Once again, I am blessed to have a sponsor in Sarah Bushong-Weeks who has spent the last five years supporting my dream of riding at the Olympic Games. She imported Damon’s Design as a 4 year old from Germany with the long term goal of having him and I represent the US in International Competition. Her support has been unwavering through the process of bringing Damon to the Grand Prix Level. Now we are poised and ready to step out on the big stage continuing our quest for our personal best. And if that weren’t enough, Sarah has also provided an understudy in Destaque HI. Look for both horses to be competing at Grand Prix in 2020 and beyond!
The spring of 2019 brought a major change to Equisential when we became full-time residents of Wellington, FL. After over 35 years of moving north and south with the seasons, we decided to make my native Florida our full-time home. So June 1st, we packed up 8 horses and our bulldog, Winston Churchill, and moved to the Palm Beach Equine Sports Complex.
There is a season for everything and the time was right for making the move. Five years ago we imported an Oldenburg, Damon’s Design from Germany as a 4-year-old. Fast forward to today and he is now schooling Grand Prix. Our hope is to prepare him for international competition and where better to do that than Wellington. The best horses and riders from all over the US and Europe meet here in the winter in preparation for the Olympic and World Equine Games. I will also be competing with 2 Lusitanos in the Grand Prix Division. Eragon VO and Destaque HI. The owner of these wonderfully talented horses, Sarah Bushong-Weeks has joined us for the winter season to watch their progress first hand.
My assistant trainer, Mary Anne Milleman, will be training and competing Grand Prix on Royal Waltz this season, looking to get the last score needed for her Gold Medal.
And last but not least, we adopted an English Bulldog rescue and named him Sir Winston Churchill (what else would you call him?) He makes us laugh everyday!
The Road To Beijing (part 2)
article in “Horsemen’s Corral” by Candy Lawrence
It’s a long and arduous adventure on the road to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, but for 50-year-old dressage enthusiast Nancy Smith, who divides her home base between Ohio in the summer and Florida in the winter, it’s the magical journey that counts. The detours, obstacles and struggles are all part of the package, welcomed trials and tribulations without which the ascent would not be as meaningful.
Their equine passports in order, two of Caroline Ashton’s horses, Donatella, a ten-year-old Westphalian mare and Donneur, a nine-year-old Danish gelding were escorted by Smith, caretaker, trainer and rider, to Germany in late October in order to work for two-and-a-half months with legendary international master horsemen Hubertus Schmidt, who rode on the Gold Medal winning German team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
“My goal is not just the Olympic Games,” Smith explained. “Many of the horses that I train on a daily basis have issues that have to be resolved. My goal is to make them all productive members of the horse community so that they will always be enjoyed and cherished by their owners. Everyone always has time to ride a pleasant horse and that horse is guaranteed to always be well taken care of. Only a handful of superstars go international. But every horse has to find a station in life.”
Horses aren’t equipped with global positioning systems hooked up to their heads. That’s where Smith comes in, identifying their individual stations and bringing out their brilliance. She designs an equation that works. Determined to incorporate Schmidt’s lessons into her own formula for success, Smith is currently in Germany exploring an equine culture shock that is quite foreign to the majority of American equestrians.
Hubertus Schmidt’s primary foundation is to allow his charges to willingly accept the outside rein while remaining loose and relaxed on the inside rein, a seemingly simple recipe which often becomes lost in the substructure of basic groundwork.
“The horses have to start out their session with a low stretching neck and be able to maintain that at the trot and canter before moving onto collection. Once the collection has started, shoulder-in and half pass are the keys to engagement,” Smith said, recounting her German instructor’s primary strategy to achieving balance.
The lateral work, Smith maintains, allows the horses’ haunches to step deeper and deeper underneath. “The key point to remember in the lateral work is that you can have flexion in the jaw without bending in the neck, but you cannot have bending without flexion. It is a big challenge to keep the horse on the outside rein during the half pass, but you cannot maintain collection without it.”
Yet even in lateral movements, the emphasis is always focused toward forward movement. “The hands must not exert more pressure than your legs to keep the horse forward,” Smith continued. “I have yet to see Hubertus stop a horse that was too strong and you don’t see him rein back either, except if required in a test. Everything is corrected in a forward direction, although not allowing the horse to run on the forehand, that’s the tricky part. This kind of training is the real deal and very demanding on the horses and the riders. Theoretically, it can be applied to all horses and riders, but in reality, few are up to the challenge of working at this level of intensity. Every horse and rider will have to find the level of intensity that matches their goals.”
According to Smith, there’s no tiptoeing in a German stable and no one cuts any slack. The horses are not spared either in exposure or in their work ethic, and as a consequence, newcomers quickly learn to adapt to incidents that Americans would consider unnerving. “It has been very interesting to watch the young horses just starting under saddle and how it compares to what we do at home. Basically, lunging with side reins is standard in a lunging arena but things take a whole new direction when it’s time to get on,” Smith explained.
“I have watched a young horse over a period of three days go from having someone lay over the saddle to cantering. What makes it so different is that all this takes place in a 20 x 50 meter arena while everyone else is riding. No concession is made for the horse being young, kind of like being thrown in the water, sink or swim. Quite a challenge to navigate in that space on a horse that doesn’t know what the aids mean and if they are shy about oncoming horses, they have to get over that in a hurry! Once again, it appears that we baby our horses much more and shelter them compared to the German way. I think there is merit to both approaches, they just get the horses over the shock of riding in traffic in the beginning, instead of at the horse show like we do,” Smith concluded.
The policy in a German stable is for the horses to get with the program with little question and zero pampering, a policy that no doubt quickly strengthens a timid, poorly balanced or weak-seated rider. “No special treatment here if the horse wants to look at something, just a good crack with the whip and forward they go. Not going forward or hesitations of any kind are just not tolerated here. And there is no worry about how that affects the other riders in the arena. It’s damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead. Our horses looked more like a school of fish, when one spooked and changed direction, they all did. You had to laugh,” Smith said.
While horse shopping, Smith came to the conclusion that Schmidt’s basic German attitude of not sparing the horse is pretty much adopted throughout the country. “We have seen mostly young horses, three and four-year-olds, however, here in Germany, they are well accomplished at that age and have already been to a few shows. Many times not only do they walk, trot, and canter on the bit, they are already trying a few changes. Certainly not what we are used to at home,” said Smith.
In Germany, there are no punches pulled and when horse hunting, a prospective buyer pretty much gets to tap into the raw, bare, pure essence. What they see is what they get. Smith explained, “You really get a feel for their temperament since they have no problem showing you a horse that hasn’t been ridden in a week or a three-year-old that was broke, turned out for a month and then ridden for two days before you came to see it. You also ride these horses in a busy arena and you find that they are quite used to the confusion and oncoming traffic. I have to say it is much more pleasant than trying a four-year-old that has barely cantered and only been ridden at home with no company.”
There are some glaringly identifiable differences between showing in Germany compared to the American version. “They play music with each ride that coincides with the gait that the horse is in and begins and ends as the horse does,” Smith said. “They also give each rider a glass of wine as they come out of the competition arena. The other thing is that NOBODY leaves before the prize giving. They love to celebrate the winner.”
Another equine culture shock is in stable management differences. Americans tend to pamper their show horses, whereas the Germans exercise a tougher regime bordering on limited tolerance. “The theory here is that they can take care of themselves and the more you pamper them, the more they need,” Smith explained. “Every horse is on the same diet of crimped oats, three times each day, the same amount, one big scoop, even on days off and bran mash never happens. They get silage (their version of hay) once each day, in the middle of the afternoon, a lot of it.”
“Little to no turnout,” Smith continued, “And they stand on their days off or they are ridden long and low. It’s amazing what they get used to and they work very hard and seem to thrive just fine. One thing that almost every barn has is a solarium to dry them off in the winter, which is pretty nice. They bed on straw mostly and use a deep litter method adding more each day and then about every four weeks, they strip the barn. Basically one guy does the feeding and stall cleaning for close to 50 horses. German people work as hard as their horses!”
“Well, now I have witnessed stall cleaning the German way. As I mentioned earlier, the stalls are not cleaned on a daily basis when the horses are bedded on straw. Instead, they use the deep litter method, just adding more each day. After about six weeks, when all the horses look 18 hands in their stalls because there is so much bedding, it is time to strip the stalls. The horses are moved out of their stalls, turned out, put in another barn or just tied somewhere for a few hours and the work begins. All the feed bins have to be unscrewed from the wall, and a bottom board that is on each stall divider is removed, then the walls can swing back flush against one side so the tractor can come in and start scraping out the straw. It still takes a couple of people with pitchforks to take the bedding away from the walls so the tractor can take it out. What a tremendous undertaking.”
Whatever colors of the German spectrum that Smith decides to incorporate into her training and teaching regime, it no doubt will reflect in her horses. “I have always been able to think like a horse and find a way to communicate with every horse I have worked with. The biggest skill is being able to listen to the horse. If he doesn’t act on your request, you must determine whether he is saying, ‘I can’t’, ‘I won’t’ or ‘I don’t understand’ before you can correct him effectively,” Smith explained.
“I notice everything about my horses,” Smith continued. “I know what is normal for each one physically and attitude-wise. I have also learned to put my ego aside and not have to be the winner every time. One of the skills of a good negotiator is knowing what is okay to compromise on because compromise is an inevitable part of a partnership. It isn’t easy to accept things when you are a horse and have no control over your life. It is only because they are so inherently generous that they submit to our whims. That is why it is so important to have a horse that fits your goals.”
“Some horses are really hard workers, enjoy the life of a show horse and thrive on the attention and the pressure of achieving. Others do not,” continued Smith. “But for sure there is a home for every horse where they can be a hero for their owner given the right situation. It is definitely a balancing act between logic and emotion so that they both work toward a common goal. And sometimes, when all else fails, you have to go with your gut feeling.”
For Smith the experience in Germany has been invaluable, training and life lessons she hopes to pass on to both her horses and her students back home. “I try to live my life each day and move through this world treating others with kindness and respecting our differences. I am very blessed to have had, and continue to have the love and support of many people. I am anxious to ‘pay it forward’ to those that come after me in this sport.”
Trainer Spotlight: Nancy Smith
The Road to Beijing: Scaling the Great Wall(Part One of a Two-Part Series)
By Candy Lawrence
China, a mysterious and massive country steeped in a culture that combines both Daoism and Confucianism, is a place where few people from the United States have ever ventured. It’s an almond-eyed sprawling nation of ancient magnitude dotted with fabled pagodas, eclectic temples and red papered lanterns awash with colorful dragons. At the eye of its giant, vibrating soul lies Beijing, revered as the core, the nucleus of this mighty dynasty and the host for the 2008 Olympics.
Entering the heart of the city’s soul, through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the doorway to the Forbidden City beyond Tiananmen Square, a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong smiles down benevolently from the south side of its weathered, eternal post. To the north of the city, about an hour’s drive, is Badaling, where the section of Wanli Changcheng, the nearest accessible portion of the Great Wall of China, sprawls in all its aspiring magnificence amid a steep, forested mountain range.
Scaling China’s Great Wall is an arduous, breathless task, even for seasoned hikers, veteran mountaineers or athletic equestrians. The aged stone steps are worn and irregular, some only five inches high, followed in succession by twelve inch high stretches, the treads continuing in a progression of inconsistency so that a rhythm, such as a rider would want to achieve with their horse’s gait, is never fully attained. To reach the top, past the seven imposing watchtowers, often takes several hours, yet on finally reaching the pinnacle, the view is breathtaking and so worth the ascent.
Nancy Smith, a horsewoman with roots in both Ohio and Florida, has been scaling her own version of the Great Wall, trying to maintain her own sense of rhythm, impulsion, tempo and balance, for the last five decades, hoping to tackle the ultimate climb as she struggles to reach her brightest, most challenging goal, a spot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It continues to be an extraordinary journey on her way to the summit, an exhausting adventure punctuated with both disappointment and glory but one that she pursues relentlessly.
“I have never been to Beijing,” dressage enthusiast Smith explained. “They have actually moved the Equestrian Venue to Hong Kong since they are better able to facilitate the horses. For me, however, I hope to visit Beijing, as it is a possible stop along the way, as are the Pan Am Games in Rio De Janeiro this summer and the World Equestrian Games in 2010 in Lexington. It is about a never ending quest to be my personal best. That would not stop if I do go to the Olympics, it is a way of life for me. Yes, I think my life is very exciting! But you have to remember that the pinnacle is a very small place and you can’t stay there long, only short visits.”
The visits may be brief and elusive, but Smith is making the most of her time throughout her roller coaster journey as she experiences the highs, lows and seismic sweeps of the adventurous climb. For the last few weeks, she has been riding, studying and training in Germany with legendary Hubertus Schmidt, who rode on the Gold Medal winning German Team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The German section of the journey will hold her and her horses happily hostage for two months.
“The only thing is, he is even better in person than his credentials are on paper,” Smith gushed, delighted to have the opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the world’s best dressage riders. “What a talent!”
Schmidt’s credentials also include winning the Gold Medal at the 2005 German Championships and the Silver Medal at the 2005 Federation Equestrian International (FEI) European Dressage Championships. He also won the Silver Medal at the 2005 FEI World Equestrian Festival and is regarded in Germany as a Pferdewirtschaftsmeister, or State-Recognized Equestrian Expert, the equivalent of a Masters/PhD degree. He is also a five-time German Professional Riders’ Champion.
During the last week of October of this year, Smith packed her bags and arranged for two of her charges, Donneur, a nine-year-old Danish gelding by Donnergraf; and Donatella, a ten-year-old Westphalian mare by Diamo, to be shipped overseas along with herself to Germany in order to undergo intensive training sessions, their joint target being the United States Equestrian Team (USET) Selection Trials, a precursor for Beijing. Both horses are owned by Caroline Ashton, a staunch supporter of Smith as well as the sport of dressage, a discipline Ashton, herself an FEI level rider, is no stranger to.
“Caroline is quite an experienced horse woman,” Smith said. “She has ridden and trained horses to the Grand Prix level herself, and now that she has retired from the competition arena, has been kind enough to give me the ride on her horses. She bought Donneur four years ago with the idea that he would be a competition horse for me to come up with behind Etias.”
No doubt Ashton elected to support Smith and give her the rides based on the principle that ‘it takes one to know one’. There was no foolery here. And both Ashton and Smith certainly have an eye for talented horseflesh.
Etias, a Dutch Warmblood by Onyx and a horse also owned by Ashton, qualified Smith for a spot as the team alternate for the 1999 Pan American Games but tragically, the horse was lost to colic in September of 2003 after desperate attempts to save his life. It was a painful disappointment as Smith is deeply attached to all of her charges, but an experience that she was grateful for, because Etias was a horse who she felt privileged to have had touch her life. Like each of her horses, he was a gift she treasured.
“When I went to try Donneur, after only a couple of minutes of riding, I knew he was the horse for me. We fit really well together and he had the kind of talent that would take him to the top of the class,” Smith said. “He is a rare combination of being very laid back in the stable and very personable. However, under saddle he is an over-achiever and extremely intelligent. He is very unassuming and humble, yet when he goes to work, he is one of the most powerful and exciting horses that I have ever ridden. Everyone is amazed when they stand next to him because he is only 16.1 hands, but in the arena, he is huge. It’s kind of like sitting on a rocket! Not everyone’s cup of tea, but he has tremendous heart and work ethic and it is a matter of channeling all that enthusiasm into the right direction.”
“Caroline purchased Donatella for herself to ride,” explained Smith, “But after a year, it became evident that she had too much talent not to put her in the competition arena, so I began riding and showing her. Donatella and Donneur are very different. He is all about power and she is a graceful Princess who moves like a beautiful butterfly. She is much more predictable and steady to compete than Donneur is. Her feet barely touch the ground as she floats along.”
“Donatella, aka Dolly, is a business mare,” continued Smith. “She goes right to work each day and gets right to the task at hand. There is no question that she is a girl, you can always pick her out in a crowd and she even whinnies like a girl! If she were a human, she would definitely be in diamonds and her best Chanel suit. Donneur is more likely to be dressed in his Levi jeans.”
It’s a difference Smith finds both amusing and stimulating. “It’s nice to have two different types of horses in a sport that is judged so subjectively. Now that we are at Prix Saint Georges and Intermediare I, both horses compete against each other, which is too bad, because they can’t both be first. But I would say they are pretty even in the number of times they win a class.”
Smith spent her childhood years growing up in Florida but headed north to Ohio to pursue higher academics after graduating from high school. “Horses are more than an interest, more than a career, they are a calling for me. I have always known that I would work with horses. You can look back at my Senior High School yearbook and in addition to being voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, I predicted that I would train horses,” Smith said.
“When my high school counselor talked to me about colleges, I said, ‘You tell me where they have horses and that is where I am going.’ When I went home from boarding school the next time, I announced that I would be going to college at Lake Erie College (LEC) in Ohio from my home in Florida. Fall term of my freshman year I loaded my car and headed out, not once considering any other option. It never occurred to me that I might not have the talent to train horses, I just knew that I would because horses make me feel so happy and complete. How many other people do you know that look forward to going to their job every day and still get excited about riding even after over 30 years?”
After graduating in 1978 from LEC, a school which offered the first accredited equestrian program in the country, Smith stayed on for another four years as a faculty member at the LEC Equestrian Center teaching, training, organization horse shows and managing the stables.
In 1982 she received the Carl-Heinrich Asmis Dressage Scholarship Fund from the USET, an award which validated her talent and thrust her into a league reserved for only the elitist and best. The purpose of the Fund is to afford qualified riders an opportunity to advance their studies with dressage masters around the world. Past winners include legendary riders Carol Lavell, Lendon Gray, Anne Gribbons and Linda Zang, all notable dressage dignitaries.
Smith temporarily left Ohio in 1982 for Canada where she was employed by Hans and Evi Pracht, who owned International Equestrian Sports Services, and hosts of the 1986 World Dressage Championships. Famed German Olympian Josef Neckermann, father of Evi Pracht, frequently visited their Toronto facility, along with many European masters, all adding to Smith’s wealth of exposure in the international equestrian arena.
At the close of 1986, Smith returned back to U.S. soil where she was given the ride on The Immigrant, a Hanoverian by Gazal VII owned by Barbie Asplundh. The pair were long listed for the World Championships.
The following year, 1987, Smith made the USET short list for the Pan American Games riding Felit, the first horse she had ever trained to Grand Prix, and also collected the Team Silver Medal at the Olympic Sports Festival. In 1989, also aboard Felit, Smith pocketed the USET Team Bronze Medal in Quebec at the North American Championships.
The impermanency of being at the top of the pinnacle is indeed fleeting, a life lesson that has been repeated with frequency throughout her career. When it was clear that Felit needed to retire from his show career, Smith wasn’t about to give up on her quest. Creatively reaching into her educational resources, she was determined to find a way to finance her dream, and continue on the road to the Olympics. Smith designed detailed sponsorship packages for both individual prospects and syndicates, put them to paper and set out to beat the bush, determined to sell her dream to anyone and everyone who crossed her path.
“No question that the overall education that I received at LEC helped prepare me for the business side of the horse world,” Smith said. “Ironically, sociology was my second major at LEC. The public relations and fund raising skills have had to be self taught and cultivated. They are a function of the will to succeed at my goal to be my personal best as a rider and a teacher.”
“It is time consuming to juggle training, teaching and promoting my Olympic campaign, but it is a labor of love,” Smith continued. “When I am in my rocking chair reminiscing about my life, I want to know that I gave 110% to reach my goal and left no stone unturned. I have an endless fountain of enthusiasm for my riding and you only need to ask one question to get me started. It’s getting me stopped that is the problem. I want everyone to experience horses with the same intensity of color and emotion that I do.”
A fairy godmother in disguise, Irene Kooyman tapped her magic wand agreeing to fund Smith’s new horse, Focus, a Hanoverian by Furioso. For the next six years, Smith, her supporters, students and benefactors were able to raise $75,000 in funding to further the dream, financing trips abroad to refine and perfect Smith’s talents. Smith and Focus spent four months together in 1993 and again another four months in 1994 studying, training and competing in Germany with the late Herbert Rehbein, five-time Champion German Professional Dressage Trainer who passed away in 1997.
Everything was falling perfectly in place and Smith could almost taste her Olympic goals. In 1996 Focus and Smith were long listed for the Olympics. It was a helium high she’ll never forget. Headed for Gladstone and the Selection Trials, while ranked in the top twelve in the nation, Focus pulled a suspensory, a huge tear in their sails which sent Smith again back to square one, sinking her plans for the 1996 Olympics.
After the tragedy of losing Focus, a promising new horse, Etias breathed new life into her sails and they qualified as alternates for the 1999 Pan American Games. But in yet another crushing defeat, the horse was lost to colic in September of 2003.
Even with her share of disappointments and the highs and lows of her career, the lessons Smith continues to acquire along the path are experiences she welcomes, none of which she regrets as she focuses on her future with a logic that would rival Confucius himself. “My bootstraps are well worn,” Smith said. “But for me, there is no other course than to continue toward my goal. I can do that because I enjoy the journey so much. Without disappointments, the rewards would not be as sweet. We need those experiences to gain perspective and mature in our thoughts and actions.”
“I had so many wonderful experiences with Focus and Etias that I bring to the table today that make me a better trainer and teacher. One of the best things you can learn in life is how to set a goal, a dream with a time-line, and how to take steps toward it,” Smith philosophized. “I knew four years ago when I got Donneur as a five-year-old that I would be taking him to Europe to train at the appropriate time. The wheels have been turning since then to make that happen.”
Smith comes from a strong gene pool of maternal resourcefulness. Her first role model was a lady powerhouse, someone who could work miracles against insurmountable odds. It was an early experience that left an indelible imprint on her life. After watching her mother in action, there was never any doubt that she couldn’t do anything she put her mind to.
“One source of great inspiration to me has been my mother, who raised five children on her own. She is the queen of finding a way to make it happen. A more recent source of inspiration is a book by Jack Canfield, titled ‘The Principles of Success – How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be’. I keep that book on my bedside table and refer to it often. Basically, the amount of success you have is directly related to how hard you want to work at it. And having an optimistic outlook!”
“Back to the Journey,” Smith continued, “Whether I reach the Olympics or not, I enjoy my horses to the max every day. They have brought me so much happiness and opportunity and I love sharing that with my students. I would not like to be 30 again if I had to give back everything I have learned between then and now. What a great way to celebrate your 50th year with a trip to Germany and embarking on a journey of a lifetime on the Road to Beijing!”
Between traveling to Europe to enhance her equestrian education, and commuting between base camps of Florida in the winter, Ohio in the summer, Smith’s plate is pretty full. An over achiever, it’s been that way for most of her life. Since the year 2000, Smith has incorporated her business as Equisential, Inc., offering both training and instruction for horses and riders from entry level through Grand Prix.
“I have had ties in Ohio since starting at LEC in 1974,” Smith explained. “I have been teaching a clinic in the Cleveland area every month since 1984. Most of my students are on their second, third or fourth horse since we started together. Actually, although not as glamorous as the Florida dressage circuit, I find the people in the Cleveland area to be tremendously dedicated to their horses and the pursuit of knowledge. The quality of horses has certainly improved in recent years and you can see some nice quality rides at the local shows now. I would love to take this opportunity to thank all of my students in Ohio and Michigan for being so supportive over the years and being a part of my growing process. They benefit from every experience that I gain in the process of becoming a better rider and teacher,” Smith said.
“Even if I never got to the Olympic Games, I can’t imagine approaching any of my goals with any less commitment, I guess you could say Donneur and I share that same quality of putting in 100% every time out. I don’t think you can train that into a horse or a person, I think you have to be born with that kind of drive. I am very fortunate that my health is excellent and I have more energy than most people to pursue my dreams.”
#30# Part Two: January Issue The Road to Beijing Germany: Equine Culture Shock
Everyone is familiar with the terms “On the bit”, “Through the neck”, and “Riding within the connection”. But what do these phrases really mean and at what stage of a rider’s development is it fair and appropriate to expect them to become part of the ride on a regular basis?
The first thing that the rider must grasp is the understanding that there is a certain environment that has to be present in the training session that enables the rider to establish a connection between the energy that is created by the leg and the ability of the hand to receive, recycle and balance that energy. The rider must possess three elements that will be combined in an infinite number of combinations to create the environment that will allow the connection to happen. They are: 1) an immediate forward response to the leg,
2) the ability to balance and/or regulate the forward response with the rein and
3) the ability to move the horse’s body left or right to help them find a channel between two hands and legs. It is only when the horse allows you to influence him in all three areas with equal success that the training can begin in earnest.
If you think of the horse’s hindlegs as the engine that propels him forward and the reins as the steering wheel that directs the energy, then the horse’s back must be the transmission that allows the energy to flow freely forward toward the hand. The hand receives the energy and volleys it back toward the hind leg, thereby capturing that energy in a perpetual cycle to be repeated over and over throughout the ride. The horse’s back cannot bridge the hind legs to the reins unless the horse travels with his hind legs following the exact path that his shoulders travel. Therefore, the rider’s legs must stabilize the hindquarters so that the shoulders can be mobilized and placed in front of them. Straightening an animal with an inherent crookedness built in due to the hindquarter being wider than the shoulder, is an incredibly difficult task. Given that the horse’s balance can change with each step he takes, the concepts of controlling the forward thrust, directing the energy and keeping the horse moving down a corridor between the hands and legs, have to be negotiated every few strides. It is very much like juggling to keep all three elements available at a given moment.
This is a degree of sophistication that escapes the rider until their own seat is so firmly established that their balance can remain in tact in spite of what the horse does. The rider must serve as a point of reference that the horse must always return to after even a small breech in his balance. The ability to affect the horse in such minute detail must be earned through many hours in the saddle, preferably on many different horses. Some riders will go through their entire riding lives and never capture all three elements simultaneously for more than a few strides at a time, while others will be able to produce the “connection” at will on any horse they ride.
Does this mean that one can’t progress out of Training Level if they are unable to master the concept of “riding through the connection”? Absolutely not! In fact, many riders perform anything from shoulder-in to tempi changes without a good connection. It is all a matter of perception. If the first bottle of wine that you ever tasted cost $10.00, you might well enjoy the bottle and buy more in the future. However, once you had the opportunity to taste a $100.00 bottle of wine, you would realize that there are many layers of taste that enhance the wine tasting experience. The same will prove true with you riding. As your skills improve, your ability to maintain the connection during the shoulder-in and the tempi changes will dramatically enhance your experience of being in a harmonious partnership with the horse.
You will find that there won’t be much new information once you master the basic skills of riding a horse, only a greater depth of understanding. Most riders reasonably accomplish riding a movement such as half pass. Riding the half pass while controlling the flow of energy, keeping the horse in front of your leg but not past your hand and keeping him well balanced between the inside leg and outside rein is the challenge! Making the connection and keeping it is what enhances the colors and emotions of riding.
Do you ever wonder what it is about horses that we love so much? Why are we willing to make physical, emotional and financial sacrifices to keep horses in the forefront of our daily lives? What allure does the horse have that makes you willing to rise at daybreak seven days a week to feed him and brave the cold winter evenings to ride him? The activity of riding is understandably fun, good exercise and exhilarating all at once. But I would like to address the understated reasons that horses are so beneficial to our growth and development both emotionally and spiritually.
If you visit a bookstore, you can find shelf after shelf of “self help” books that are meant to help you become a better person. After reading one of these books, it occurred to me that having horses in my life has given me the opportunity to grow in all of the areas mentioned in the book. Here follows some character traits that we all would do well to improve upon and how the horse helps us to accomplish that in a way that is so understated, that many times we don’t even recognize him as our teacher:
PATIENCE- Being around horses requires infinite amounts of patience. It is like having a child that is perpetually 2 years old. He can never quite fend for himself, always depending on you for his every need. Trying to communicate effectively when neither of you speaks the same language is a challenge. You are accustomed to communicating verbally and he lives by watching the body language of his peers. It is nothing short of a miracle that he can learn to decipher the language of the legs and hands of the rider and translate that into a beautiful dressage movement.
HUMILITY– How many times have you heard there is nothing like a horse to make you humble? Just when you think you have mastered the half-halt, two strides later the horse acts like he has never heard it before. The horse reminds us that we are not always right and that there is no place for ego when it comes to being a good rider. We must always remember that the horse has a choice of whether or not to cooperate and it shouldn’t be taken for granted that he puts his gentle spirit in our hands.
EMPATHY- the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. Many times it is difficult to remember that our agenda is not necessarily the same as our horse’s and no matter how much we try, the horse always pushes the pencil last. The great rider is able to avoid serving his own interest at the expense of the horses thoughts and feelings.
FORGIVENESS– when you are at odds with your horse over something, you must make a correction and move on instead of dwelling on the mistake. If you had a rough ride the day before, you can’t bring a grudge to the next ride. If your horse doesn’t live up to your expectations at the show, you can be disappointed, but you have to be strong enough emotionally to move on and start the training again with a fresh positive attitude.
EXCELLENCE-The way you do anything is the way you do everything, and riding is no exception. You have to discipline yourself to give 100% of your best effort each time you ride your horse. The success of your horse will be proportionately related to the amount of effort that you put in to his training.
POSSIBILITIES– each time we ride our horse, we should imagine what all of the possibilities are for his success today and in the future. Thomas Edison once said” If we did all the things we were capable of doing, we would astound ourselves”.
Our horses are capable of teaching us these qualities without ever uttering a word. How fortunate we are to be able to spend time with an animal that embodies all of these qualities with such dignity and grace.
If I was allowed only one word to sum up what Dressage riding is all about, it would be balance. From the rider’s point of view, it is crucial to be in enough control of your seat, legs and hands to be able to use them independently as well as in a coordinated fashion toward the goal of balancing the horse. This requires the rider to be able to be balanced over the horse’s ever changing center of gravity, while at the same time, remaining firm in the core muscles of the upper body and supple and flexible in the hands, elbows, hips and ankles. The aids must be applied in such a way that one aid isn’t used to the exclusion of others, thereby balancing the effect of the hand, seat and legs. Whenever the hand is used, there is always a supporting and cooperative action that involves the leg and seat and vice a versa.
The horse’s natural balance is to carry nearly 60% of his weight on his forehand and the remaining on his hindquarters. This makes him feel a bit like a stretch limousine to maneuver, which is why the point of Dressage training is to turn him into something easier to handle, like a sports car, by shifting more weight back to his hindquarters.
The horse’s center of gravity is located at the wither area just where the saddle sits if it fits properly. Imagine that his center of gravity lives inside of a box that is formed by your hands and your two seatbones. When that is the case, you feel the sensation of having the horse in front of your leg but not past your hand. In other words, there is a balance in his desire to go forward and his willingness to accept your half halt.
Each time the horse takes a step, his center of gravity is in danger of moving outside of the box. It is the rider’s responsibility to keep that to a minimum by executing half halts that affect the horse in two dimensions, both longitudinally and laterally. Sometimes the center of gravity moves to the very front of the box, which is easily remedied by a simple half halt to bring it back to the center, however, things can get more complicated when the center of gravity moves to the front right or left corner of the box.
As an example, let’s say that the center of gravity has shifted to the front left corner of the box. The symptoms that you would feel as the rider would likely be more contact on the left rein, less contact on the right rein, left seat bone lower than the right and the horse’s hips would be escaping to the outside while his shoulder falls to the inside. Many riders make the mistake of trying to fix the most obvious symptom, the horse pulling on the left rein, by bending the horse to the left and moving him away from the left leg in the direction of the outside rein. What you must realize is that the more you bend him left, the easier it is for him to escape with the haunches to the outside. Bending him left gives you some momentary relief, but as soon as you try to go straight ahead again, you are right back where you started.
The proper correction is to treat the cause, not the symptom. If you think of the horse as a table top with 4 legs and that the right hind leg is being carried slightly outside of the right front foot print, it will have the effect of tipping the horse onto the left shoulder. The correction that should be made is to pay strict attention to the alignment of the horse’s legs, that is to say that the hind hoof should step in the same track as the front foot. You can achieve that best by establishing more contact on the right rein, be more elastic on the left rein, let your right leg think of holding the haunch so that it doesn’t swing out, thereby letting his hind leg fill up the right rein now that the energy isn’t being diverted somewhere else. Use just enough left leg to keep the horse from falling in now that you have established a perimeter on the outside. In other words, your hands and legs will form the corridor that the horse must travel down in an aligned fashion.
Notice we have not discussed the head and neck of the horse because when the body is in alignment and you have an equal willingness of the horse to go forward, accept a half halt and let you correct him left or right in order to keep him in the center, his head and neck will fall beautifully into place.
So the next time you feel that your horse’s center of balance is not contained in the box formed by your hands and seatbones, or that because his balance is in one corner or the other, making your box seem more like a parallelogram, just remember to balance yourself by sitting in the middle riding with two hands and two legs at all times, balance the effectiveness of your aids so that you don’t allow one to overshadow all of the others and balance the horse’s willingness to go forward, half halt or move over. Your horse will thank you for helping make his job easier by letting him be in a balanced state in spite of having to carry a rider.
Everyone will agree that suppleness and impulsion are key elements when it comes to riding the horse o the aids. I prefer to use the expression “on the aids” instead of “on the bit” because it presents a different mental image. When you picture a horse that is on the bit, the focus is on a horse with his face on the vertical and an arched neck that typifies the look of a dressage horse. Thinking of a horse that is on the aids takes that a step further in that it makes you think of the same image as on the bit, in addition to a horse that reacts well to the riders aids.
Riders have heard their instructor say, “Ride the horse more forward!” That usually involves a couple of kicks from the leg and or a touch of the whip to encourage the horse to add impulsion to his stride. How much is enough? Can you have too much impulsion? How do you know if there is too much impulsion? These are all questions that the average rider has trouble evaluation. The best way to describe what you are seeking is a horse that is in front of your leg but not past the control of your rein.
You know the horse is in front of your leg when his response to your leg is immediate and sustained for a few strides at a time. If you close your eyes while your horse is trotting, you should feel that most of is body is in front of where you are sitting. If you have the sensation that most of his body is behind you, you need to add more impulsion to the mix. Sometimes when you add more impulsion, the horse goes faster but leans more on the reins, therefore going past what the had can regulate. Most riders get stuck bouncing back and forth between being slow but in control or adding impulsion and giving up some control. When the horse goes with more impulsion but less control, it’s time to check up on the flexibility factor.
Suppleness or flexibility is the willingness of the horse to allow the action of the aids to pass through his body. That means that he accepts the forward driving aid, the half halt and he will move readily to the left or right. You will find that each time you add or subtract impulsion from the horse, the suppleness will have to be negotiated again.
How does the rider create suppleness? The horse is made more flexible through riding bending lines (circles, serpentines, figure eights) as well as lateral exercises (shoulder –in and leg yield). The rider has to be on a constant vigil to keep the horse supple enough that he does not control the bearing on the rein. That means the horse must maintain a light, even, elastic contact on both reins at all times. The moment he braces against one or both reins, he braces his neck against the hand, thereby blocking the energy of the hind leg to flow freely through the body. This causes the ability of the horse to accept the half halt to be greatly diminished.
The ideal environment for training your horse is one where the impulsion doesn’t overpower your ability to maintain suppleness and where the impulsion isn’t sacrificed while creating flexibility. Keeping that in mind, you must always train your horse at his level of acceptance of these principles. If the horse loses his flexibility and acceptance of the aids, causing the quality of his gait to be compromised, don’t hesitate to take a moment to regain his balance and confidence. This would be a wonderful time to add a stretch circle or two for relaxing the horse. The reward will be a horse that moves in his most beautiful way through all of the excercises. With time and patience, he will be able to meet your expectations, while maintaining impulsion and suppleness.