Real People and Real Horses: The Adventure Never Ends

I suppose I could say that life itself is an adventure, but that might force me to distinguish between adventure and misadventure, so I’ll just stick to one excerpt from my life. This particular adventure has already gotten so big that I barely have had time to process it all internally, let alone write about it. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The first thing that you probably want to know is: What adventure? For starters, I stayed within the boundaries of the continental United States this time. There are also horses involved. Need I say more? Well, actually… everything you need to know about the background for this adventure is in my post dated 26 April 2014. The bare minimum is that I went to Woodruff, SC in order to ride and train with Mihran Dülgeroğlu (www.mihranequestrian.com), fevkalade bir antrenör. I would say trainer extraordinaire, but Mihran is Turkish.

An important  freebie is: Yes,  you can travel with a dressage saddle as carry-on luggage. On a big plane anyway. I made all sorts of airport friends because, let’s face it, a saddle is a peculiar looking piece of luggage. One child even found a way to sit in between the flaps and hide from her mother. I flew Southwest because they had the best fares and they only use the bigger jets. That said, the flight crew and some passengers do get huffy if they have to wait for you to cram that saddle into the bins on the smaller jets. The secret: take the saddle out of the carrying bag. It also helps if your ribs aren’t bruised (see below for details).

It fits! It fits!

It fits! It fits!

Now, back to the main plot. I showed up at the Greenville airport with one duffel full of riding clothes, a smaller one filled with the stuff people who don’t ride wear, a saddle, and a backpack- proving once again that I may sometimes over pack, but I always carry my own gear. Furthermore, if you laugh at me, I won’t lend you any of my stuff when you need it- which you will because you didn’t want to pack it in the first place.

Mihran trains mostly Hunters and Jumpers, but he comes from a classical dressage background. All of his horses are well versed in the basics of flexing, bending, and responding to light aids from the rider. Some of our best conversations about dressage took place in the jump arena! Three of the horses that I rode (I had forgotten what fun Thoroughbreds can be!) were quite capable and willing to give honest efforts to move more efficiently and “correctly.” Mihran was equally capable and willing to make sure that my requests were equally honest and efficient (translation: MORE LEG! MORE BEND!)

On Monday morning we headed to the barn. But first, we had to have a meeting.

Not all meetings are evil.

Not all meetings are evil.

This meeting included neither paperwork nor PowerPoint. Just good planning and conversation- and oh yes, coffee!

It’s Wednesday Friday I’m back home now just now getting around to writing. That should give you an idea of how busy (or tired) I have been. Every day I rode three horses and lunged one or two more if necessary. Then I watched Mihran ride and give lessons. On Monday, I rode a few horses while Mihran offered comments and instructions. It was like a day-long lesson! Apparently neither he nor the horses were too offended because he allowed me to tack up and ride again on Tuesday.

All three Tuesday horses were Thoroughbreds who knew how to stretch and work off of light aids. Bending was not something they did very well. During one circle Mihran asked me if I was riding a horse or a motorcycle. It was up to me to decide how to improve what I had to work with. I’ll be the first to admit (or maybe the second since hesitation is one of my weaknesses) that I should have been quicker to diagnose some of the issues. On the other hand, I am now aware of that both in and out of the saddle. No more complacency.

We’re still on Tuesday, right? I started each horse with the idea that I would not begin work until I could clearly articulate what I wanted to address and how I would do it. Sometimes that comes naturally. Sometimes I have to change the plan completely (horses also have plans). On a horse that didn’t belong to me,  it was an intimidating process.

Horse #1, a 7 year old TB, required lots of transitions. Upward. Downward. Within gaits as well. Everywhere in the arena. He knew the hunter routine very well. When he cantered after two walk steps and went “uphill” I knew we had made a real breakthrough. Then the challenge was to either keep him together or trot again before he (or I) lost it.

Horse #2, another 7 year old TB, was a very long-backed fellow who presented another set of issues. He was a bit more advanced in his training than #1, so I decided to ask for more.  He was more willing and able to stretch, and boy did he! I felt like I was sitting on a ball. He gave me a look-at-me big boy trot that was super elastic. So what did I do? I shortened the reins a bit and asked for some leg yield. It wasn’t perfect, but what did you expect? There was some correctness, and his back stayed “up.” Never one to let things alone, I asked for a canter. We turned down the quarter line, and I pushed him over with my inside leg. He went! We did a stretchy circle (sort-of), and I got off. End of lesson. Good boy!

Horse #3. Hmmm… a 16 year old TB with a lot of “go.” He carried himself very well, but in a flat frame with no engagement of his back. He was also experienced enough to know how to avoid any meaningful contact with me and the reins. He got his longer reins, but he also got- you guessed it- more leg! More leg! More leg! He produced a relatively free and swinging trot. I could tell that it was work for him, so we took frequent walk breaks, also on a long contact.

By Wednesday, I was over my first-day jitters and settling into the way Mihran wants his horses ridden when things got out of control. Literally. Mihran has a young Oldenburg who is simultaneously flashy, brilliant, and sensitive. The sensitivity part is what got me.

Unexpected departures can be painful.

Unexpected departures can be painful.

I learned (again) the necessity of correcting quickly and effectively (and repeating if necessary- and no that is not an oxymoron) as opposed to one static correction that leaves the horse no options and me on my face in the arena. After emptying the sand from my boots, gloves, and mouth, I did get back on. I also rode one more horse and lunged another. Then I went back to the house to think about what I had learned and try to clean myself up.

I learned Wednesday’s lessons so well that I could not ride on Thursday. The ribs that I bruised are still quite sore even as I type. The colors on my knee and the rest of the left side of my body have faded to icky, pale pastels now. My ego will definitely survive the downsizing. In fact, one of Mihran’s students, a charming young lady dealing with some fear issues, was able to take the fact that I had made a spectacular dismount as evidence that “it really does happen to everybody” and start to get over her own hesitancy to fully engage with her own horse!

By Friday, I was back in the saddle despite Mihran’s better judgment. I was not there long though because I could not post the trot without wanting to scream; however, I couldn’t have screamed because I couldn’t draw enough breath. So, I did some ground work with a few horses and then got ready for the weekend. My horse friends will know what that means. For my friends who do not ride, that does not mean that I tried to decide what to wear and where to go. I was already where I wanted to be- the barn! Mihran and I would soon be joined by a group of teenage girls who preferred to spend their weekends messing about with horses.

The barn aisle was full of giggling, laughing, and a few squeals as well as discussions of the latest tack with bling that they simply had to have for their horses. Two of them were even thrilled that I had been schooling their horses according to the principles of classical dressage and that I had seen some really “cool” possibilities in those beloved steeds. The others were a bit bored with dressage for the reasons that most people are bored with it, but there’s still hope.

On Saturday two of them asked me if I would give them dressage lessons. Yes, that happened. They each rode like the promising hunters that they are, but they also showed the adaptability that comes from being open-minded, athletic, and willing to take instruction. Their questions were intelligent and showed that they were thinking about the process- especially the similarities and differences of hunt seat and dressage seat. They watched each other, and they watched me. We talked. A lot. They still think that dressage is a bit slow compared to jumping  (duh!), but they also gained a new understanding of what dressage riders are really doing in the saddle. And yes, they started to see how dressage would help them and their horses in the hunter ring! Win!

What a soft seat she has!

What a soft seat she has!

By now many of you are probably wondering why I went to study and ride at a (mostly) Hunter/Jumper facility, especially since the only jumping I have ever done has been in a dressage saddle! Back in the day, Gris Gris and I used to hop over whatever we could find out on the trails. But I digress. In my previous entry I mentioned how I found Mihran Equestrian and some of the conversations that I had with Mihran Dülgeroğlu, the owner and head trainer.

Assigned Reading

Assigned Reading

It has been a long time since I had a good discussion about any of the books that have been written about dressage, especially those by the artists of the discipline. Mihran and I both love Charles de Kunffy, especially his emphasis on sensitivity and condemnation of the modern emphasis on competition that imposes artificial, ego-driven deadlines on us and our horses. There is no art in this sort of competition-centered training. “Many outstanding competitors are well skilled sportsmen [and women, I might add]. Fewer are artists, and so it should be” (Training Strategies for Dressage Riders, p. 6). Thinking, feeling, doing, and creating. It’s harder than it sounds, especially if people are watching.

Yeah, it's a nice, soft seat, but it isn't very balanced.

Yeah, it’s a nice, soft seat, but it isn’t very balanced.

Most of us are not artists. Our horses are not Grand Prix horses. We work and train as hard and as often as we can in order to sustain the hope of creating something worthy of being viewed by a critical public who may or may not be as educated in the art of dressage as they are in the USDF Rule book. (Did you see it? My ego just peeked around the page to see if anyone was watching.)

Here is a video of me riding one of my favorite horses in Mihran’s barn, a seven year old Thoroughbred named Denali. In my defense, I was riding with bruised ribs and a knee the size of a large tack sponge. I will also say that the best work came later in the ride, but my camera person was getting bored. Denali needs no defense.  He has had no dressage schooling, but was willing to give it a try. A horse who understands you is more likely to trust you.

Denali

There it was again! You probably saw it this time. My ego just took over the previous paragraph! How many of us have created something beautiful in the arena and then tried to tell someone about it? (For the record, only Mihran saw me fall, but I’m pretty sure everyone heard me yelling.)I showed this video clip to a friend and trainer who said,”It looks like you’re doing a nice job with a horse who doesn’t know anything about dressage.” She pretty much nailed it. Now you have the footage to stack up with the way I remember it!

Trying to describe those sweaty, yet sublime moments of absolute harmony is often misinterpreted by some as bragging. Trying to describe those moments to a fellow sensitive rider, regardless of their ‘show level’, is the next best thing to actually having that moment. It is like a private, exclusive exhibition where the horse is the star and you helped (and were helped!).

During my week in Woodruff I was quite literally (and painfully) jolted out of a sense of complacency that had taken over my riding. I am not suggesting that we all eat sand in order to risk expanding our comfort zones, nor do we all need such a huge slice of humble pie. I even recall saying that it had been three years since I had departed unexpectedly from my saddle. This after my beloved trainer here in Kansas suffered a worse fall than mine. Complacency is not a word that I would ever attach to her though.

I spent seven days watching an excellent trainer work hard to deal with… well, the life and occasional drama of a trainer/manager/owner. Mihran was in the process of hiring barn help during my stay. Nonetheless, he refused to let me even sweep the barn aisle (I will eventually get around to that article or book about Hospitality- Southern, Turkish, and maybe even Afghan. There! I’ve said it, so I have to do it!). Several of you, my friends and readers, are already familiar with this life, but I had never seen it up close and personal, so to speak. I’m not sure that my talents would even be best used in such an endeavor.

I think it’s a good thing to be easily amused, and can find entertainment- even adventure- in all sorts of places. It’s what I do. I also like to ask questions. Most people can teach us something, as can most horses. Now I am ready to get back to the adventure of training my two very real horses.

My gratitude goes to everyone (that includes people and horses!) who has provided me with encouragement, correction, answers, more questions, help, challenges, and- most important- the love of incorporating art and creativity into the training of our horses and ourselves.