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.

 

 

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.

 

Busy! Busy! Busy!

“How busy?” you ask. Well, I am so busy that I can’t possibly find the time to do something like keep a blog. NOT! Actually the preceding exchange was constructed to illustrate the paradox that is my life right now. I do not have an income-producing job; however, I am quite busy. I am so unaccustomed to being in (almost) complete control of my time that my brain simply can’t accept it. Even writing it doesn’t make it any more real. Certain family members, however, are convinced that am decidedly not busy and should be on some sort of grand tour of relatives (see #1 below).

The compulsion to be productive has taken over my life! It has displaced the desire to be in control of my own time, so much so that I have settled into a daily routine. I get quite irritated if anyone or anything upsets it. I think I am in control, but I am being very productive for most of the day. I am my own intern. This isn’t quite a case of “be careful what you ask for” because what I want is to be financially independent and in control of my own time. Hey! A person can dream.

So, what do I do with all this time?

1.) I look for a job that will take up a lot of my time, but bring me an income so that I can cram everything else I like to do into what time remains. I have lost count of how many versions of my c.v. are in my computer c.v. folder. If I am not job hunting, I feel guilty. Some day I will write more about the Southern version(s) of guilt.

Nope. No jobs here.

2.) Those of you who are devoted listeners to my noise (out of guilt or other reasons) know a bit about my horses. To their dismay, the training has been turned up a few notches. My Spanish horse still hates my Quarter Horse, but we are working on it. That’s all I can say about that. You’re going to have to trust me here: if you click on the IMG 1732 below, you can see 22 seconds of a warm up session.

IMG_1732

If the video doesn’t work, here is a picture of El Bastardo, the Spanish Snob, hard at work with Gris Gris in what used to be our pond.

You come get me!

3.) And of course Gris Gris gets his own picture because he has, I think, reached the maintenance stage of our rehab plan. He must be lunged a few times a week just to burn calories. His feelings get hurt when I take “the other guy” out instead of him! We had our first trail ride recently. It was really just a few miles through the fields. All went well!

It doesn’t get much better!

4.) I’ve been cooking a lot. I’ve always done that, so maybe we don’t need pictures or details here. The next big thing will be a birthday cake for a friend. Her only request- something with white chocolate and raspberries. I can work with that!!

5.) Studying Turkish. Yes, Turkish. If I remember correctly, Benim hoverkraft yılan dolu means: My hovercraft is full of eels. I don’t know which I find more amusing; the fact that I know this or the fact that someone thinks I need to know this. On the other hand, some of you have seen my posts on baklava. Next time you hover out my way…

6.) Reading. Everything.

7.) And finally, I have NOT been doing housework. But then I never did. Housework makes me a mess. I have been entertaining quite a lot. That’s my excuse to clean up. It has always been acceptable to those who show up.

I have no immediate plans for the future except to not feel guilty about not having plans and continue with 1-7 as listed above. Too bad horses have to eat, or I would delete #1.

Something Old, Something New- Some Things Never Change.

Perhaps I got my love of travel and things foreign from my Grandmother. Whatever its origin, I definitely have it. One year for Christmas, she even gave me a globe! OK, I was a bit bratty about it because it wasn’t whatever stupid toy I thought I couldn’t live without, but it was one of my favorite “things.” I used to just sit on my bed holding it and looking at the Encyclopedia (yes, we had those in actual hard cover), planning my world tour.

On one of her trips my Grandmother (Grandmother was also her name as far we were concerned) went to Greece. She loved it and talked about it more than most of the other places she visited, except maybe Switzerland. Those conversations introduced me to all sorts of wonderful things, among them and for purposes of this post, baklava. So hold that thought.

It was also from my Grandmother that I heard the word “vegetarian.” I though the term referred to someone who liked vegetables. My mother informs me that my Grandmother’s cook shared that understanding. Family reading this will know immediately of whom I speak. Maybe I will post her caramel cake recipe!! Anyway, the exclusive properties of this new category had to be explained to me, but I was not impressed; nor did I participate in the ensuing kitchen debate over things like the inclusion eggs or seafood. I liked vegetables and still do (even though we no longer cook them with bacon or fat meat… at least not very often!), but my quite fertile imagination just couldn’t imagine limiting myself like that. For the record, many a good Southern meal, even the modern ones without the cooking fat, consist of vegetables only!

Well guess who was coming to dinner? Actually it was lunch, but I couldn’t resist the reference. I also had to call my mother to get the genealogically accurate answer to that question. My great, great, great aunt, her daughter, and her granddaughter, that’s who. They had acquired this dietary affliction through a German relative (as if that explains it). I can still hear my Grandmother as she declared, more than asked, “What in the world do vegetarians eat for lunch?” In late 1960s Mississippi, globalization had not yet to hit the Jitney Jungle, so many of the options which my Grandmother had probably enjoyed abroad were unavailable, even if heard of.

I had to call my mother to find out what Grandmother eventually served since I was not present at the “meal” preferring instead the world of kindergarten. My mother couldn’t remember exactly, but here’s what she did recall:

A “nasty” spinach salad (there was neither bacon nor egg)

Boiled corn (no butter, but at least there was salt)

Potatoes or rice (she didn’t remember which)

Some sort of green vegetable (because your Grandmother would not serve a meal without one)

No bread

I’m sure there was iced tea, so I didn’t ask. I’m also equally certain that the meal was flawlessly prepared and probably tasty as well, my dear mother’s comments notwithstanding. Less youth and experience have taught me that down South, any guests for any meal cause a kind of consternation that can only be described as masochistic.

The same thing applies to Southerners who live in places like, say… the Mid West. You definitely get more credit for “the thought” outside the South. Which brings up to the past Labor Day weekend’s events! And baklava.

While I was in Afghanistan, I became friends with several guys from Turkey. We quickly discovered that our differences, while significant, in no way prevented us from finding lots of common ground, especially where the combination of friends and food was concerned. I still correspond often with them and miss them terribly.

A few months ago I received a cryptic message from one of my friends in Turkey informing me that one of his friends would be coming here to study. He asked permission to give my contact information. No problem; however, no further information was forthcoming, not even in subsequent e mails. He is very security conscious.

When “the friend of my friend” arrived, he contacted me and said that he would like to come visit. Again, no problem. Well, it took several weeks of short and also cryptic e mails to get to the Sunday before Labor Day when I got a message that said they (not he) would be at my house tomorrow around noon. Good Heavens!

The answer to the question that some of you may have formed is, “Yes, they eat halal.” Travel with me back in time to my Grandmother’s kitchen… Now is a good time to get up and do whatever it is you are thinking about doing as you comment about how long this post is.

Aaaand we’re back- but in my kitchen reading labels and using the iPhone to google to make sure whatever we had was ok. Nix on the fried grits with crawfish cream sauce, although the fried grits would have been fine.

Fried grits smothered in crawfish cream sauce. Hungry?

Then I saw all the brie that remained from another party. YES! One of my all time favorite appetizers was about to become a sandwich! Known in my family simply as “brie treats,” they consist of slices of French bread, a paste made from nuts (I like pecans) and olive oil, slices of Granny Smith apple, and brie (sans mold). In that order. On a cookie sheet in a 400∘ oven for about 5 minutes to melt the cheese, and you’re done! Put them together ahead of time then just pop them in the oven as guests start to arrive or right before the meal depending on how you’re serving them. I don’t have any pictures, but these look really nice with lots of different food items.

The green salad we had was nothing spectacular, but of course, it was above average! We had the best tomatoes that one can expect in this part of the world at this time of year. They were average until I drizzled them with olive oil, sprinkled basil all over them, then slapped a thick slice of fresh mozzarella on top. The same conditions applied to the fruit salad except I used sugar, mint, and lemon juice instead of olive oil. And the tea? Lightly and perfectly sweetened. Our delighted and delightful guests thought it was so good it had to be Turkish tea!

I billed this lunch a typical of what Southerners would prepare for friends who dropped by for lunch. Sadly, that tradition has all but disappeared even down South. When this kind of lunch includes international guests as such occasions often do (or did), there must be some sort of culinary nod to the guests’ homeland. As it happened, there was one small container of baklava left in the refrigerator from the aforementioned party. With great trepidation I pulled it out, hoping that there wouldn’t be enough so I would not put myself through the angst of serving baklava to people whose people claim not only expertise in this pastry, but to have actually invented it! No such luck.

What do you have with baklava? You guessed it. Turkish coffee!

My Turkish coffee pot (cezve/ibrik) and one of the cups my friend sent to me via our now mutual friend.

Along with the baklava we had some slices of pears from our tree over which we drizzled some of the extra baklava syrup (There’s always extra. Always save it.). This thrilled and astounded our new friends especially since we had devoted a portion of the never- flagging dinner conversation to baklava. For those of you who are just now wandering into this blog, the recipe and pictures can be found in my post about parties and secrets. Just as I am apparently incapable of serving a simple meal (without at least trying to make it hard), I am also incapable of writing about one topic at a time. It’s just not that simple!

Penultimate note: I just wasn’t able to get any pictures of the actual meal. Apologies!

Final note: If you still want more evidence of my talent/tendency for guilding the lily, wait until you see what evolves around a white chocolate and ginger cheesecake that gets coated with a shell of white chocolate. Because I can.