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Total Control

By Crystal Hodges

This morning, I got through most of "The Man Who Listens to Horses" for the second time, so I decided to do a little whispering of my own with my always-willing "Ickis".  Ickis is my 14.2H Columbian/American Paso Fino gelding. He's Mr. Versatility, but also Mr. Attitude, and I love him dearly! Anyway, on with the story.

I led a friskier than usual beastie to the round pen, removed his halter, draped it over the fence, and took to the center.

I emulated the mountain lion, hands clawlike and high above my head and stared Ickis square in his steely eye. You see, this was to get him to move forward, which is the Advance part of Advance and Retreat.  He moved forward, indeed! -- mimicking my very "rooowwwrrr" action by rearing up and launching at me with the "Oh, I see, this is a Game" look in his eye. Well, that's where I incorporated the Retreat part. I retreated until the hoofbeats ceased. Then I threw my lead rope at his hindquarters, which made him circle fast enough to dizzy me. I allowed the "sash" to lay outstretched on the ground and he decided to lunge me. He grabbed the sash in his teeth and chased me around the pen until he somehow got in front of me. I ducked into his shoulder pocket, and for the first time in his existence with me, he executed a perfect reining horse spin to try to get to me. He stepped on the rope which snapped his head a little, and that bought me time to headlock him. I gave him a noogie right on his star until he did that really fast helicopter thing with his ears and we lunged each other for awhile. I stopped to gasp for breath and that's when his ears swiveled (outward in mischief), and his head dropped (aiming at my chest). He mouthed at me, like all whispered horses do, and even Monty would have been able to decipher:  "You make me wear pink. You spray me with raspberry mist. You have oppressed my ancestors through me. ...Got any cereal?" -- and then it of course went blank.

He took his first step toward me. The moment was magic, because he took such a practiced aim with his big goofy head that when it collided with my thoracic cavity, I landed squarely on the ground, sprawled flat. And, just to show he trusted me in my position of "power and authority", he attempted to drag my shoe off. Yes, this new method made me in "total control" in less than thirty minutes. He accepted my presence in his territory, showed affection (by removing the sweat from my face with his tongue), and we established "who" was alpha.

One thing I wonder why Monty didn't include in his book:  "You're only taller than the anus of a Paso when you're on your FEET, not on your back." And, I learned a valuable lesson:  "Don't try the stuff they do in books, movies, or cartoons!!!  :-)


My Summer Instructor

By Kinsey Row

I started to ride when I was nine. My mother found a stable near our home in Virginia that offered weekly lessons as well as a week-long summer camp. I started attending the summer camp when I was nine and continued each year until I was sixteen and too old for the camp program. In my camp experience, I was often allowed to attend two sessions, though they were quite expensive. I remember one of the instructors I had; she was a small woman, lean and tan, with a sharp tongue. I don't think I ever gave her credit for her knowledge at that time -- she was tough on us. I recall coming home in the evening after a 4:00 lesson, tired, worn out, and crying sometimes, because she had spent the past hour pounding concepts into my helmeted head. She often taught the upper level groups, but we always wished she didn't.  She could always find some flaw in our equitation. "Keep your hands still!"  "Leg on!"  "Leg back!"  "Squeeze!"  "You're making him take the long spot!"  As frustrating as it was to hear her in that large sand arena, those lessons still stick with me. I can hear her voice and commands even now, as I ride in a college dressage class.  I often ask, "what would she think if she could see me ride today?"  With my first intercollegiate dressage show coming up, I think that her efforts have paid off, as I still hear her teaching every time I pick up the reins.


The Canter Depart Revisited

by Amber Benson

This last November I was privileged to participate in a unique five days at Hilltop Farm in Maryland. Hilltop is a large dressage training and breeding facility where they specialize in quality education. This education is tailored to the individual, and aimed at the whole person, not just the techniques of riding. As the student becomes more proficient and aware in all areas, the riding skill and enjoyment increases much more quickly and completely than if riding technique alone is addressed. During this 5 days I took 2 lessons a day on their school horses, I attended Yoga class twice, I was given a massage and relaxation session 3 times, and I participated in a newly introduced 2-day seminar entitled "My Horse Casts a Shadow, and it is Mine", given by the newest addition to Hilltop's staff, a psychologist.

This unique combination: Receiving instruction in riding technique; working on myself only during lunge lessons; working on my body's breathing, strength, and suppleness during Yoga; having massage which was tailored to my body's needs; having relaxation techniques used after the massage; and exploring the inner workings of the relationship between me, my "shadow" and my horse caused a number of surprising and delightful revelations. Revelations which have improved my riding, my physical well-being (and thus my riding), and my mental well-being (and thus my riding). In short, it was a satifsying, refreshing and remarkable success!

Before I go into any more detail, I must express that every single person at Hilltop was a delight to interact with, and that helped more than I can explain. Every person, from Jane MacElree, Hilltop's owner, to Jill Hassler, Hilltop's manager and the main shaker and mover for the entire experience (AND a marvelous teacher), through all the rest of the staff including the instructors, the secretary, the kitchen staff, the grooms, and the trainers. Also, of course, watching Scott, Barb, and Susanne train some of the most talented horses in the U.S. was a real plus.

OK, now for the details: Jill told me when I arrived that she had a plan for me: I was to ride El Dato, a second level school horse, every day, because I need to see where I should be going with my 5 year old, Gus, who is still very green. Then, I should ride two different green horses, two days each, because I will be starting my two three-year-olds this summer.

First the green horses: I rode two nice young horses (both were black!) with Barb as the instructor. I really did enjoy getting to know them and figuring out where they were in their training. Barb helped me to be more precise in articulating my views of what they needed, and to be more precise and quick in my aids to produce the desired result. In each case I was a bit frustrated the first day because I was not quick enough to figure out what the horse needed. But by the second day with each horse, I was getting much better results, and was able to help the horse be straight and balanced.

Now the second level horse; El Dato is a nice well-trained horse, but he doesn't try to guess what you want, he just does exactly what you tell him. And after riding green horses exclusively for two years, I asked him to canter the way I ask my young horses to canter, by getting up off the back and kind of cantering myself, and then the horse joins me. El Dato didn't understand this, and just trotted faster, or sometimes slower, out of balance. Also, Jill and I discovered that I was concentrating so hard on the canter depart that I was stopping the horse up, staring into the back of his head or neck, to the point where once when I asked for the canter depart, he just stopped dead. So I had my work cut out for me, learning again how to ask a horse for a canter. How embarrassing!

Ultimately, the whole 5 days' experience produced answers and tools to solve this and other problems: in my lunge lesson I learned that I was "holding" the muscles in the sides of my lower back, which was blocking the horse from trotting with spring and a rounded back, and was also blocking the horse from cantering in a balanced manner. During my massage, Russell focused on those muscles, and other back muscles, and the relaxation was focused on those lower side-back muscles and letting energy just flow. During Yoga, I learned to pay very close attention to my breathing, which helped relax those lower side-back muscles. During the next lunge lesson (which was with Lil, who also taught the Yoga), we discovered that I hold my breath while asking for a canter depart, so I did Yoga breathing, with no stirrups, with no reins, with eyes closed, and did lots of canter departs, with relaxed lower side-back.

The seminar with Dr. Richard Jontry was very enlightening. A group of 26 people had come to Hilltop for the weekend, from all over the country, not knowing exactly what was to happen, but willing to find out because it was supposed to help our riding. We all explored our "shadow" selves, that part of ourselves we have pushed down or ignored, and do not wish to acknowledge for whatever reason. This was tough work, but after some group discussions and some self-dialog, almost everyone came up with some insights into problems he/she had been having with riding or teaching riding. We also found some insights into solving the problems and left the seminar Sunday afternoon with a very positive goal and method to achieve that goal. In particular, I had an insight into why I am so "strong" with my mind, and why I stop my horse up with it and in the process discovered a soft sensitive part of myself that had been pushed down and was part of my "shadow."

Meanwhile, back at the canter depart, my last couple of rides on El Dato went quite well. Jill urged me to break down into minute details what I was doing to get a good canter depart. So we came up with the following list of things to do before, during, and after depart:

1. Strengthen my position. I had been a bit tentative in my seat, trying to "go with" a green horse, and in the end just being ineffectual and noodley. I had also been leaning forward too much.

2. Breathe in deep slow Yoga breath style.

3. Close my eyes, or look out the window, or across the arena, or think "soft eyes," ANYTHING but bore my eyes into the back of my horse's neck. (I had discovered that even with a relaxed body, I could stop a horse up by boring my eyes into him.)

4. Ask for the canter with a sharp leg aid (but not too strong) rather than a pressing or holding leg aid.

5. Notice immediately upon canter depart if the horse needs help balancing, not wait until three strides into the canter when he may be quite unblanced.

Then, one of the most wonderful discoveries in this Hilltop trip was this: Jill told me to visualize the perfect canter depart, going through all these steps, when I was not on the horse. In this way I could teach my body and mind how to do a canter depart the new way, without boring the horse to tears, and without giving the horse erroneous aids over and over again while I was changing my habits, in short, I could do the learning without the horse, and the horse would benefit because the next time I came to ride, I would have new habits. Of course you have to repeat this canter depart 2000 times (Or is it 10,000 times? I forget. Anyway it is many more than you could ever imagine doing.) in order to get rid of the old habits and get the new habits. Well I am here to report it works! I visualized on the plane trip home on Tuesday, I visualized in bed when I first woke up, I visualized while driving the car, or any other time I had a few moments I could concentrate. After I returned to Montana, I quickly had a lesson with Jill here on Gus (luckily she was here shortly after the seminar). It was not all smooth sailing at first. I don't think I had done all 10,000 repetitions of my visualization then, and Gus certainly had done none! He did go back to some of his old bucking-at-the-canter ways because he was objecting to what I was trying to do. How embarrssing again. But he must have done his visualizations while we were snowed in from Christmas to New Year's (I know I did), because we are on the right track now, and are planning to be canter virtuosos by summer!

Copyright 1997, Quarterly Newsletter of the Montana Dressage Society, January, Volume VI, Issue I



By Amanda Schumer

I started to ride when I was 9 years old.  I was, and still am, small, but I was never afraid.  I guess that's why he gave me the name of "Little Jockey".  Melly was my first riding instructor.  He was the first person that would ever teach me something that I would never forget the rest of my life.  He taught me to be tough and he always built up my confidence.  I was his "Little Jockey".  He always said he'd watch my first show, he didn't have to promise to do it, I just knew he would be there.  It wasn't long before he had to stop giving me lessons.  I was 10 by then and knew that he was sick and older, but didn't know that he had Parkinson's Disease.  His daughter took over giving me lessons, but Melly was always there watching from his blue and white lawn chair under the barn awning.  He always told me that my ride was good, no matter what happened.

That spring, it was time for me to show.  Melly was in a nursing home by then, but I just thought he wasn't coming up to the barn anymore.  I remember it was April 30th and I was preparing for my first show.  I wasn't nervous.  I knew Melly would be there, so why should I be.  I was all ready in my new show jacket and jophurs and paddock boots.  I had brushed Kirby, the little bay pony mare I had been riding.  Now I had to find Melly.  I looked everywhere, but the small show grounds seemed a lot bigger to me than now and I just thought he was somewhere helping with the show.

I rode very well that first show.  I got all firsts and seconds.  I had my little arms full of ribbons.  I thought I had seen Melly over by the bleachers while I was riding.  Afterwards, I went almost completely over the whole grounds and even in the barn, but no Melly.

My mom found me and told me that early that morning Melly has passed away.  I told her he hadn't though, because he said he'd come and watch my first show.  Melly wouldn't say something he wouldn't do.

I cried for a long time at home.  I never let go of my ribbons.  I cried because Melly didn't get to see me ride and I didn't get to show him my blue ribbon - my very first ribbon I ever won.

I didn't realize it then, not when I was merely 10 years old, but Melly did watch me ride.  He couldn't physically leave the hospital to come and watch, but maybe he did leave that morning, just so he could watch me and my friends show.  We were always his students, and I think we still are.

I still believe the 10 year old me, when I thought I saw Melly by the bleachers.  People may call me crazy, but he's there watching us every show.  He never had to promise, I just trust him.  Sometimes I can remember him, watching from his old blue and white lawn chair, or standing by the fence.  I remember him shouting out orders, but yet not really shouting.  I remember him asking us to get him a soda or to pick something up.

Sometimes, I can even hear him call me his "Little Jockey".


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