Enjoy the Ride!

Disclaimer: This is not an article about dressage. Well… mostly not about dressage. This is also not a definition of ‘better.’ It is an example that works for me. Go find what works for you!

This is a picture of me during a lesson with Pernille Andrée, rider and trainer extraordinaire.

Listen and learn?

Hold on to your thoughts about that picture for a minute while I offer another one for your consideration.

This is a picture of me in the gym. That’s me squatting on the left. Just so you know I’m also holding a 45 (or is it 35?) pound kettle bell. Because I can.

Saturday Squats at Wickham Athletics

Saturday Squats at Wickham Athletics

 I’ve been riding horses for as long as I can remember and studying, training, and competing in dressage for longer than I want to admit. I can not say either of those things about being in a gym and lifting weights, let alone some of the other crazy, fun, painful stuff I’ve done recently. There was a time when- I kid you not- I thought squatting was what you did if you couldn’t find anything else to sit on. I had to learn how. Once I gave up trying to explain the process and “just trust the ride down,” as Ryan Wickham put it, I did it and did it well! Now I squat whenever I get the chance.


Of course I’ve worked out in gyms before, but I now know that I have never done anything that could be called life-changing in one. It never occurred to me to engage with other people in a gym on the same level that I do with any other expert who has experience and knowledge to share with me. Enter Ryan Wickham (also extraordinaire in oh so many ways), et al. at Wickham Athletics.

After my first workout at Wickham Athletics I wrote the following:

“Day 1 and an exciting, new path full of possibilities lies ahead.”

Little did I know…

A few days earlier, I had walked into Ryan Wickham’s facility knowing that it was way past time to do something about the way I felt and looked. The thing is, I also thought I knew exactly which path to take and where I was going to end up. The rest is not even history yet.

I was hooked after one session. Why? Because I could tell that there was more on offer here than weights and treadmills. Even after Ryan Wickham told me respectfully, but honestly, “you are not strong,” I knew that this was a the beginning of something that would make me better.

It is rare that what I want coincides with what I need, but in this case the only problem I had was deciding which opportunities to pursue. Opportunities for what, you ask? I wanted to “get in shape” to be a better rider. I wanted to “lose weight” so I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in white spandex breeches in the dressage arena. And, yeah, my doctor had also mentioned that some of my health statistics needed attention. Addressing these issues would make me better, right?

But wait! Don’t answer yet!

After about a month of guided work, I realized- and accepted- that my original plan was seriously flawed. I also realized that I didn’t care! The things I wanted were happening anyway, and doing what I needed to was turning out to be more fun than I ever thought could occur in a gym- even while sweating like a Dressage Queen when the judge hasn’t waived the coat rule on a summer day. Every day I make some connection to the way I use my body in the gym and something else that is important to me. I am stronger. I can feel that I am a better rider mentally and physically, and this can only be good for my horse. I feel great! There are murmurings about my improved posture, among other things. I am becoming a better person from the ground up and the inside out. Literally.

There is a saying in equestrian sports: Ride the horse that gets off the trailer. I haven’t been around the weight training arena long enough to pick up many of the expressions, but this one that sticks with me: the iron does not lie. Pernille Andrée and Ryan Wickham have both told me to do the work and trust the process. Regardless of who says it, trust, training, and work will tell. It’s up to me to approach the horse/bar with an open mind, trusting my trainer, the work and process, and myself. That’s when things start to change for the better.

Speaking of trust and confidence, sometimes this happens.

Me: Things we say to our trainers (or Another Reason We Need Trainers): “Would you please not say anything else for a few minutes. There’s a lot going on right now and I need to catch up.”

A friend: Or “Please stop talking. My head is full.”

Me: Exactly! We were addressing an issue that required quick “doing.” OK- so I was doing, but my brain was about to explode because what I was doing was working, but I needed time to understand WHY it was working! Sad, I know, but my instincts were telling me to do something else (that wasn’t working), so it was one massive overhaul for both me and horse.

Have you ever wished that you could just pull a curtain across part of the arena and get through some of the ugliness without anyone watching? Well, I have. Often. In the top picture, I am overthinking something instead of just getting on with it. I have wished that I could hide behind something in the gym and do the work without anyone seeing me. Notice my position in the second picture. As far from the crowd (all five of them) as I can get. The conversation above took place in the riding arena, but a version of it has also happened in the gym (Like when I was learning to squat. My head was full, but I was the one who got told to stop talking.).

We all begin the process at a different point. Whether I’m in the saddle or the squat rack, I’ve gotten better at shutting out the noise and getting to work. Put another way, I now have enough confidence in myself to do the work that is presented and required while viewing the prospect of an inelegant ride or not being able to pick up another ounce as opportunities. I will learn something new, even if it’s what not to do. Then it’s up to me to make a difference. If Ryan Wickham asks me politely,”Where’s the focus?” I no longer feel compelled to explain myself. The answer is to focus, not explain why I temporarily checked out.

<Darn. No pictures of me flat on my face on gym floor after a 21-15-9 set of “Thrusters” and “Over-the-Bar Burpees”.>

Do I lose sight of this sometimes? Yes. Do I find my way out of the weeds by myself? Not always. Honestly, there are still days when I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing- with a horse or a barbell. I get impatient or embarrassed. I’m pretty sure that these are just some of the reasons that “few walk our path.” That is the official motto, mantra, or most important saying at Wickham Athletics. Self discovery can painful, but it hurts more to not make a change for the better- especially when the tools you need are right in front of you.

Through it all, there is always someone who seems to know just what to say and how to say it in order to guide (or yank) me back onto the path. They cheer for me when I am trying to lift more weight. They tell me to get to work. They encourage me when I think that I can’t get up. They joke around with me. They know when to push and when to let me find the path for myself. They even let me pick the music once or twice. Not that I’m counting. There’s a saying in the horse world: My barn. My rules. My music. Enough said.

Here’s another story. I can’t do a pull-up. I’m told that my age (and even my decreasing weight) is not what’s holding me down, so to speak. As of this writing, I have just figured out how to use my back to get closer to the bar. Yeah, it seems simple to some of you, but for me it’s a really big deal. It didn’t just happen. Remember that process I was talking about?

Just hangin' out.

Just hangin’ out.


Little did I know…

The days when I fall on my face are still good days. I will get up. I will eventually pull myself up over that bar. There was mention of weighted pull-ups, but I might have misheard. The ugly rides are still good rides. My horse and I will still learn something, and he will get a treat. It’s all part of gracefully accepting and sharing every opportunity gift that has been placed before me. It really is that simple no matter how hard I overthink it.

If that’s not a better life, I don’t know what is.





What I Did Last Year: Understanding the Noise, 2014

    In 1992, while still recovering from illness, Queen Elizabeth II gave the following speech:

She didn’t go into a lot of detail. She didn’t have to. The paparazzi had taken care of that for her. The sometimes unfortunate perspective of hindsight shows us that things got even worse for her and her family. Yet, one would never know it just to look at- or listen to- her. The only hint of anything amiss is her still-weak voice. She carried on because one does. With deference to my friend who never shoulds on others,  you might oughtta give Her Majesty another listen before continuing.

<pause to (re)play video>

For several weeks Facebook(FB) has been  showing me a montage of  pictures that I posted throughout 2014 and offering me the opportunity to share it with my FB friends. They have even provided me with a header: “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” As an aside, I think that the gratitude statement to friends should also receive an exclamation mark. Here  ya go: !

Among the items I would like to borrow from Her Majesty is the phrase annus horribilis to sum up 2014.

The “undiluted joy” in the pictures FB chose to include in this collection scarcely even begins to resemble my recollection of 2014. Not blaming FB here- with few exceptions, who posts “bad” pictures of themselves? I mean the really, genuinely ugly ones? I don’t. Once upon a time I shared a video of my young horse’s first dressage test. It was real, and parts of it were “real ugly.” For every person who laughed with me, there was another who laughed at me (and poor Başka).

Photos from May 17, 2012

There were also some FANTASTIC moments in that dressage test (I thought I had put the video here on this site, but I can’t find it now.) The point here is that I focused on the fantastic moments, including the fact that the judge gave us a do-over because she knew as well as I did that  we  could do better!

Flops are a part of life's menu, and I've never been a girl to miss out on any of the courses. - Rosalind Russell

Flops are a part of life’s menu, and I’ve never been a girl to miss out on any of the courses.
– Rosalind Russell, photo from Auntie Mame

(There hasn’t been any Noise from me since May. WARNING: If you haven’t already done so, you may wish to adjust the volume on your device. Things may get a bit loud!)

Since last summer, I’ve carried on, but not quite with the Queen’s dignity, humor, or modulated tones. If explanation of my actions is required, I will provide one that has “some precedent in truth.”¹ If I catch on in time, I will also apologize for negative consequences that my choices may cause. Otherwise, just take my word for it that I really haven’t been doing much that is worth rehashing in the blogosphere. You may also rest assured that I will rehash those things which merit closer scrutiny.

Never apologize. Never explain.

Never apologize. Never explain.

I lost my voice for a while- in the figurative sense.  I just didn’t feel like saying anything. Then I started to think about my silence. I thought about it for several months. I also tried, and failed, to ignore the silence. During that time, people started to wonder what I was up to. Lots of people had ideas about what I should or should not be doing. Very few had any idea of how or how not to do what they thought I should or should not do.

...or something like that.

Aut inveniam viam aut faciam. … or something like that.



Some people (the ones who receive my eternal gratitude plus the exclamation mark) began to worry a bit. You see, I generally make a lot of noise, much of it joyful. I love to talk. I love to sing. When irritated or even slightly upset, noise- spoken or sung-  is also how I get over the irritant and myself. When I’m quiet… well, I think you see where this is going. The Good Idea Fairy and I get together a lot. I also love to share my ideas with others, and I’m willing take the credit for brilliant successes as well as flaming failures. Sometimes there is only a match stick separating the two!

<pause to watch and listen to Queen Elizabeth again>

 Auntie Mame, as portrayed by Rosalind Russell, had more fun that I would think possible losing husbands, lovers, and money. She also had a enviable knack for putting things right for those whom she loved as well as herself. Queen Elizabeth bowed to her subjects and now pays taxes on her income. She bowed her head as her daughter-in-law’s casket passed in front of her. She has lost her mother and a daughter.Precedents of truth and (or?) fiction not withstanding, both women withstood scrutiny while offering observations to others with a “touch of gentleness, good humor, and understanding” in order to guide the “engine of change”³ toward their preferred form of resolution and justice.

Issues of volume aside, the public voices of Queen Elizabeth II and Russell’s Auntie Mame are two of my favorite noises, although I would prefer the latter’s wardrobe.

"Life is a banquet," and I can't eat any of it if I want to wear this outfit!  -(phrase in quotation and photo from Auntie Mame)

“Life is a banquet,” and I can’t eat any of it if I want to wear this outfit!
-(phrase in quotation and photo from Auntie Mame)

That is all. For now.

Carry on. You never know who may be listening!


¹Ian Fleming.

²Two irritants that I am unable to overcome: the absence of any means to indent my paragraphs on this web site as well as the failure to provide any instructions that make sense to me. I know it is possible because I’ve seen it done.

³Pay attention when the Queen speaks!

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.


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.



The Turkish Connection… in South Carolina: Nothing Could be Finer!

While I was surfing the web instead of writing my latest blog post I stumbled into what has turned out to be a very amazing rabbit hole. After a few twists and turns, I found myself in contact with Mihran Dülğeroğlu, a trainer now based in Greenville, S.C. by way of Istanbul, Turkey (www.mihranequestrian.com). One thing led to another, and now I am preparing to head to the region, if not the exact state, of my birth to ride, study, and drink lots of coffee with Mihran and his crew.

What initially struck a harmonious chord with me was a phrase that I found on anther blog: “Honoring where we are with our horses.”  I realized that this point was exactly what was missing in my quest to keep improving as a person and a rider as well as my attempts to describe this quest. So, I did what all writers do when they see a good idea. I stole it (providing a reference, of course!).  While I was talking, texting, and e mailing Mihran, I was telling a few friends about my upcoming adventure. Here is where I point the finger at Margene Swarts and Kathy O’Brien who encouraged me/egged me on to not only blog about my experience, but to share it with the Kansas City Dressage Society (KCDS).

I hope to make the “whys” of my decision to go on this adventure clearer as I write to you during my trip, but for now I encourage you to visit Mihran’s web site and begin thinking about what you read there. I also suggest that you (re) read anything by Charles de Kunffy and Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg plus any other dressage texts that you hold dear.

For this introduction I would like to address another lesson that I seem to keep confronting but not quite learning: that is, to ask! As we become less young, many of us outgrow that ability to simply and honestly ask for something that we want. And yes, this applies to our communication with people as well as horses. Let’s assume that we are happily engaged in a positive discussion with a human or an equine. We want something, but something keeps us from asking (or asking in a way that is understandable). The worst thing that can happen to us is a negative or confusing response, right? And whose fault is that? As long as everybody is being honest and open, then there is no harm done. We move on or repeat the request as the situation dictates, but we must ask!

In this case, my expectations were exceeded beyond what I even dared to ask. Instead of a long weekend with me as a working student (Mihran was having none of that!), I will be in Greenville from May 4 to May 12. With the exception of the evening of my arrival, all of my days will contain time in the saddle (both dressage and jumping) on different horses, as well as study, and lots of discussion! If possible, I will even travel with Mihran to one of his clinics. I hope that I will be able to refine my communications skills enough to be able to share my experiences with you in a meaningful and occasionally humorous way.


Right! About the helmet, or lack thereof. I wanted a picture in which my face was actually visible. This is what I got instead. Başka flipping his hair and kicking at a fly.

Right! About the helmet, or lack thereof. I wanted a picture in which my face was actually visible. This is what I got instead. Başka flipping his hair and kicking at a fly.

Meg Hawthorne has been a member of KCDS for over 15 years. She lives in Overbrook, Kansas where she strives to ride her horses Başka, Sophia, Gris Gris, and sometimes Pilot according to the principles of dressage as a form of art.

Sometimes we work with fat crayons. Other times, rarely, we produce something suitable for public display.


Being Where We are While Trying to Get Somewhere Else

Yeah, I know it’s not the most elegantly phrased title, but it does capture the idea driving this latest example of mental and emotional activity. Yesterday I had one of those lessons with which any thinking and feeling equestrian can identify. I suspect that its applicability goes way beyond the world of the rider.

Despite the absolutely hideous weather at the Overbrook Dressage Society that has persisted since last October, I have been trying to move up a level in dressage. I have shown up at lessons with list of questions for my trainer. Some of them even relate to my attempts to implement instructions from the previous lesson! To her credit, my trainer, Pernille Andree, answers them all.

Back to yesterday. Because of the aforementioned hideous weather, I went two weeks without a lesson. I need frequent supervision. I showed up at the barn with only a few minutes to spare and a filthy horse who had chosen yesterday morning to abandon his usually prissy pasture manners. After removing the top layer of dirt (from both of us), I tacked up and mounted up. I was ready to work, and so was Başka!

Specifically, I was ready to motor around the arena showing how hard I had worked on the issue of engaging Başka’s outside hind leg. We were both quite content to trot or canter around showing how “engaged” we were. Then Pernille did what she always does. She upped the ante. This is hardly a new approach, but it completely blindsided me yesterday. Pernille started asking for prompter, smoother, more refined transitions. All at once. What?

What followed was simultaneously ugly and fantastic. Başka, my trusty steed, is one of the best negotiators ever- equine or human. He opted for prompt, but not smooth. Refined didn’t even make his list. I just floundered around in the saddle wondering what the #@!% had happened to my beautiful lesson. Then, it hit me… right before Pernille should have hit me. I did not come to that lesson ready to learn or be challenged. I wanted to look good because you have to look good in dressage, right?

Well, after a minor temper tantrum (directed at myself, to be sure) and an attitude adjustment, I got serious and did some really ugly, but effective riding- the kind of riding you NEVER see online or on TV. I can hear some of you gasping, but let me be clear. This was not cruel, harsh or mean in any way. This was me taking a deep breath, listening to Pernille, figuring stuff out, and then explaining it to poor Başka who was no longer allowed to treat my requests like a multiple choice question. The answer was, is, and ever more shall be: e. All of the above. Now.

I’ve certainly had better (both pretty and ugly) lessons than the one yesterday, but among other things, I came to a very uncomfortable realization:  Where was I at the beginning of the lesson? Focused only on moving up a level, i.e. the future. I was not there in the lesson. The future was looking good because I looked good, even without lipstick. Once the hard work started, I saw my future as a dressage star (hush now!) crumble into arena dust. Where am I now? I am with Başka. If he isn’t where I want him to be, then I am perfectly capable of showing him where he should be, and he is capable of going there. I think this sums it up quite well- “Honoring Where We Are With Our Horses.”* To honor something, you have to understand it. Here’s the kicker or why yesterday was so different. The answer is also always “e. All of the above. Now.” for me.

Now, just for fun, here is a video from early 2011 of Başka’s first ever show- a schooling show to be sure.

So what did you see? A horse who was misbehaving? A poorly trained horse? An irritated rider? A young horse who had only been in schooling for a few months? A rider making the best of a rainy day that did not meet her expectations of that first show? Did you hear him calling to his girlfriend? If you listen, you can hear her too! Fortunately, the judge saw all of the above, and more. I received what I hope will be the lowest score of my short dressage career- a 58%. Ouch. For those of you who are unfamiliar with dressage scoring, anything under a 60%… you need more work. (I’ve known people to get a score below 60% but win the class and refuse to display their blue ribbon!) I also got some very helpful comments from her as well as Pernille. But since it was a schooling show, and lots of folks were being wimps about the rain, the judge gave me a do-over! That time we were mid-60s. I thought I had learned that the answer is “e” on that day. I guess we all need reminding sometimes.





Cowboy Magic

I have written a good bit lately about my fancy, first string horse. The horse I want to write about today is my first horse- well my first horse since childhood. I went through my teens, 20s, and most of my 30s without my own horse. Finally I managed to scrape together a few thousand dollars and purchase this guy.

The Big Gris Gris

He didn’t look quite like this when I got him. He wasn’t even three years old yet. He was skinny, and and several inches shorter. His color seemed to change on a weekly basis, so I won’t go into all that. He has been every version of grey that a horse can be.

Gris Gris is a Trakehner, a breed known for its intellegence and , some would say, sense of humor. I have seen G2 run through a pasture with a 6′ length of plastic tubing in his mouth- chasing the other horses and thoroughly enjoying himself. He can untie any know and open most locked, chained gates. He will rip the clothes off of most other horses just for fun, but will keep his own.

Hey! Give that back! Mom!!!

The horse in the burgundy blanket is the one from Spain. This picture was taken on his first morning at my house which is a long way from southern Spain. I bought him a neck piece (think turtleneck) to go with his blanket since he had no winter hair to speak of. Notice that it is not present in this shot.

What? I was just playing!

When I walked out into the paddock, G2 was waving the neck piece in the air, taunting the poor new kid to come get it! The other grey, a persnickity Oldenburg mare, was telling G2, “You are soooo busted.”

Before I move on with my story, I have to say a few more things about this fabulous horse. Other horses loved him. People loved him. Judges loved him. I still love him! All he had to do was enter the arena, pack me around and win a blue ribbon (sometimes red). More importantly, we always got really good scores and comments from the judges. When he bucked, which he sometimes did out of pure exuberance, the judges wrote that he was “playful” or “energetic.” Had G2 been any less of a horse he wouldn’t have put up with being my learning horse. He was that good.

X Halt Salute
(coat rule was waived b/c of heat)

The Champ After a Day at a Show (the big ribbon means he was the high scorer and champion of that level)

Somewhere along the way, G2 injured his stifle. That’s a bit like our knee but higher up. His promising show career was at an end. Not that I gave up that quickly. I spent every spare cent I had, and some I didn’t, to try to discover what was the matter and fix it to no avail.

Fast forward about six years to yesterday. I will spare you all the vet trips, therapies, and heartbreak of watching him become yard art. You didn’t think I would get rid of him did you? He’s only 13 now! Back to yesterday… I had been talking with my farrier who also happens to be a cowboy who starts horses for folks and gentles problem horses. I took G2 over to my farrier’s house for what I hoped would be some cowboy magic.

This is not the face of a horse who is worried by a little thing like a plastic bag on the end of a whip! He’s thinking,”Maybe I can catch it!”

We both had some concerns about hopping on a horse who hadn’t been ridden in at least six years. My farrier got on, walked and trotted a bit, then told me to get on! G2 was happy to tote the guy around cowboy style. So…

What next?

You will notice that I am dressed for English riding. Those pants still work fine in a Western saddle! Other than jeans, I don’t own any Western riding clothes, or tack either.

G2 and I poked around the arena a few times, but he started to get a little tense every time I tried to use some of the old dressage buttons. Then it dawned on us- G2 will never be a dressage horse again, but he may be OK packing people around! I used to take him on the trails all the time as a reward. He loved it!

This story doesn’t have an ending of any sort yet, it’s just a possibility. G2 was getting sore after 45 minutes of “work.” It was work after his time off. I’m going back this week for more rehab for G2 and maybe for me. If the big Gris can stand it physically, he will be re-educated so that he knows he will not be asked to carry himself like a dressage horse. That means I have to learn to ride Western! Happy trails to us all!


Unemployment, Deployment, and Dressage

A lot has happened since my last bit of noise. Among other things, I have been to another horse show and officially joined the ranks of the unemployed. The reason I link these two particular events is that, unlike some folks, I have to have gainful employment in order to support my equine habit. I also like finding connections between seemingly disparate things. It is one of life’s great ironies that I have always craved the time to train myself and my horses on a more serious level, but have always had to work. Now I have the time, but… see where this is going?

Last weekend’s show was what is known as a schooling show. In dressage that means you don’t have to put on the coat and the tidy whities, and you don’t have to braid your horse’s mane. I did anyway just because there is always a lot of down time at shows.

It’s all about the hair!

I did reasonably well considering that  my ribs are still quite sore from that fall (see previous post “Well, I Never!”). At Training Level Test 2, we got a 66.8%. There was a time when I would have been ecstatic with that score. Now I know just enough to be able to beat myself up for the pilot errors and to know just what the judge was talking about when she said “ride with brilliance!” I was trying to draw a deep breath and be better than average. That is not an excuse, just an explanation.

My trainer rode my horse at Training Level Test 3. She was brilliant, even if my young horse was trying his best to take a nap. She and horsey got an 8.5 (out of 10) on one canter pass, and she did ride brilliantly. The judge said so! She pretty much does that on any horse she gets on though. Definitely one to listen to and emulate.

So, while I try to figure out how to further my dressage career, such as it is, I also have to figure out what I am going to be when I grow up… again. Last time I checked, training of any kind for me or my horse was not free.

Being unemployed also gives one considerable down time. Another dilemma. Do I spend more money to get more training to get another job, or do I continue to spend money that will soon run out to chase the dressage dream? I point to more job training (back to school?) for me because there aren’t a whole lot of jobs out there for what I do.

I’m reaching deep into the internal blogosphere for this one, but like the Grinch, my puzzler is sore. My attitude could also use an adjustment.

Just do it!

Did I mention that I could return to my old job, sort of?  In order to do so, I  would have to apply to a contractor,  and then go through the training that I have been delivering for the past year. This applies to all of us who got let go. Put another way,  I would have to re-enter government employment at a lower status that that which I previously held and sit through training for a job that I have successfully trained for, done, and trained others to do. Even got a meritorious service award.

In dressage the only time there are mandatory do-overs is when you or the horse has been injured or you have to start all over with a new horse. I’ve had to do that three times! We expect setbacks in the horse world, and my story is far from unusual or even exceptional. It certainly isn’t tragic. It doesn’t give me a bad attitude to see others have better “luck,” even those people who seem to have more than their share of fortune’s favors.  I’ve had some pretty good breaks, help from friends, a great trainer, and have gotten some pretty decent scores in the dressage arena,  and am looking forward to more of the same. That said, we have a saying: Ride the horse that gets off the trailer!

So why do I feel like I have been kicked upside the head (or maybe in the gut)? I think it’s time for me to saddle up and get over myself again. My favorite attitude adjustment ever is waiting for me out by the gate. It won’t be the first time I’ve ridden of into the general direction of the sunset without an actual plan.


Dressage #1 (and it is #1)

There are so many things that I want to say about dressage that I am having a hard time organizing this post. Whenever I find myself in such a predicament, I find that getting some of the silliness out of the way can help find a real direction. So without further ado, I give you some of my observations about those of us who are to deep in to get out- not that we would ever ponder such an option.

I couldn’t help myself.

You may have noticed what appears to be a lock of hair in the picture above. It is a lock of hair. It is from my horse’s first haircut- when I trimmed his mane for what is known as the bridle path. I’ve saved this lock from every horse I’ve ever owned and am considering having a bracelet made from this one! It’s not a dressage thing; it’s just the sort of behavior exhibited by horse nuts in general.

Ann Romney jokes aside, the atmosphere surrounding dressage is a bit rarified for some. Images like the one here do not help.

I believe he will also be able to stand up on this trip.

My horse came over from Spain on a plane, and it cost me a pretty penny plus years of planning and saving to be able to afford it. Like most of my dressage friends, I clean stalls, carry water buckets, and even vaccinate or give other shots when necessary. I do not fly out to sunny California when I feel like riding. Rather, I hope that the weather is decent so that I can ride (when don’t I feel like riding?) in my outdoor sand box. Indoor arenas are for sissies (sez me because I do not have one).

I do not buy into the myth that the most expensive stuff is the best stuff. Dressage is expensive enough as it is. For those of you who know gear (for anything), you know that it can literally make the difference between life and death. Does paying over $200 for a pair of breeches make me ride better? On the other hand, paying a bit more for a helmet does have an appealing sort of logic to it. Or even boots… to a point. I know children who are trotting around in $500 boots.

Dressage riders who choose to compete participate in a sport that requires us to wear white spandex pants. Really? Whoever thought that one up definitely had a host of minions to do all the dirty work for them. Here I am in my tidy whities at a show.

White gloves too!

White saddle pads are preferred, though black or navy are acceptable and look especially good on a grey. The only thing harder to keep clean than yourself  wearing white while grooming and tacking up is a white saddle pad. I have some friends who even school in them. Tradition  is great and serves a valid purpose (hey, I think I just found focus for my next post), but in the schooling arena wardrobe? I think not.

On the subject of “bling” dressage riders are nuts. Did you notice the bling on my tie (yes, my tie!)? Subtle, yes? It matches that on my boy’s bridle! I have a friend who makes them if you’re interested. I have to get my color fix outside the show arena because more than what you see above is way beyond tacky. Despite our desire to stand out a little, it really is about how well our horses are schooled. On the other hand, something shiny does give one a bit of a boost…

Our rigs are another source of humor for me. Since I was knee high to a pony I’ve been fascinated by trailers (for both people and horses). Imagine my ecstasy when I discovered that you can get a 2H StL LQ (a two horse straigh- load with living quarters)! I only have a 2HStL w/TR (tack room). Life is tough. Here is what they use in Afghanistan.

Getting there is part of the adventure, yes?

You will notice that the horse above is wearing a blanket. I have heard certain members of my household mumble that my horses have a larger winter wardrobe than most humans. Well that may be true, but we insist on shaving off the horses’ winter coats so they won’t sweat when we school indoors all winter. We even blanket in the fall to prevent the growth of a winter coat! And as for shoes, the same grumbler has pointed out that one horse gets the equivalent of a high-end pair of Nikes every six weeks while he only gets two pairs per year. For the record, the youngster above had such fantastic feet that he is shoeless. My farrier (and he is MINE!!) does not charge an month’s worth of hay to take care of my herd. He is a saint.

Actually, most things can be sources of humor for me- even a spectacular dismount that results in bruised ribs that still trouble me as of this post. See my post entitled “Well I Never!” for the full story on that one. The biggest source of happy amusement right now comes from schooling my young horse (the one in the picture) and myself. His antics make me laugh, and sometimes I swear he is laughing at me too!!

Well, I never!

I never thought I would own a beautiful PRE horse. I never knew what one was until I went to Spain and learned that a PRE is a Pura Raza Española (pure Spanish horse). Back here in the USA, most folks refer to them as Andalusians (when they refer to them at all). As it was explained to me, any horse from Andalusia or the Iberian Peninsula can be called an Andalusian. Only special ones get to be PRE.

I went to Spain by way of Afghanistan. Not wanting to travel all the way back home at the mercy of military travel, I went to Spain instead. Make sense? By the way, I also just listed several other things I never thought I would do. Watching that horse get off the trailer on a cold February night was definitely a high point worthy of pictures and another post.

Fast forward to last week. One of the things that makes a PRE so special is the disposition. Nothing really phases them. Well, they do not have horse flies the size of hummingbirds in Spain. I never thought I would fall off of my horse, but I did last week. I made it past the eight-second count, but that horsefly was as determined as I was to hang on. I did a spectacular face plant in my (yes, my– another I thought I’d never) arena after bouncing on my side. Just to make this more fun, my PRE is also tall (16 hands 3 inches; one hand = 4 inches; that’s 67 inches tall at the withers, that ‘bump’ in front of the saddle).  I thought I would never catch my breath. When I tried to get up, I thought I would prefer never to do so. I had bruised multiple ribs. My dear horse was watching me writhe in the sand, unfazed by his induction into the Mother Bucker Club.

Last Wednesday’s tumble added insult to an already injurious day. I never, ever thought I would be let go from a job, especially one at which I am (not quite was) way better than average even on my off days. My ribs, my ego, and my self-esteem have taken quite a beating in the past week, and I have been asking myself where all my hard work, loyalty, and  devotion to “the mission” have gotten me. Obviously, they’ve gotten me quite a lot in terms of material things, but what do I have to show for myself in other realms?

Now I am testing the waters with you- trying to decide just how serious I can be in the blogosphere. Sure, it’s my blog (there goes another one!), but I’d like to have a few loyal readers. I am a great fan of sarcasm, so I had to stay away from the keyboard for a few days (even after I could remain sitting) for fear of launching an all out attack on some people and institutions who/which, however deserving they may be, are entitled to  a more thoughtful assault. And yes, this reflexiveness has to be turned on yours truly as well.

I’ll be coming back to this topic in the near future, so either stay away or chime in. For me, it was hard enough to get to this place.

It’s not just about the hair.