Friday, January 30, 2015

Elbows Back

Seems a simple enough instruction.  Elbows back. I’m walking  down the hall at work, three-quarter high cubicles on one side, wall on the other. As I pull my elbows back, I raise my eyes. I didn’t even know I was looking at the floor.

Straightening caused me to take a breath, one of those deep from the diaphragm “peace in, stress out” types.

Shoulders heavy with the weight of too many thoughts lift and a band of tension between my shoulder blades loosened it’s grip, just a little. I didn’t know how bad I felt until I suddenly felt better.

This couple of words is somethingI’d received from Becky during our dressage lesson. I’d gone on a bit about how I knew my form wasn’t so hot and all that. She basically kept me busy doing other things and then somewhere in there, slipped in what to me were magic words.

You would think I might know by now that “form follows function, not the other way around” applies to humans as well as horses.

For the longest time, I have been trying to force my leg to stay back. Heel, hip, shoulder, ear. I can contort myself some kind of awful trying to get the right thing to happen. Just flat does not work like that.

Looking down at my horse is my habit to break as it is for so many of us.

Missy Fladland said to me once “You don’t have to keep looking at your horse, Terri, if she’s not there you will be the first to know.”

My neck hurts from looking down so much.

Pick your head up, put your eyes and your heart on your horizon and ride.

Just as there is no such thing as a headset on a horse, and pulling on the reins to get the head down or the chin to come in doesn’t lead to anything like collection, me trying to force my position was causing me to be very far from where I wanted to be.

A horse that is engaging the hind will round it’s back through to the poll which will relax and act as a hinge. The poll stays at wither level or a little above, with the horse’s face on or slightly ahead, but never behind the vertical. That horse is lovely to watch.


I’ve seen pictures of myself riding, looking like a sway backed cow when I think I am sitting back, shoulders square and all that. The camera only lies about my weight, never my posture.


I felt what happened as Royal and I were circling around the arena on that blustery day. Elbows back set my shoulders under my ears where they belonged. That lifted my diaphragm. Breathing properly I was able to relax and move more freely with my horse. I didn’t  care right then where my leg was, I was feeling delightedly engaged with my horse.

Big trot

So, there I am at work. Shoulders collapsed inward, breathing shallow. I wonder why I’m tense and my body hurts. I know I cannot have one set of habits out in the world and suddenly develop another set when I am riding. I’m trying to be cognizant of what I am doing, mentally and physically in both places.

Good posture, it turns out, has many benefits other than looking nice when you see yourself in the mirror. Relaxing my body  relaxes my mind and there’s never going to be too much of that going around!

Again, just as with horse, relax the body by getting it to operate correctly, the mind follows.

Feeling easier in my skin, I think, is helping my horse to like me more. He looks at me quite a bit like he approves and doesn’t mind being around me too much. I don’t think I will ever get over the delight of asking him to come pick me up and having Royal sidle willingly to the mounting block, stand quietly while I mount, and then maybe we hang out and talk to folks. 

From whence we came . . .  that’s a looong road, my friends.

Relaxing from the inside out is helping me at home and at work, as well. I haven’t snapped at a coworker for quite some time. It never had much to do with them. My brain and body would hurt, my ability to defend myself against negative internal chatter weakens and the next thing you know, it spills out my mouth hurting someone’s feelings.

Discovering I have ruined the entire brake system on my beloved truck by absent-mindedly dumping a little power steering fluid in what I thought was the right container, only to have that bright yellow cap catch my eye as I was already pouring away. What? Hey, what the  heck have I just done? Oh well, it’s a fluid, right? How bad can it be?

Let’s just say it’s bad. Very bad. Royal and I are grounded for a couple of months until every rubber doohickey involved in braking is replaced from stem to stern. Live and learn, drink your coffee before attempting  . . . much of anything.

Once upon a time that discovery would have ruined my day, my night and several of my husband’s days and nights. Didn’t have to. We’ll get it fixed. I was able to put it into perspective and continue to enjoy the rest of my life.

Again today at my desk, feeling the overtime hours I’ve put in this week, the strain of wrapping my brain back around a job I love but is demanding as all get out, I knew exactly what to do. Elbows back. It will cause you to breathe.


Thursday, January 22, 2015


“ . . . as you come around in the small circle, sit a couple beats and canter!”


Gusting winds picked up the corners of the big doors closing off the alleys on either side of the indoor arena, lifting and them dropping like a child stomping her foot in a mad tantrum.

I sat my couple beats, smiled at Becky and trotted the entire circle. Other than an inquiring flick from Royal’s ear questioning the bumpy ride up top as I had prepared for a wild leap that never came, he didn’t turn a hair.

I do not know what Becky Parker, our visiting dressage instructor saw when she watched the tall to me bay and white spotted Arabian go through his paces for us that day. My glow of happiness probably obscured her view.

lesson with Becky

It isn’t that we are natural born dressage champions or that things came easy to either one of us. It was our first dressage lesson together and even though I’ve been riding my lovely Barnesby saddle as much as possible I am still nowhere near as confident in it as I am my comfortable and forgiving Western roper.

My position is much better than a few years back when I tested for instructor with The American Association of Horsemanship Safety. My dratted forward leg kept me just under the threshold for the coveted Full designation.

I still bend forward at the waist, fairly certain if I sit up and back, shoulders square, my arms will then become too short to reach my reins and also I am quite likely to tumble off the back should my pony take one of those much expected wild leaps. It takes a true act of faith for me to stop holding my breath, relax and move with my horse.

When I could manage to get in balance with Royal on that blustery day, the result was truly beautiful.

Mirror shot

When I didn’t, it looked like this:


“Terri, when his head comes up, it’s probably because he is out of balance.” Becky says to me. “Instead of taking hold of  him and trying to balance him yourself, release to him a little and let him figure it out for himself. If you always do all the work he will never have a chance to learn how.”

Light bulb. And, a familiar one. Peter “get the horse ready and let the horse take care of the doing.”  This is the same.

Just as the work we do with Peter Campbell that gets the horse moving all four quarters equal sets up a beautifully balanced horse that can do whatever it is you want.


Also what happens, Royal speeds up, slows down and I flop around adjusting my seat, my legs, my hands trying to get him back where we need to be. Sounds busy? It is. It gets in the way of him already in the process of working that out and we have a little mess for a few moments until we are back in sync again.


But, just a small mess. Amidst skeletal branches frantically waving their bony fingers through the high windows of the arena, occasionally scraping fingernails for emphasis, winds that howled and roared, my  horse stayed calm and unconcerned.

A lonely small startle came after one of those little messes. I had him distracted and something boogered him. A few stutter steps and as usual, he’s over and done with it before I can pick up a rein or need to.

We were the first riders of the day, and I’d done only a little groundwork, wanting the best of my horse fresh for the lesson. I’d asked him to move in a circle around me, four corners reaching equally. He is used to this and does so easily, no knots in his brain or body to get in the way. A couple of canter steps in each direction with no happy bucks thrown in and we were ready to rock and roll.

I stand on the mounting block. “Come get me buddy.” My horse gently sidles up til I am in perfect position to mount. Yes, this is the horse that once took a guy on each side holding his head while I stabbed my foot into the stirrup and tried to stay alive long enough to land on top. A horse that Trina had to come hold as I could not keep up with him at our first Peter Campbell clinic together. Now, he comes gets me.

First rider

I’d had some concern with my position issues, I would spend the entire 45 minute lesson  standing in my irons trying to find the elusive balance spot that would be my seat.  I worked pretty hard on that the past two weeks.

We got to do all kinds of things. Becky had me make adjustments and ask Royal to come on to his outside rein. He’s been very adept at avoiding it or I have been really inefficient one of the two because we’ve NEVER had the balanced contact we experienced that Saturday morning. My horse likes support. As long as he had a place to go, in this case forward, he didn’t mind being closed between my inside leg and outside rein.

When he got a little crookedy and Becky asked me to also use my outside leg in conjunction with the outside rein, that got a little trickier. For me. It was like chewing gum, rubbing the top of my head clockwise with one hand and coloring something purple with my foot. I am not a largely coordinated person.


Again, when we got it, there was magic between us. I could feel him floating along. I was no longer bothered by the environment because he never had been.

We did circles, long trotted, picked up good walks and relaxed. The serpentines were likely not pretty, again more to my lack of coordination.

Working out where to change my rein is no automatic process as of yet.  We did them, my horse willing and happy to go where he was pointed.

Big trotGreat walk

And then we were  at “sit a couple of beats and canter!”

Had I not lost my courage at the crazy thundering doors, we could have . . . maybe. I don’t have a good canter transition from the dressage saddle. My lack of balance, not his.

We missed our transition completely a few times and then could not get the left lead. Over and over again, unintentional counter canter. Becky was unrattled, helped me make some adjustments. I showed her the back a half circle, leg yield to the wall and canter maneuver that Peter had taught us last September. Worked like a charm as it always does.

She smiled. “You know why that works, don’t you?” I am thinking things in terms of sets his body up correctly and me in the proper position as well.

“Yes, and, you don’t throw him away when you do it like that.”

Oh man! Another light bulb. Getting ready to canter, I was pitching him slack, me thinking I am freeing him up to make the transition. What I am really doing is throwing him off balance, and getting busy with my body to add to that. Doesn’t sound comfortable sitting here writing it, I bet it didn’t to him, trying to move under it.

“Just sit. Don’t make changes in your rein or your seat. Put your legs on him and canter!”

And, then we did. That lovely sweet going places canter he does when he’s happy with the world.

Happily a couple of friends and fellow students at the barn had their cameras and got some neat shots for us. I got to audit their lessons as well and watched a day of people and horses making good changes. Great horsemanship speaks the same language. Might be some different terminology but the flavor remains the same regardless of the britches you wear or the shape of your saddle.

Why dressage you might ask? The basics of this discipline aids everything. And that’s what I want to do with Royal T. Everything.

Beautiful walk

Photo credits to Kenzie Sikora and Jess Kirk

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Not so Subtle Art of Not Giving A . . .


I read an interesting blog post the other day by a guy named Mark Manson. He used a high octane four letter word and in the interest of not losing my message by the tone of my delivery, I took it down a notch.

Basic premise:  We have only a limited amount of darns to give. We waste them on trivialities and then what is real and meaningful in our lives gets lost in the shuffle.

There’s about a 1000 ways to apply this concept. As this is a blog essentially about horses, I’m going to direct it there.

Some darns I’m done with giving:

Everybody does it this way

I’ve done it this way all my life

I’m not as good as so and so

I’m better than so and so

This is faster

People might laugh at me

The list could go on quite a ways but you get the gist. Following is a list of darns I am dedicated to giving:

  • The horse comes first
  • Work from where the horse is
  • Ego has to go
  • Mouth shut, ears open
  • Try

That list could go on quite a little ways too. Feel free to make your own.

Mark makes the excellent point that not giving a “darn” does not mean you are indifferent. It means you are comfortable with being different, walking your own path, trusting the beat of your own drum.

In order to place the horse first, I have to let go of my agenda. If  I can listen, the horse will tell me where he is; will tell me clearly what we need to work on at that particular moment. I need to be awake and free of mental chatter so I can recognize that attempt at a try, the smallest change. What I release to is what my horse learns from me. If I miss the tries, he’ll stop making them.

If  I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone call a horse stubborn I wouldn’t have to go back to work not one more day. What’s more likely is the horse has tried, the people miss it, keep asking, raise the pressure until the horse is angry and confused. They lock up, shut down and then the human reads that as stubborn and unwilling.  When they can’t take it anymore, they explode.

People think it’s without warning and it absolutely never is.

There’s been a lot of hours I have spent in the peace and quiet of my backyard round pen, eyes closed, feeling for the try. I discovered when I worked horses at night, it was easier to feel the try. I could hear the change in their breathing, the cadence of their hoof beats. Harsh to soft, stuttered to smooth.

I’ve picked up the lead rope and asked the horse to move a certain way and at first I often got a result other than what I was looking for. I paid attention. If I do this, I get  . . . this. Okay. Make adjustments.

Peter said over and over “Do less! Do what you do but do less!” I am still working on that. Bringing my good deal down in energy until it truly is a good deal for the horse. That softness, that moving in a cushion of air between me and my horse. That’s the goal.

A person might have to firm up before you get there but firming up cannot be the first card you draw to. The release has to  be very quick when you have increased your energy or again, your horse becomes afraid or rebellious because they can’t understand what you want from them.

The horse gives a darn about staying alive. They want leadership, someone to save them from the ever present wolves just outside the door or hidden in the shadowy corner of the arena. They are going to do what they think is in their best interest.

Getting the horse to relax and be with you mentally will cause your horse to give a darn about you. All the treats and baby talk in the world will not get this accomplished.

Maybe the most darn I give out of the whole long list is to be the best person I can for my horse. That means I have to be the best person I can everywhere I am. You cannot be one person at the barn and someone else out in the world. Can’t be done.

In a world that seems to be focused only on what their horse can do for them, Peter gives me a different approach. “See what you can do for your horse, not what he can do for you.”

Since I have begun to make that change, you wouldn’t believe the difference in my relationship with my beloved Royal T and pretty much any horse I have the privilege to handle. I promised I would never drop him off a cliff to save myself again and so far, I’ve been able to hold true to that promise.

Make choices about where you give your limited number of darns. Mark also makes the point you have to give a darn about something more important than adversity. Anything worth doing is difficult. Change is tough. Surrendering the idea we already know all we need to know to get by, that’s tough too. Infinitely worth it.