Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving approaches. Family, feasts and warmth as the earth cools toward winter. We are thankful, indeed, perhaps more now than ever. And we give thanks for friendships, opportunities, learning, growth, and our teachers.

A recent discussion on the CO TH forum centered around a perennially favorite subject for bashing and praise, George Morris. It reignited in us a sense of progression of the hunter/jumper world through the past 50 years, a process which has formed the foundation of our current perspectives on horsemanship in all of its manifestations. Alluded to in an earlier post, our good fortune at being a 'fly on the wall' during the rise of the modern era of equestrian sport has allowed us to be a perpetual student! We have always soaked up any and all we can learn of horses.

George Morris is one of the truly unique individuals of sport - we don't know much about other sports, but how could he not be? From his earliest successes in the equitation ring, to Olympic heights to his commitment to preserving the classic American riding style, to his vision as chef d'equippe then on to being the most influential coach and trainer in the business, Morris has set the standard for excellence.

We riders of a certain age from the Fairfield-Westchester-New Jersey area all grew up with the same basic background, working with an interlocked group of masters and their protegees. Others, in the South, or the West, had their influences, masters in their own rights. The common thread for all was the military tradition of Ft Riley before and shortly after WWII. The cavalry system, tempered with the traditions of the European schools of France, Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe and the Iberian peninsula and Austria, produced a balanced, forward way of riding which allowed for free athletic expression form the horse, and an effective, efficient and elegant style in the rider.

The 50s saw an influx of German, Hungarian and Chekoslovakian trainers who firmly placed their stamp on our riding style. Perhaps the most influential on the showjumping world was the late Bertalan deNemethy, long time coach of the USET. His emphasis on correct gymnastics produced educated competitors and strong, sound horses. The grip-with-the-knees military style softened into one more classical, the rider appearing to be one with the horse and less defensive.

Dressage has followed a slightly different path by retreating somewhat from the freer classical art to an increasingly mechanical, technological demonstration of power, exaggerated movement and control. The 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong and the ensuing turmoil within the international governing body attests to the desire of some to move back to the more artistic expression of the horse.

Our next post will explore a bit the roots of classical horsemanship.

Have a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

With Dime peacefully eating his morning hay, Boo thought he had a better deal than she. She moved into his stall, pushed him away from his pile and began eating. Doug brought out another flake for Dime and left it in an empty corner of the stall, which, of course, piqued Boo's greedy interest, and she attempted to commandeer that as well. Dime kicked out at her, she squealed and bolted out of the stall altogether.

A short time later, Dime allowed her back, and they ate side by side, in companionable contentment.

Dime, the low man of the herd, previously picked on and rejected by Boo, displayed a strong protective instinct for his space, reestablished his sovereignty, and as a true gentleman, welcomed the company without grudge.

Manners. Strength. Respect. Decency. Forgiveness. Tolerance.Elements too often lacking in the greater scheme of things. Concepts no longer taught in a general sense as virtues necessary for responsible citizenship.

The horses get it. Why are we humans casting ourselves away from these basic tenents of civilization and survival?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

And what about this inevitable direction Boo has steered us in? Why is it relevant, other than being a nice story about a charismatic mare?

It is relevant because she has filled in major gaps in our humanity, made connections we were either too lazy or clueless to make for ourselves. She has challenged our native passivity, demanding decisions and committment. To this day, the challenge continues, as we struggle to break through the remaining barriers to our fulfillment and self-realization. We are realizing the depths of her influence on us and on our view of the world around us.

Our book, Dimensions, is to be an exploration of these depths as they apply to the art of horsemanship. In other words, one could see this exercise as a testament to our horses as teachers. Body awareness, biomechanics, riding techniques, moral responsibilities to horses and to our fellow humans, psychological issues, both human and equine, all are part and parcel of the larger picture.

There is a reason the 'natural horsemanship' movement has come to the forefront in current equine lore. There is a reason Klaus Balkenhol, Christian Carde, Gerd Heuschmann and Jean Claude Racinet are following their convictions, often to closed minds. A return to classical principles is the rallying call, principles which are not limited to the dressage arena, but apply to all equestrian disciplines.

And to all aspects of human development.

We seek to break down and demonstrate what we, as horsemen, can do to allow our horses to retain their essential being and spirit. And, we seek to apply the same to our fellow humans, as well.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Some have asked whether we consider ourselves a horse, referring to the title of this blog. No, to do so would be presumptuous - they are far too deep and knowing. No, but horses are largely willing, generous and caring, to one degree or another. They are the thoughtful ones, they are the ones who make us grow and reach beyond our comfort zones - they are our mentors in so many ways.

We have been on a steeper learning curve since the arrival of Boo in our life a decade ago. Until the morning we walked into the barn to prepare to ride Dime and were distracted by the insistent pounding of hooves on a stall door, our equestrian experience had been progressing steadily if routinely for forty years. Ups and downs occurred along the way, falls, fears, triumphs large and small, tragedies and joys, all made for a rich world in which we felt comfortable, within our limitations.

Hearing the pounding this particular morning, we looked up to see an appealing blaze and zip marked chestnut face pointed toward us. Partially hidden behind a long light forelock were a pair of dark eyes, focused intently and intensely on us. As the song suggests, 'she had me from the start'. This 4 year old mare planted herself in our heart and has never let go.

So, she was just a horse. She was not one we would have picked had we been looking, as her type was outside our comfort zone. She was not a sleek athletic Thoroughbred or warmblood, but clearly a Belgian-draft crossed with quarter horse type, judging from her head. At a young age, she was made up of pieces of different horses. perhaps as many as three! Her head, while typey, was huge, stuck at the end of a nicely curved but preposterously short and thick neck on top of a pair of massive fairly upright shoulders. Thick through the heartgirth, her barrel sloped back and narrowed to join small, round, potentially powerful hindquarters. Her gaskins were slight and undeveloped. Strikingly light cannon bones attached to long-toed but sound, good sized hooves finished up the picture. A draft horse and pony combination with a lighter horse thrown in. For the finishing touch, her light-colored mane fell to the point of the shoulder and her luxuriant tail trailed in the bedding.

Love at first sight? Perhaps, but it was more a sense of inevitability and of knowing this was to become an important life experience.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

The geese were circling in small groups, feeding in from all directions this morning as I fed the horses. They would land in the corn field behind us, and more groups would fly in. Then, these cackling, calling birds, took off again, in ever larger groups, disappearing only to return shortly later. More groups arriving to join the cacaphony (and we wonder why the dog insists on running back to the corn field!)

They will be taking off soon for the winter. Their engines are reving up. They will fly up, circle to draw all their kind with them and head southwest over the Taconics. The world will be less alive in their absence.

With the world in financial turmoil, and an unknown man as our new President elect, we are kept grounded by the animals who go about their days as always - eating wandering, sleeping, playing, offering soft muzzles, peaceful eyes, comfort and purrs. They have the capacity to snap us out of our worrying, for moments at a time, to allow us to find a brief respite in their in-the-moment existences. We try not to think the worst, that the time may come when we can no longer offer them the comfort they so freely give us. But, they are our family, as much so as our children and grandchildren, siblings and friends.

We are struck by the confluence of events in the larger world, how those awake in us a spinning coin sided by fear and fight. We will fight for our home, our animals, our family and our country. We will fight the despair that sometimes tries to find the weaknesses in our resolve.

Being proactive in the world is a new experience for us. We are finding that it is affecting all phases of our days, giving us confidence to face the unknown, the optimism that we will come through this a stronger, better and more compassionate person.

Being proactive is a trick taught to us by our horses, Boo in particular, who, while mellowed, still enjoys challenging us with a particular look, testing our will. We smile back at her, sometimes laughing, and move her feet. She complies, content that the status quo remains, and that she can relax. Rusty leads the three, but he shares the watch duty with Boo. Dime is happy to follow their lead and protection, puppy-like. He is able to retain his silliness and essentially dependent character, his ears perked, his cataract eyes youthful.

This is the lesson we spent our adulthood relearning. The fearlessness and joy of being one with our horses that blessed us as a youngster became hidden behind the trappings of adult responsibilities and concerns. When our centaur mentality disappeared, we had to find our seat through thought before it became feel and muscle memory. Where we felt we had to control every muscle of both horse and ourselves, we learned to let go, thereby finding that euphoric and magical place where equine/human were one on all levels. Our thought became the horse's action, an instant response to our brainwaves. Kind of like bending spoons by sheer will.... or tipping tables, which we have actually done!

Sometimes the will, the thought, is not available, perhaps supressed by the concerns forced on us by circumstance. But, then, the fear creeps back in, the need to control, the loss of feel, and we are faced with perservering, moving beyond the stopping point into a freer place once again.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

2008 International Dressage Symposium

This was held the weekend of 18-19 October at Jen and Tommy Vanover's lovely Maplewood Warmbloods in Middletown, NY. Despite cold and wind, some 200 auditors, a number of hardy demo riders and their horses, and our wonderful presenters - Klaus Balkenhol, Col Christian Carde and Dr Gerd Heuschmann, braved the elements to learn, share and discuss the differences between classical and competition dressage.

Through extensive use of power point displays, round table discussions, a painted horse, ridden demos of green to advanced horses, and, most importantly, free flowing ideas from these three masters, they clearly conveyed to us the benefits of developing the horse correctly, allowing it to carry the rider, through gradual physiological and mental conditioning, up through the levels, the ultimate goal being a horse in self carriage and happily expressing itself with minium interference from the rider. All three gentlemen showed themselves to be compassionate, totally committed to the horse and its well-being. They were humble, self-effacing and accessible to all.

Perhaps what struck us the most occurred on our drive home. Our thoughts centered around the concept of beauty, a quality which has been diminished in recent years and decades, and how this related to the growing problems in upper level dressage and judging of the same. Balkenhol, Carde and Heuschmann have taken on the task of returning the practice to its classical, horse- centered roots where riding has the potential to be an art form.

We thought that 'art' today is often far from beautiful, instead focusing on what is ugly, demeaning or political in nature. Yes, it does express emotion, but appeals to the lowest common denominator. It squashes rather than elevates.

So many have remarked on the rewarding of poorly executed movements in the Olympics, and other competitions. Some competitors rode mechanically, performing a form of the exercise, but without brilliance and allowing their horses to show expression. Indeed, these horses are perhaps unable to do so, as they haven't been trained and conditioned to do so. An exaggerated extended trot would be rewarded - for the front leg movement alone, as the horse would be lacking in correct, balanced rhythm from the hind legs.

Balkenhol, Carde and Heuschmann are courageously calling for horsepeople to return the beauty to the horse we humans so often take away from it in the name of national, presonal and financial recognition.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

What we do.

2 November 2008

A little about what we do - (the editorial 'we 'is something 'we' aren't too comfortable with yet, so it may depart).

We have been a long-time instructor, primarily in the hunter/jumper realm, but with a fair share of classical and classically-based moden dressage. We have experience in CT and starting horses using Vaquero methods. All that makes sense seems more and more grounded in the traditions of the Cadre Noir, Spanish Riding School, and the Iberian peninsula. As we open a door, there seem to be many more, and who knows where this journey will take us?

We offer instruction on a freelance basis as well as digitally, and teach out of several barns in the MA,VT,NY corner. Digital lessons allow for a wider scope of exposure. Our goal, regardless of the level of rider, is to promote a real, connected and feeling partnership with the horse, where the rider's position becomes fluid, balanced and quiet in order to permit the horse to perform at its most expressive best.

Our methods are eclectic in nature, giving us the flexibility to adapt to individual needs of both horse and rider. "Balanced seat", "Centered Riding*", forward seat, dressage seat, Western seat - indeed, jockey seat! - all developed for specific needs. It is our firm belief that the fundamental premise of all these diverse labels remains the same, that of allowing free movement and expression of the horse. A rider's power and balance centers must match those of his/her mount, regardless of the discipline.

The journey we are on has taken us to learn from many masters and many knowledgeable horsemen and women. We fully expect this path to continue, and are open to any comments and discussions from those with serious and sincere intentions.

Our website is We encourage you to peruse it - it will be changing soon, with up-dated prices, additional information and links.

*-Sally Swift. See her books "Centered Riding" and "Centered Riding II" for a good, basic introduction to a rider's effect on her horse.

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Welcome to the first post of The Thoughtful Horse. We seek to provide observations on horses and how they relate to our lives on more than a superficial level. Commentary and opinions will cover things equestrian, and may well spill over into creative, or political, or social, or metaphysical or spiritual musings.

We are a life-long horse devotee. We recall, as a child of 6 or 7, observing our sister's lessons with German dressage master, Fritz Stecken and pining to be riding, too. As a junior, we were fortunate to be under the considerable influence of some of the masters - George Morris (when he was starting out!), William Steinkraus, Gordon Wright, Victor Hugo-Vidal - learning solid, instinctive and efficient basics which served us both in the show ring and the hunt field. All of us who took our riding seriously relished the intense drilling and challenges of our lessons. How exciting it was to jump our first course, to be able to jump 'off our eye', to compete on an outside course, to learn lateral work, flying changes, to take care of our horses needs, to survive a particularly demanding clinic... all of our group were raised to be complete horsepeople.

Often, we would go for wild trail rides, or camp out with our horses. One cold, snowy Christmas Eve, we, along with a friend, mounted her two fuzzy horses bareback and proceeded to ride all over the western section of New Canaan, galloping down a newly dug road, trecking up and down massive piles of dirt, exploring the woods, ambling through backyards - :O! We were out for hours, until it got dark. It was the purest form of celebration, one of many.

Anyhow, some 50 years later, this passion has evolved and grown and continues to direct our life. Riding is not so frequent, but the feel, the memory remains clearly, available for us to pass on to our clients. We just might get around to writing a book, which is already titled.

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