Book Review: Storey’s Guide to Training Horses

 

This is a concise, yet comprehensive text on the fundamentals of all aspects of training a horse, from imprinting a newborn foal to fixing potential problem behaviors in an older animal.

Clearly articulated and well illustrated, my only difficulty with this book was that it was slightly repetitive; often the “sidebar” boxes interspersed throughout the text were disruptive to the flow of ideas and didn’t usually offer anything different from what was being said in the main body.

However, it also provided explanations of some of the basics that seem to have become glossed over in my horsemanship education. Having spent my whole childhood and teen years taking riding lessons but never owning a horse, and now doing much of my current training with my leased horse on my own (with a weekly lesson to give me some structure), I’ve missed out on being specifically taught skills like longeing and other areas of groundwork. This book does a great job of explaining those concepts and connecting them with related skills used while riding the horse, and has been able to fill in some of the significant gaps in my knowledge.

But perhaps the most valuable part of this book for me was, oddly, an articulation of the concept of dressage. Growing up as an English rider who did hunt seat equitation, in my mind dressage existed in an entirely different (and, if I’m being honest, boring) world from what I was doing. It was just the part of the Olympics that I wanted them to stop covering and move on to the exciting jump stuff.

As I began my foray in to Western riding and reining about a year ago, I did somewhat grasp the similarities of reining and dressage. But I had no idea the new depths of training and understanding that I would begin to develop through learning from Dunnie and my wonderful trainer. I’d always been taught to ride in a style of figuring out how to get whichever school horse I was on to participate in what I was trying to do with at least a basic level of functioning, and then practice that until I could look pretty doing it. But the description in this book of dressage (of all things!) neatly sums up the approach that I’ve finally come to know about and take in working with horses:

“The concept of dressage means different things to different people: it can encompass basic training, harmony between horse and rider, perfection of the gaits, development of a horse’s physical and mental ability, and horse ballet. The term is often misunderstood to mean a type of riding that can be performed only in a certain way and one that is just for English riders.

The term comes from the French word dresser, ‘to train,’ and dressage is the kind of training that goes beyond simply breaking a horse and making him willing to carry a person on his back. Dressage is the art of improving a horse beyond this stage, making him more agile, willing, easier to control, more pleasant to ride, more graceful, and better balanced. It involves a type of consistent horsemanship that is necessary for developing perfect obedience and perfect lightness and agility.

Dressage teaches a horse to understand your aides more fully and to become more responsive. Dressage is therefore beneficial for any horse — it will help him become well rounded in his education and less apt to become spoiled or one-sided. A little dressage makes for a better-trained horse. A broader experience of dressage not only trains a horse but also develops him physically and mentally so he is truly ‘one’ with his rider, able to understand whatever the rider asks of him and physically competent to perform it. “

 

Funny enough, as I’ve come to recognize this approach and see the potential it has for creating an incredible working relationship between horse and rider, I’ve always attributed it to the Western sensibility. To working horses that need to have these skills to get the job done, rather than pampered, gleaming show horses prancing around the ring to no discernible end. Thanks to this book, I now have more of an appreciation for the worth of a discipline that I had previously dismissed (although I’m still not sure I’ll be in a rush to go out and watch it).

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New Tricks

After some months of traveling, I’m back in Texas for a few months and ready to ride again. I was unsure of where to start, after last summer’s search for the right barn and then the subsequent disappointment of not really feeling the one that seemed to be the best fit, I bemoaned my apparent lack of options. But then I changed my perspective, and took another look at what was there. One of the barns I had communicated with over the summer had seemed like it was going to be a good fit, but then didn’t work out because they don’t jump their school horses and I was very focused on picking up where I left off with jumping when I was in LA. I was trying to find a place that offered what I was looking for, but what if, instead, I looked at what this place was offering?

On their website, they advertised both Western and English lessons. Western lessons intrigued me; I couldn’t imagine what they would consist of. I’ve been in a Western saddle a handful of times in my life, but only on trail. I’d never had any instruction other than the rudimentary “this is how you stop and go” talk that they send everyone out with on trail rides. I thought, maybe this is an opportunity to learn a whole new perspective on riding. Maybe learning some new tricks will be challenging and interesting and fun.

I contacted the woman with whom I had communicated last summer and explained my situation, asking if she thought that Western lessons would be worthwhile or interesting to someone with my experience. What she wrote back was unexpected. She said she had a wonderful reining horse who was coming up for lease, and was I interested?

First, I had to look up what a reining horse was. Then I asked if I could come try him out.

Yesterday I went out to the barn and met Dunnie. When I drove up and walked past the first barn, I saw a small, well-proportioned buckskin with a friendly face looking out his stall window at me with his ears up. I wasn’t sure it was him, since the only thing I knew about him was his color, but I guessed it was.

I watched while he was tacked up, all the straps and pieces so different from English tack, trying to learn and remember so I can do it for myself.

While I got on, my trainer explained a few basics to me. I had also been watching YouTube videos during the day to get a sense of what I’d be learning. Reining seems like it is not that different from dressage, except that it is like the opposite of dressage. What I mean is, there are certain elements and movements expected, and they are to be done with maximum finesse and minimum appearance of overt control. But instead of feeling fussy and stifling, it feels natural and at ease. In my dressage lessons, I was instructed to keep a strong hold on the reins with constant contact; in this lesson I learned that hands are the last resort, and everything should be done with leg and balance. This is so much more my style.

After a few basic instructions and some guidance about how my position should be different in the Western saddle as compared to English seat, my trainer suggested that I should just ride Dunnie around and do what I needed for us to get used to each other.

Everything just…clicked. Immediately. It felt like what I’ve always thought riding should feel like; like the best it has felt in fleeting moments when I’ve been really strong and confident. It didn’t feel like I hadn’t been on a horse in 6 months, it felt like I’d been riding this horse every day for the last 6 months.

Over the next month, I will likely take lessons on him, and then take over his lease at the end of March when his current lease term is up. I want to get more comfortable at the barn to know how things work there and where everything is, and I feel that I need to get some more groundwork down before it makes sense for me to spend so much time training on my own. I’m so excited to learn these new skills, and be able to immerse myself in something that felt so natural to me right off the bat. I’m also so excited at the thought of riding several times a week, having time on my own with Dunnie to keep getting to know him and learn from him.

Does Anyone Remember Laughter?

I have been riding, but I haven’t been writing. I just haven’t felt inspired.

I just looked back at a draft for a post I started to write about the second lesson I took at my new barn. It’s all about how my new trainer, who is very good at what she does, is encouraging me to develop some new habits as a rider. Her training is grounded in dressage techniques, concerned with getting the horse into a particular frame of body in order to make his movement more efficient and effective. It all makes a lot of sense and is interesting from an academic viewpoint.

The problem is, it’s not very fun.

Every moment and every movement is an intense juggling act to hold myself and my horse in what seem to me counter-intuitive postures. Although intellectually I can see how doing some of these things work with the anatomy of the horse and its movement, physically I just cannot feel it.  Well, it’s not that I can’t feel it–I do feel the horse doing what the trainer says he should be doing in response to my cues. I just think there are other ways to get there.

I just feel hemmed in by it all. Maybe part of that is having the full attention of a trainer, something I haven’t had since I was a teenager. But there just feels like no freedom, no time to figure things out by myself or have my own communication with my horse without my trainer reminding me to use her techniques. I get off my horse at the end of the lesson and I don’t feel like I know him very well because we didn’t have time to speak privately.

All of this returns me to a consideration of what I really want out of riding. What do I love about horses?

Do I love achieving the perfection of equitation? No. The constant striving for “perfection” is stifling and crazy-making and misses the point of life.

Do I crave equestrian competition? No. I love watching the shows because they are exciting competitions. And while the thought of being recognized as being very good at something I love to do is alluring, the show world is really not my scene and not a place I would be very happy or comfortable.

What do I love about riding, then? I’m pretty sure the answer is just “freedom and joy.” That’s what it gives me. I’m happy when I’m riding. I’m happy when I’m connecting with a horse. I love being outdoors and around animals. I love movement and activity. I love the feel and the sight and the smell and the sounds of horses. I want to be around them as much as possible.

What’s the problem then? Why am I so dissatisfied by my lessons?

I think it’s because they are framed as a means to an end. Every moment on the horse is about creating a response, and there’s no rest from that. Maybe that’s a form of good horsemanship, but it’s not my style. It’s all business.

Maybe the real problem is that everything feels that way lately. In trying to shape a new career for myself, trying to find work that I love, my thoughts run in circles trying to find ways to parlay doing what I love into a paying job. I need money to do what I love. I need to do what I love to make money.

And another problem is that it seems like “making money” is the only goal anyone has in this country anymore. The corporatization of everything is destroying creativity, destroying people’s capacity for joy, destroying peace, destroying nature, destroying fun…destroying life.

There’s a scene in “The Song Remains the Same” where Robert Plant ad libs onstage during “Stairway to Heaven”, asking the crowd, “Does anyone remember laughter?” It is a ridiculous moment and he’s supposedly still embarrassed by it, having asked for it to be cut from the movie during editing. But that’s how I feel right now. When I’m trying to find work writing and editing–trying to share ideas and stories that might in some way make life better for people and trying to help others do the same–and I am drowning in people talking about marketing verticals and SEO, I want to ask the whole goddam world if anyone remembers laughter.

It’s like everyone is simultaneously too serious and not serious enough. Maybe what it comes down to is just priorities. People care the most about things I don’t care about at all, and in doing so they miss the importance of the things that actually make life worth living.

 

 

 

 

Finding (What’s Good for You)

After about a month of looking, I’ve finally found a new place to ride.

There are plenty of stables in the greater Houston area. Some of them only cater to boarders and don’t give lessons to people without their own horses. Some of them give lessons, but don’t jump their school horses. Some of them focus only on dressage. One seemed promising on recommendation from another trainer, but when I checked out their website it said they were closing up operations and moving to South Carolina.

So I haven’t been on a horse in over a month.

I went out to Rainbow Hill Farm on Tuesday morning for a lesson. I’d already taken an informal tour and met the owner, Karen, who I felt immediately comfortable with.

Other than a handful of times when the rest of my class didn’t show up in LA, I haven’t taken private lessons in ages–not since I was a teenager. It’s a vastly different experience than being in a group; having the full attention of a trainer to point out every little thing you’re doing wrong can be quite overwhelming at first. There’s no downtime–every minute is devoted to learning and fixing things.

Karen seems to be an excellent trainer, very articulate and understanding. She’s very focused on the principles of dressage as the basis for good riding, which is new to me. Other than maybe one lesson back in college when I was on the riding team to cover the barest basics, I have had zero dressage training. Everything I’ve learned has been hunter seat equitation. So at first it felt like I was doing everything wrong.  Karen commented that I have “beautiful equitation”–but that’s not necessarily what’s going to be the most effective way to connect with my horse to produce the best results on the ground or in the air.  (It always surprises me when people compliment me on my equitation because I still feel totally sloppy most of the time).

Right off the bat, the trot I picked up was problematic. Being on a new horse I’d never ridden before, I was just getting oriented–but Karen asked me if I knew why the trot wasn’t right. It was bouncy and strung out; my horse, Dance, was on the forehand, pulling forward from her front legs rather than pushing off from her hind. The solution to this is to sit up straight and deep in the saddle, adding half-halts to block the forward movement of her front legs and simultaneously adding leg to get her to keep moving forward from the hind legs. I dealt with this before on Max back in Brooklyn, but Karen drove home my understanding of its importance for jumping. She said that jumping is all about having a good canter (and a good canter is built from a good trot, and a good trot is built from a good walk). If the canter is strung out and heavy on the forehand, it’s going to affect your take-off and make the jump very flat, leading to downed rails. If the canter has the appropriate rear impulsion, on the other hand, it will make the horse rock back on take-off, making your chances of clearing the jump much better.

We worked on building these gaits from the ground up, spending most of the lesson in a 20-meter circle. All of this required a whole lot more connection to my horse’s mouth than I’m used to. Karen asked me to take a firm feel of the outside rein, which felt very counter-intuitive on a circle, where I’m used to bending my horse with the inside rein. But the bend is supposed to come from your legs and your seat.

All of this was a bit difficult to juggle. I kept ending up making square turns on the edges the circle that bordered the sides of the ring because I was so focused on my outside rein. Dance is a very athletic, spirited Thoroughbred and required a lot of half halts to keep her from running. My muscles are out of shape from having been off the horse for a month, so I didn’t have the leg strength to wrap them around my horse and sit really deep in the saddle–I kept habitually returning to my arched lower back and hunter seat. There was a lot of new information to incorporate, as some of the things Karen was explaining were both completely new to me and sometimes contrary to everything I’ve learned.

Even though most of the lesson was flatwork–we jumped a couple of cross-rails at the end and Dance has a powerful jump–I was bushed at the end of it. But it was good for me. I think training with Karen is going to be challenging, hard work, and that’s exactly what I need. Despite all my years in the saddle, there’s so, so much I don’t know. I’m very excited to have the chance to train one-on-one with someone who knows all the theory behind good riding and to learn as much as I can.

Getting Good

Holy crap, I love my new barn.

There was a chance of showers today and because of that I ended up being the only one who showed for class. Rain happens so infrequently here that it really puts these people in a tizzy. There was no actual rain other than a tiny sprinkle on the drive over, so I ended up having a private lesson. The trainer I rode with last week was out of town at a show so I rode with her assistant and we had a great time.

I’m trying to remember the last time I rode for a full hour in a private lesson. It never happened at Jamaica Bay, and not at Kensington either…but it also never happened in college, since I rode with the equestrian team. So the last time would have been back in high school, when I was 17 years old. It was luxurious today, but man was it a workout. I am beat. I have that super-relaxed feeling throughout my body that I can only get from really pushing myself, where I’m so tired out that everything is just copacetic. It’s only the exhaustion of exertion that brings this feeling; knowing I worked hard and nothing can really rile me anymore because now it is time to rest.

I rode a really adorable little mare today named Jackie O., an appaloosa (spotted horse) who is mostly black with some white spots on her backside. I have a soft spot in my heart for appaloosas ever since I rode one named Apple Jack in my first show when I was nine years old. She had without a doubt the most comfortable canter I have ever experienced in my life. I could have just cantered around on her all day long and barely broken a sweat.

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Having so much time to play with, the trainer set up a number of flat exercises for me. First while warming up, she had me do four circles as I went around the ring (one at each end and then two more in the middle) to work on bending. She said she often has kids in her lessons who aren’t advanced enough to understand the theory behind it but that it’s good for Jackie to be trained this way since she had a tendency to fall in on the inside of the circle. The idea was to keep a good bend on her by pushing her out with my inside leg (something I had to work on a great deal with Misfit back in NY.) The trainer said something that really illustrated the movement I needed to do with my legs to get the desired effect, putting it a way I’d never heard before that was incredibly clear: she said, “Pretend like you’re trying to cross your legs through the horse.” My outside leg would go back a little bit, to keep the horse moving forward, but my inside leg would come a little bit forward and move into the side of the horse to push her toward the outside. As soon as she said that, it clicked perfectly in my mind and I was able to get a much more consistent bend.

The next exercise we did was using the tall lamp posts at each quarter of the ring to change the length of the trot. When I came to the lamp post at the end of the ring, I used my seat to sit deeper and post slower, putting my horse into a shorter, more collected, more upright stride. Then at the next lamp post on one side of the ring, I pushed her into a longer, more extended trot. We went back and forth between these two extremes at each quarter of the ring, trying to make the transition perfectly abrupt right at the lamp post. This is kind of a dressage-y exercise. It’s no secret that I don’t really get into dressage; I just think it’s kind of no fun, especially compared to jumping. But the few basics I’ve been taught over the years can be incredibly helpful exercises to build control with your horse and your body. It’s nice to slow it down sometimes and take this more mindful approach to training, so today I quite enjoyed doing it. It was nice to have several opportunities–with all of these exercises–to improve as well. I could see, and my trainer pointed out constructively, where I made mistakes or how I could do it better the next time and then I got a chance to put that into practice.

The next exercise was almost exactly the same as the previous but the difference was that each lamp post signaled the alternation of trot and canter. This was a little bit more of a challenge, but not for the reasons I expected. Typically I have a little trouble with the upward transition from trot to canter. When I ask for the canter, often my horse simply speeds up at the trot, getting into this sort of frantic, disorganized mess of running that makes me feel sloppy and ineffectual, and I compensate by inappropriately using my upper body to rock us into the canter. That was not an issue at all today; Jackie O. smoothly transitioned right into her perfectly smooth canter with the barest of urging. She’s even more responsive than the horse I rode last week, Bella. The challenge came on the downward transition, when Jackie didn’t want to come back to the trot. I think she would have been as happy as I would to have been cantering around for hours as well. The downward transitions therefore required a little more planning and a lot more work from my seat and my mid back to really sit up deep in the saddle and ease her back down to the trot. Luckily I’ve recently discovered the joys of the mid-row weight machine at the gym, but I still think this is going to leave me pretty sore there for at least a day or two.

Then we did an exercise with cavaletti, which are just jump poles that are laid on the ground instead of raised up to jump over. The horse either trots or canters through them, having to lift her feet more exaggeratedly than normal to step over. The three poles were placed across the center of the ring between (parallel to) the two long sides of the oval ring.  It looked like this, if you imagine that the equal sign has three lines instead of two:

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When I rode through them, it created the shape of two back-to-back uppercase Ds. The first time through I turned right afterwards, the next time through I turned left afterwards, making it a kind of squared-off figure eight maneuver. This incorporated skills we had used in earlier exercises, namely the bending on the turns and the lengthening and shortening of stride over the poles.

After that, the trainer had me do the same pattern but with alternating trot and canter. I was to canter the whole way around but return to the trot for the poles. The tough part was that I was only allowed to trot after I made the full turn toward the cavaletti, giving me a very short distance to slow her down and not allowing me to use the movement of the turn to accomplish that. If her hind end wasn’t completely on the straight line toward the poles when I began trotting that, the trainer said with a smile, would be cheating. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go, given Jackie’s enthusiasm for cantering, but it went surprisingly well. After talking softly to her and employing some rather strong half halts to get her settled, she seemed to understand the game very quickly and came back to the trot much more easily than she had before. Over the poles, I encouraged her with plenty of praise, patting her and telling her she was a good girl. The trainer said I should tell that to myself, as well.

Finally, we did a bit of jumping. There was a crossrail set on the diagonal of the ring and we jumped it on a figure eight pattern as well. Coming off the left lead it was a relatively easy turn because of the angle it was at. When I had to come at it off the right lead, the turn was much, much tighter and shorter. The first couple times through it, my rhythm was way off. I had felt really strong and supple throughout the lesson but could now finally feel a bit of muscle fatigue from all those exercises. But really the problem was just me being a hothead who wanted to leave out a stride that needed to be there. Jackie apparently has the tendency as well, but she was smart enough to see that with her little stride she needed another step. I was pushing her up too close and she was jamming it in there last minute as I was already up in jumping position expecting us to have taken off. We did it again and at the trainer’s suggestion I waited a beat, sitting up and opening my shoulder blades early in the turn instead of closer to the jump. Once I understood that we needed one more stride in there and didn’t try to push for the long takeoff, the timing fell back into place and we were able to do it a few times very smoothly.

I feel great about today’s lesson for a number of reasons. I haven’t put that much work into my riding, physically and mentally, in a good while and that is what I have been longing for, to really nerd out on it and get deep into theory and the repeated, punishing practice of that theory to whip myself back into shape. I also felt proud of my improvements as I learned better how to do each exercise. It was really nice that the trainer kept saying how much fun it was to do these things with me since she normally teachers younger students who aren’t advanced enough for it.

Everyone I meet at the barn continues to be really friendly, helpful and welcoming. Both horses I’ve ridden so far have been stellar. The barn manager was even playing some Judas Priest while I was untacking.

Another great thing is that my classes here are a few dollars cheaper than my lessons back in Brooklyn. With that savings, plus the much larger savings of not having to pay for a Zipcar, I’m going to be riding much more consistently, pretty much every week. I can’t wait to see where I am after a month, or two months of this more consistent training.