his attitude is, “Whatever you require of me.”

Eli surprised me with the degree of his willingness to please during his first photo shoot last October (see this month’s Northwest HorseSource for some of those pics). To get him to puff up, stallion style, we put him in with our newest member of the herd—Cowboy—for the first time. I was sure he would be all pomp and circumstance, but retrieved my whip to get him to move out in the pasture if I needed to. Instead of puffing up, and focusing on Cowboy, Eli’s focus was on me—What do you want me to do? He didn’t run off, tail flagging, when I swung the whip his direction, but turned and walked toward me, his eyes gentle and curious (see above photo). Though I hadn’t worked him in the round pen for many months the appearance of the whip and my body language triggered a response. He had learned comfort comes from being with the trainer and doesn’t need to try out his own ideas, repeatedly, to be reminded of that lesson.

This year, instead of focusing on my outer appearance (though I have sworn off dip for awhile, and the Bailey’s on ice, and fudge, and…), I want to focus on an inner quality in 2010. I want to be teachable: willing to learn, to change, to grow into my God-given potential.

Here’s to a teachable 2010.