Oh, Atlanta….

“Oh, Atlanta, I hear you callin’
I’m comin’ back to you one fine day…..”    Ralph Micks

 

 

atlhorseconnections
Click to check out local magazine Atlanta Horse Connections

 

 

In 1995 I traveled to Atlanta to audit a Charles DeKunffy clinic hosted in Alpharetta, Georgia.  As I wound my way around the charming towns of Roswell, Milton and Alpharetta I knew that I had found the place I wanted to live.  Within a year my horse Sy and I moved from South Carolina and found ourselves living in the place I consider “home”.

Home has always been an elusive concept for me as I was raised in the Air Force and lived in three different countries and four different states before I graduated high school.  I loved every one of these places and the horses, barns and friends that I met along the way.  From riding gymkhana and jumping ponies with Andrea in England to beginning dressage and show jumping with the German kids at the stately riding center in Zweibrucken, Germany, Europe began my love for all things horsey.

Lucky enough to land at Sand and Spur Riding Club on Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida I met an amazing family of people that shaped my life.  The friends I met there are second to none.  I consider the times at workday, riding in the bay, and club horse shows some of the best times I will ever have.  Unfortunately due to the nature of the military the people that aligned in that magical period of time have since scattered across the globe.

South Carolina and Longcreek Equestrian Center introduced me to Scott Peterson who unknowingly converted me to a dressage only rider.  It is here that I found my path to my career in horses.  I met Sabrena (of Better So Dressage Blog) a friend that encourages me when I’m down and shares my passion for dressage. I wouldn’t trade any of these places or experiences for anything in the world.  They are what made me the trainer I am today.  But it is in Georgia that I will always feel most at home.

For fear of excluding any one of the hundreds of friends, trainers and students I have known in Atlanta I won’t name any names but Atlanta is the place I will return to when my duties in South Carolina are complete.  In addition to the huge community of riders, Atlanta has hundreds of amazing barns to meet the needs of all. Most of all it is the supportive nature of the people I have met there that keeps drawing me back.  Atlanta has seen the best of me and the worst of me, I have made lifelong friends and I have made some big mistakes but somehow that all becomes part of the fold and the focus on horses keeps bringing us back together.

I wish I had the words to better express how I feel but I guess I can’t top the great Ray Charles….

Georgia, Georgia
The whole day through
(The whole day through)
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind
(Georgia on my mind)

I said a Georgia, Georgia
A song of you
Comes as sweet and clear
As moonlight through the pines

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in the peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you

I said, Georgia, oh Georgia
No peace I find
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind

Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you

Oh Georgia, Georgia
No peace, no peace I find
Just an old, sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind
(Georgia on my mind)

I said, just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind – Ray Charles

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Doesn’t Matter

Me and Jim Dorsett after my fall
Me and Jim Dorsett after my fall

Admittedly it took me smashing both my legs and spending a year in a wheelchair before I felt empathy for fearful riders.  Although I knew all the catch phrases to try and teach someone that was afraid,- “he’s not going to do anything”, “nothing’s going to happen”, “doesn’t matter”, I really didn’t understand that it was a physical problem to be frightened, not a mental one.

It’s easy to stand on the ground when someone is fearful and logically explain why they have nothing to fear, or even what to do if they experience loss of control.  These are things most people can understand and conceptualize, however; when a person has been hurt, or just has a fear of being hurt no logical understanding overrides the blast of adrenaline that shoots through their body causing a cold sweat to break out on their forehead.

If you are trying to teach, or help someone that has this fear, understand that they want to get through it or they wouldn’t be there.  If possible get on the horse first and show them how quietly he goes around the arena without spooking or falling.  Sometimes it’s helpful when the rider is on the horse to get them talking about something else in their life, maybe their family or their job, to distract them from the situation for a minute.  This will keep them from over analyzing their ride.  Put a grab strap on the saddle or a stirrup leather around the horse’s neck for them to grab if they feel the need to.  If they become overwhelmed with fear and feel like they must get off the horse try to be supportive and understanding, even if you have never felt this way yourself.  Everything doesn’t have to be conquered in one day.

If you are a rider that has experienced a bad fall or is fearful for some other reason, realize you are not alone.  Many people feel fear and express it as anger or frustration.  Don’t be embarrassed to talk to your trainer about your fears.  This will save a lot of time and confusion if the fear is getting in the way of training.  Never feel “less than” because you are afraid.  Eventually most everyone gets to experience this most unpleasant of feelings.

It took a long time after I began riding again to feel confident enough to train a horse again as opposed to just sitting there fear struck.  Fear can be overcome but it never goes away completely once it  becomes a part of your psyche.  If you have a bad day just spend the time on the ground with your horse and don’t let one uncomfortable feeling keep you from what you love. Get back in the saddle tomorrow, it will be a better day.  I promise.

 

 

Back! Back in the Saddle Again….

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Thanks Dad, for everything

 

Well, Back to the blog again anyway! It’s been quite a hiatus and I’ve missed my readers and fellow bloggers, but like true friendships a time lapse won’t matter.

I’m in a different state now, geographically anyway, and spend most of my day caring for my elderly father. Although it has altered the way my horse career operates I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am fortunate to have a career doing what I love because my family made the sacrifices necessary for a horse obsessed little girl. For that I will always be grateful.

This change in schedule has given me less time to teach, but more time to write and I’m hoping we can resume the conversations I have always appreciated with my old friends and hopefully some new ones too.

Sometimes it’s easier to sit than post….

It looks likes it’s going to be another blogging year.  My first attempt at blogging brought many unexpected results and events.  Some of the changes brought about feelings of pride and a sense of self-worth.  Other changes, while still enlightening,  forced reflection on aspects of dressage, or organized horse-sport in general,  that I had never before contemplated.  While I feel overloaded with ideas to blog about, my less naive side now worries that every story will read as either self-aggrandizing, cynical or sales pitchy.  When these feelings start making me avoid the vulnerability of writing this blog my new inspiration is to go back to the relationship between the rider and the horse, a relationship without angles or agendas.  Following is a letter from a student that I received about a year ago.  When the distractions of competition, politics and profits get me down, letters like this one, and others from students past bring me back to that concept of what “success” in the “horse industry” means to me.

This is published with permission from the author.  Thanks Jess, your unabashed sincerity humbles me.

Excerpt from an humble “expert”

“I hate writing, I love to have written.”  Dorothy Parker

Writing this blog, originally a writing exercise imposed upon me by my roommate, an avid birder that blogs daily at thebirdhousechick.com, has brought about many unexpected benefits and pleasures to my life.  While it sometimes seems like a chore to sit down and torture myself with self-doubt and criticism just to get three paragraphs completed, once it is finished I feel a sense of relief and am usually inspired for my next topic.

In addition to the cathartic experience of sharing issues that are dear to me I have met so many other bloggers, and many other riders that stumble across the writings and share their comments and insights. Some of them are professional trainers and many of them amateur riders that are passionate about their journey with riding.  Without the global reach of the world-wide web I would never have met these kindred souls that share my love of dressage or horses in general.  The comments and e-mail I receive as a result of my small blog have inspired me and made me feel part of a community in which I have never felt included.

It was a great surprise and admittedly a source of confusion when I received an e-mail from Frances Keller, an organizer from the historic and distinguished Dressage at Devon horse show.  The correspondence was an invitation to attend Devon as an “expert commentator” for the Prix St. George class held in the famous “Dixon Oval”.  My first response was that the e-mail must have been sent to me inadvertently so I replied to Ms. Keller to inquire why I had been included in the group of experts that featured top judges and top competitors from across the United States.  It seems she came across my website and blog while looking for Scott Peterson, a great trainer I have listed on my resume’.  After reading the site Ms. Keller invited me to be a commentator as she felt that some of the listeners may relate to my point of view as a contrast to the great judges they have scheduled to speak.  I am very humbled by the invitation and hope that her instincts prove correct.

Although I am nervous about the prospect of speaking to such a large audience without the time to edit and rewrite that I am afforded by writing a blog,  I am more afraid of “flinching out” on an opportunity to be included in such an esteemed panel at such a dignified event.  So Thursday I board the plane to face my fears and hopefully offer a perspective that remains true to myself and resounds with others.

If any of my fellow blogging friends, or others that follow the blog are going to be in attendance at Devon please let me know so we can finally meet.  I consider you all part of my journey and wouldn’t be included if it weren’t for your kind words and inspiration.

Check out the page of “experts” here.

Moving past Perfect…

Lynn and Luna enjoy a ride by the Lake

I could write about….no, that’s stupid. Oh, I could explain how……no, everybody knows that already. Oh, I know, I could write…..no, that idea sucks. That has been my inner dialogue every time I sit down to blog for the past six months. I wish I could blame my absence on the weather or my busy schedule, but why lie? I have fallen victim to the same enemy of progress that I try to discourage my clients from entertaining, perfectionism.

Don’t get me wrong, anyone who knows me knows I’m far from perfect! When it comes to writing, whether it’s a college paper or my little blog I become paralyzed with fear that my work will not measure up. I see this same self-destructive behavior become problematic in many of my client’s riding. For fear of not doing an exercise properly the first time, they never attempt it at all.

En route to lessons this same self-doubt creeps up on me if I let it. What if I can’t live up to my client’s expectations? What if my instruction falls flat or fails to inspire? Perhaps somebody else could explain things more creatively or clearly. This almost always alleviates itself as soon as the lesson begins and the dialogue between instructor, horse and rider begins to flow, The details work themselves out and it becomes clear that it is not the over complicated, esoteric explanations or the grandiosity of the upper level movements that make a good lesson. It’s the quiet, subtle exchanges that occur only between the rider and the horse that matter.

As frequently happens when self-doubt becomes overwhelming to me my students unknowingly become my teachers. Last week while driving to teach a dedicated adult amateur rider I found myself fretting about what I would present as a lesson. We have been chipping away at the lateral exercises and because she is so dedicated to her riding and her horse I desperately wanted to help her feel confident and confirmed in her lateral work, exercises that are complex in nature and require a patient communication between the horse and rider.

I arrived at the barn after spending the drive over mentally preparing for my lesson with Lynn. I was determined to dazzle her with lofty explanations of the communication needed for her to properly execute jaw dropping shoulder-in and breathtaking renvers. My perfectionism was in overdrive and my anxiety about presenting the perfect lesson was building. When I determinedly walked into the barn I noticed that Lynn was wearing a radiant smile. She explained that for the first time ever her sometimes aloof mare, Luna, had cantered up to greet her in the pasture. Her excitement from that one interaction from her horse was nearly palpable. My anxieties melted away as I realized that riding, like life, is defined by the small things. Sure, great lateral work is nice to have but no lofty speech or complicated footwork can offer the undefinable joy experienced during the quiet moments understood only between the horse and rider.

With luck my writing self can learn something from my riding self. Tell the perfectionism to back off and just keep writing. Every ride isn’t perfect and every blog post won’t be awe-inspiring, but hopefully, if I keep moving towards the big things the small things will make it all worthwhile.

Say What?

Scott Peterson communicates with his horse before the show!

One of the challenges in teaching dressage lies in formulating analogies and phrases to evoke the proper “feeling” between the horse and rider.  On the technical side this includes teaching the mechanics of the movements, the relationship of the aids between the rider and horse,  and the systematic use of the training scale.  More imagination is required on the abstract side, as one must describe  feelings.  Elasticity, forwardness, throughness and many other dressage terms have either different definitions in the real world, or no  application whatsoever.

Many times word selection is pivotal in eliciting the right response from the rider, both physically and emotionally.  This obsession with word choice causes some clients annoyance as I use their questions and interpretations of their rides as indicators of their understanding of the training concepts and of their relationship with the horse.  An example that comes readily to mind is the common malady, “he keeps throwing his head up!”  Although visually this is true, the rider’s choice to focus on the horse’s head leads me to conclude that the rider does not understand that the horse’s head is not the problem, the problem is losing engagement and dropping the back, the head tossing is merely a symptom of this problem.  When focusing on the horse’s head position the rider will usually correct the head tossing with the reins.  This correction is temporary however, as the problem itself has been left unaddressed.  By asking the rider to think and speak in terms of the horse’s back, as opposed the head, it increases the likelihood that he will take the steps necessary to correct the source of the problem, and not patch it up for a few strides with force.

“He keeps drifting out!”  Another clue to a misunderstanding.  If the horse is drifting, breaking stride, speeding up, slowing down or any other deviance from the rider’s intent it is not “his” fault.  If he is doing it, it is likely that the rider is inadvertently asking him to do it.  Pointing out this word choice problem is not one of my more popular speeches.  It almost always merits an exasperated sigh and “you know what I mean”.  The problem here is that, yes, I know the rider is trying to convey the nature of the error, however the words selected indicate that the rider believes the horse is responsible for the failure of the exercise.  The same observation worded “I’m doing something that keeps allowing him to break or asking him to break” is more indicative that the rider is taking responsibility for the error, thus making correcting it a possibility.

A client of mine, a young rider that rehabilitates traumatized horses, used to describe resistance by the horse as “fighting”.  Although I know that she is not using the word literally, or in any way being unkind to the horse, I stop her explanation every time the word fighting is included.  It is important to me, as the trainer, that the relationship between the rider and the horse is one of teaching and understanding.  If the rider feels that the horse is malevolent as opposed to confused then the course of action will be disciplinary instead of instructive.  The word fighting indicates a combative stance with the horse that is not helpful in the training process.  It is the responsibility of the instructor to ascertain the rider’s understanding of the training relationship.  To assume an understanding, in spite of terminology to the contrary, can be a mistake the horse must pay for.

After each lesson use your own words to convey your understanding of the concepts addressed by your trainer.  Your explanation may illuminate misunderstandings that  prevent you from being  the partner your horse deserves.