Rose Caslar on Dressage Sabbatical: A Year of Classical Riding at Lost Hollow Farm

Rose Caslar on Dressage Sabbatical: A Year of Classical Riding at Lost Hollow Farm

(© Rose Caslar 2017. “Dressage Sabbatical: A Year of Classical Riding at Lost Hollow Farm” published by Editions Mistral. This excerpt published with permission of the author and publisher. Drawing by Elise Genest. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher.)

The First Month

September 2, 2013

I have now been at Lost Hollow Farm, home of the Pennsylvania Riding Academy, working with Paul and Andrea, for one month. I have not written until now because frankly, I have been A) exhausted, B) occasionally confused, and C) rather unsure just how to describe the experience. Lest that all sound terribly negative and discouraging, let me explain.

My artist stepfather conducts woodcarving classes in which students carve an entire full-size carousel animal in four to five days. Or rather, he lets them chip away at it for a while and then periodically steps in to create a hurricane of woodchips, lending the student some progress. In the first part of the workshop, he says it is totally imperative to create, as he calls it, “atmospheric distortion.” This means to confuse, enlighten, befuddle, and simply bowl over a student’s normal way of looking at art and their own abilities in order to create a new mental and physical space for learning.

In a way, this is what the interns’ workload at the Academy does. Like an artist opening your mind or a boot camp breaking you down to build you up, you must learn do more than you thought you could and to do it differently. My bodyworker Laurel Sanders says wisely, “Your old ways aren’t working anymore.”

This year, those interns are the excellent Ryan Hopkins and me. At the barn we start early, we end late, and there isn’t any stopping in between. Unlike my other working student and intern experiences at smaller barns with fewer horses, the work-to-riding ratio is about 10:1. Keeping around 28 horses, including horses in training, young horses from weanlings to two-year olds, broodmares, and a stallion, with a very high standard of care, attention, and grooming is simply a great deal of work!

A pleasant side effect to this is learning more about successful barn management than I have ever known before. Riding one hour per day out of 11 means that not a minute in the saddle can be wasted. It means that no matter how tired I am, I owe it to myself and the loving man I left in Oregon to make every minute count. Thus, various titles I have thought of for this entry are as follows: Dressage Boot Camp, 30 Days to Ripped (my biceps are looking nice, thank you!), and Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Forget Everything You Thought You Knew.

To give you a sense of a typical day at the barn, here is a quick overview of our day as interns at the Academy. Ryan and I arrive at seven a.m., check the turnout and training schedule, feed the horses in the barn, then begin bringing in and feeding the horses from the paddocks and turning out the horses in the barn.

We start cleaning and bedding the 15 stalls and scrubbing and refilling water buckets, pausing near eight a.m. to get the first set of horses ready to be ridden. This may include full baths for those horses that love to get themselves as dirty as possible overnight. The standard of grooming, according to my training by previous intern Coral and overseen by Andrea, is: “Every horse that walks out of this barn needs to be show-ready.”

After Paul and Andrea take their first set of horses down to the arena to school, Ryan and I continue to clean the barn, pausing about every 45 minutes to get another set of horses ready, meanwhile switching the horses in turnout, starting the day’s many loads of saddle pads and polo wraps laundry, and trying to clean a few bridles as we go. Around 11 a.m., however the schedule is written, either Ryan or I will go down to the arena with our own horse to school.

Then we continue taking in hot horses that have just been worked and making sure the next set to train is ready. At some point, whichever intern didn’t ride in the morning takes his or her horse down to school in the afternoon. If a client is coming for a lesson, we have the school horse prepared.

We make up the afternoon feed buckets and then begin afternoon chores, picking stalls, refilling waters, putting horses out, bringing horses in, cleaning tack, making up the morning feed, picking the outside paddocks, doing any outside chores such as scrubbing and refilling water tanks or hay huts, then finish the laundry, sweep the barn, and mop the tack room.

On Thursdays, we dust the entire barn. If it is a slower day, for instance because Paul is away teaching a clinic, we may try catch up on other more intermittent chores, like fixing fences, clipping horses, pulling manes, or raking up the hay loft. Altogether, it is a very well-run barn, to which the shining health of the horses is a testament.

And that is why for the first two weeks, it was all I could do to stay up until eight p.m. I experimented with triple insoles in my boots to soothe my aching feet. I discovered that Epsom salts in a hot bath really do work to relieve muscle soreness, and that I really must pack three times the amount of food I would typically eat in my lunch bag because the hard work makes me ravenous.

But after a month, I have found myself caring even more and more about the work… paying attention to detail and seeing that excellence starts with high standards in the lowliest tasks. Paul says, rightly, that improving in dressage is about Showing Up and Doing the Work.

Neither horse nor rider will improve if effort is not made. Pretty simple, right?

But it is so easy for riding and training to slip or be nudged aside. In my own life this past year, my riding and fitness took a back seat to full-time computer work and household responsibilities. Working at the barn can feel like a daily marathon of tasks, but it is a daily practice in showing up and doing the work. How many years did the Zen students spend sweeping the floor and hauling water? No one really knows, but it was a lot.

This brings us to another important aspect of the internship experience and another thing Zen students had to do; trust the teacher. In his book Complete Training of the Horse and Rider, Alois Podhajsky outlines the basic requirements for a student entering a manège, urging the student to trust the teacher and trust the system to provide what is needed and lead where one must be led. It goes without saying then that it is necessary to leave one’s ego at the farm gate each morning.

Paul teaches classical dressage that can be most closely compared to the Austro-Hungarian method of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. The historical SRS has its roots deep in classical dressage with a lineage dating to Giovanni Battista Pignatelli’s 16th century riding school in Italy, where European noblemen went to study during the Renaissance. These men created a diaspora of dressage, some of which changed over time as countries such as France, Germany and Spain added their own national colors.

To Paul, national tendencies aside, if dressage isn’t about the goal of shifting weight and carrying capacity to the hind end to ultimately achieve the highest collection (such as levade), it isn’t classical dressage. And now, dear reader, here is where my own atmospheric distortion comes in; it seems I am hearing a new language. Paul uses phrases I have never heard before, such as “weaving the neck into the back,” and “connecting the rein to the hock.”

My family loves to tease me about how I have quit a good job, left my long-suffering sweetheart and all things beloved to clean more stalls than we have in our entire county in rural Oregon and wade knee deep through horse laundry, all of which is white. My family has been relentless in their joshing, but in a recent phone call my Mother took a slightly different tack.

She said, “You know, honey, this is a really special opportunity for you. All artists and writers try to go on a sabbatical, a time away from all the usual household and relationship responsibilities to devote purely to their practice.”

I could hardly believe my ears. This generous remark came from the woman whom I know has been struggling not to roll her eyes for the entire year leading up to me putting my horses in my 1970 Trail Magic horse trailer and driving alone across the country to some place I didn’t know a whole lot about. But I liked my Mother’s idea. So, Paul may call it an internship, but for me this is a sabbatical…the gift of an entire year to study dressage with a master classical rider and trainer with the good wishes (mostly) of my loved ones.

We begin at the beginning, with the rider’s position.


Swimming Lessons

September 7, 2013

As promised, I will write about the rider’s position and the re-development of my seat, which has been my chief training of the past five weeks. Twentieth-century German riding master Egon von Neindorff famously said, “The seat is the Alpha and Omega of riding.”

Paul began by explaining that the seat is from knee to ribs, not just what the rider sits upon, and that the lower leg and upper body must be absolutely correct. Sitting correctly is the foundation for all clear communication from the rider to the horse about how the rider expects his mount to use himself. So we must get it right. First thing. Not later. Now.

Before arriving here, I had an inkling that my seat was not as deep or influential as I would like it to be. I often felt as though I was trying to affect the horse’s back with my seat, but instead of rooting myself, I was often skimming over the movement. I have been able to get along with nearly every horse I have ever ridden, which I think may have something to do with the fact that I sit lightly and quietly.

But I sit too quietly, almost silently. And I sit too lightly, bordering on perching. As Paul began to change my seat and hands, it was rather a shock to realize that I was going to have put aside a lot of old information and digest new theory, make new associations, create new habits and memorize new sensations.

Big questions started rattling around in my mind…what might this mean for all the French and Portuguese dressage I have studied and ridden? How will Paul’s Austro-Hungarian system blend with my past experience? What will I teach to my own students upon returning home? I don’t have all the answers yet, but I do know that knowing more about riding will only make me a more skillful rider and better teacher.

And I take comfort in remembering that most of the accomplished riders that I know (and many more through history) have for one reason or another studied multiple methods of dressage training and stylistic differences in dressage riding. Paul recognizes this fact outright and reminds us interns that ultimately, it is our personal decision as to what style of riding and training to pursue.

In the meantime, I know that in order to learn this new material well, I have to suspend my disbelief, as the 18th century British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested, set all the questions aside for the moment, and try to have what is referred to in Zen as a “beginner’s mind.”

I have to compare my first few rides with Paul to the semester in college in which I signed up for a Swim Fitness course to fulfill my P.E. requirement. How hard can this be? I thought. It’s probably like water aerobics. Just get me some music and floaty props. I showed up for the first class to see nothing but lanes of water and a lean, flinty-eyed swim coach writing distance and time intervals on a dry-erase board.

I knew how to swim. I had swum in rivers, lakes, ponds, and the occasional city pool. I had not drowned, which meant that I could swim.

After the coach watched me doggy-paddle down the lane and return seriously winded, he said, “I guess you don’t know how to swim.”

“I guess not,” I replied. “Should I transfer out of the class?”

“No,” he said, “I can teach you.”

At the end of the semester, I passed the final exam, which was to swim a mile. It took me twice as long as the incredibly buoyant and streamlined Hawaiian girl in the lane next to me, but I did it. And I took the class two more times.

The first time that I rode Excelso, Paul’s Andalusian stallion featured in his book Dressage for the 21st Century–the same horse that Andrea successfully competed at Grand Prix for many years–the lesson began on the longe line. I’d never had a longe lesson. I wasn’t sure if this was standard or just meant that I really did not sit the way Paul wanted me to. I soon found out it was the latter. My position needed a great deal of work.

Much sitting trot work without stirrups followed, and I sweated as I have never done before on a horse. My inner thighs burned as I struggled to rotate them inwardly from my hip. I thanked God that I had studied Pilates and could stabilize my spine with my abdominal muscles. However, that one small advantage was outstripped by all the other body parts acting out of turn…my left toe stubbornly stuck out to the side, my hands gave when they should have held steady and my calves gripped reflexively.

I felt utter disbelief that riding could be so difficult and I had not even tried to canter yet. When I was allowed to use stirrups, Paul told me to put them up higher and then higher again (taking me far from the long, elegant leg I so desire), until I developed some stability and could relax my calves and hamstrings.

Part of our course of study is to watch various films from Paul’s extensive library, some of which are quite rare. In the first week, Paul lent me a film of the Spanish Riding School riders performing. I was completely fascinated by the incredibly stable thigh and hip position that they all had.

In one segment, a horse and rider executed a passage across the screen in slow motion. The rider’s thighs cushioned and absorbed the impact of each stride like springs with an upper body that was tall, quiet, regal. In another slow-motion segment, a horse and rider performed one-tempi flying changes. Again, the pelvis was strong but subtle, one hipbone gesturing forward for one new lead after another as the thighs stayed strong and close to the saddle. There was minimal lower leg movement. I watched it about ten times.

After several rides, I asked Paul if I could canter the stallion. “You can try,” he said. Try? I thought, how hard can this be? I should have known better, given how hard it was just to sit the trot somewhat properly. The canter just didn’t happen. I was not able to canter the stallion that day or for a few rides afterwards. I tried everything I could think of, every variation of a canter cue except the correct one, apparently. I was flummoxed.

As was the case with the Swim Fitness class, I had been fairly sure I knew how to canter. I have ridden a lot of horses! Dripping with sweat, on the verge of tears, I was relieved when the riding set was over. I was determined not to cry and tried to play it cool. Ryan, my fellow intern, asked, “How was your ride?” “It was ok,” I said, not making eye contact.

Later that evening at our weekly barn dinner, Paul said “Excel can make a rider feel like they don’t know how to tie their shoes! He’s an expert at wrecking a rider’s confidence.”

Andrea added, “If I had a nickel for every time that horse made me cry…”

And then, Paul pointed out that Ryan had gone through the same rough patch trying to canter with Excel when he arrived over a year ago.

At that moment it dawned on me that in this small, intense working environment, my struggles were not going to remain totally private. I was going to have to wade through this with everyone knowing exactly how well or how badly it was proceeding. I felt a bit sheepish, yet relieved.

Now, five weeks in, I can turn my thigh in a bit, anchor my seat and steady my hands. My hips are getting stronger, as are my abs and back. My left toe behaves itself occasionally. I can now canter the stallion (most of the time.) Paul has let us start practicing single flying changes. I still sweat more than I ever have while riding.

Excelso does not adapt to his rider, the rider must adapt to him. I’m not sure that I have ever met a horse that makes this point so clearly. He will not give me one iota of performance unless I ask for it properly. This means that I have to morph my riding into Paul’s riding. Excelso is teaching me exactly how Paul asks for canter, how he achieves snappy trot-to-halt transitions, and what kind of connection he wants in the reins.

In our weekly phone call last week, my Dad asked me, “Well, do you like what you are learning?”

“Um. I think so.”

“You think so? What do you mean…you don’t know?”

“It’s still all so new. It’s difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to like things that are difficult. But I am glad that I’m here and it is very, very interesting. I certainly don’t want to quit.”

I actually told Paul about this conversation with my Dad, which I later reflected on as somewhat risky considering that Paul could have interpreted it as me not really liking it here. However, Paul is an understanding person, and merely said that riding well is difficult and that there are far more days of gritty effort than days of great success.

He also mentioned a film he wants to share with Ryan and me of a particular classical ballet company practicing. He was moved by the incredible physical effort they put into their practice, the sweat and demands of perfection, the inevitable frustration of hitting one’s own boundaries over and over again. We agreed that one does not always “like” what their passion and dedication bring them into, but that there are greater rewards than temporary satisfaction and happiness.

Today when I rode Excelso I felt as though a wave were rolling in front of my seat that I could push ahead or draw back with my hips. The rein felt as though it was connected to my back. Suddenly, the trot became like a trampoline instead of a hammer and we flowed forward together with lively impulsion and rhythm. I liked that.


September 14, 2013

I once asked my sweetheart (not a horse person) if my incurable fascination with horses and dressage seemed strange to him. I held my breath a bit as I waited for an answer. He’d been so supportive, but was he really just another long-suffering and tolerant spouse of a rider? In the time we’ve been together, horses have taken me from Colorado to Kansas to Washington and now, Pennsylvania.

Let’s not even get into the financial commitment that horses require. He answered that he didn’t think it was strange at all, that he viewed my riding as a path of self-study. He believes that everyone is essentially on a lifelong journey inward and that horses are just the particular avenue I have chosen. When I tell him that a ride went well or badly, he often asks me what was different about myself that day.

One of the things that my regular practice of riding has revealed to me is that I am the sort of student who grasps hard onto a single concept, expanding its importance in my mind until it grows out of proportion. This singular focus can lead to a rider erroneously thinking that knowing a great deal about a single part, such as shoulder-in, implies understanding of the whole system of dressage.

Paul uses the term fragmentation for this myopathy and specialization, after the physicist and theorist David Bohm’s work. Paul writes about this in his book, Dressage for the 21st Century. “[Bohm] cites a wonderful example of having an identical wristwatch in each hand. One is smashed to pieces; the other is disassembled. While both contain all the pieces of the watch, only one is capable of being put together in a cohesive whole. Too many of us become obsessed with fragments and try to build theories around pieces of the watch, which can never yield a functional whole.”

As a rider, I am fairly sure that I am not alone in becoming overly focused on a single concept at the expense of comprehensive understanding or trying to build a theory around a single component. Much of the horse industry thrives on it. Tell me if these phrases sound familiar: “The horse’s neck must be rounder!” “You must get the horse’s mind, first!” “Relaxation of the jaw is the key to the horse!” “Disengage the hindquarters!” “Track up!”

I’m drawing on the wider world of horsemanship here, not just dressage, but the clichéd instructions above are all concepts that riders become obsessed with in English and Western riding. Riding horses well and safely is such a complicated venture that it is no wonder that silver-bullet, cure-all solutions are continually percolating through the horse world. However, as Paul says over and over, we must train the whole horse. And, we must understand the whole system of training.

The next few paragraphs are rather technical. Now may be a good time to pour a glass of wine or make a cup of tea!

This past week, discussion at the barn has centered on two concepts with which I have been particularly concerned, 1) the angle of the femur and its importance in teaching a horse to lower the haunches, and 2) the exercise shoulder-in on a circle. The two are related, but first I will address them separately.

1) As the femur moves upward in the forward portion of the stride, one can say confidently that the horse is engaging the leg more deeply and, if the horse is moving on a straight line or circle (not in a lateral exercise), that the horse may be tracking up or getting closer to doing so.

I have spent a lot of time watching the femurs of my horses and have learned that while the femur may be swinging up and the stifle flexing deeply, this increased action in the hind leg does not mean that the horse is beginning to sit. Paul has been talking quite a bit about the lumbosacral area flexing as the horse lowers its hips, and while I had seen it in Paul and Andrea’s riding, I could not retrain my own focus from the femur to the lumbosacral area.

Then it happened. During one of our busy workdays, I was bathing a horse in preparation for its ride by Paul. As my fellow intern Ryan says, “Liquid grooming is faster!” especially considering the warm temperatures we’ve been having in Pennsylvania. Apparently the water was not warm enough for this horse’s liking, because as I moved the spray over the bay gelding’s haunches, he tucked his pelvis and dropped his hips about six inches! I apologized to him and adjusted the water temperature, but that night I lay awake, mind whirring.

I knew that he had not taken a step, which meant that his femurs had not moved upward into a more horizontal position. Rather, the stifle moved forward and down to accommodate the drop in the pelvis. He had clearly lowered his haunches! Obviously, our moment of “sitting” in the wash rack was a far cry from attaining collection under saddle (unless you ride with a cold hosing of water), but it dawned on me that I had been overly focused on the activity of the hind legs and was missing the real heavy lifter…the lumbosacral joint where the pelvis can tip under.

All that Paul had been telling me became clearer. If I were to focus only on the activity of the hind joints and the horse tracking up, I would continually drive my horse forward into a more horizontal balance that would preclude lowering of the haunches. Tracking up and action of the hind joints can be misleading, because paradoxically, as the horse begins to really collect and sit, tracking up decreases as the horse takes shorter steps due to greater weight bearing by the haunches!

The key to eventually attaining collection is to train the horse in a way that teaches him how to sit, how to flex in the lumbosacral area and use his hips to bring his hind legs under, closer to his center of mass. This is what Paul has spent his entire riding life doing.

2) This brings me to my next epiphany of the week, regarding shoulder-in. For quite some time, I have practiced shoulder-in on a circle. I believed that it led to the hind leg stepping more deeply under the horse, had a great suppling effect, and certainly got the femur to move. One of the first things that I noticed when I visited the farm last December for a brief orientation and watched the interns ride under Paul’s guidance was that they only did shoulder-in and travers on the wall, not on circles.

I asked Paul about this, since it was such a significant part of my repertoire at home. He replied that shoulder-in on a circle is an extremely difficult exercise and that only a very skilled rider can keep the horse straight on the track and prevent the haunches from slipping out.

“Horses are masters of evasion. Use the wrong choreography when you execute classical exercises, and you can invite evasions and even have the opposite of the intended effect!” he said.

As you have probably gathered from my writings, I have some distance to travel before becoming the calibre of rider that he described being able to properly execute shoulder-in on a circle. I knew right away that I had unwittingly been inviting my horse’s haunches to wing out and had not been increasing collection. Instead of the inside hind leg stepping laterally under the horse’s belly and the outside hind leg stepping straight forward, both hind legs were stepping out to the side.

As you probably know, there is an inverse relationship to a leg’s ability to carry weight and its ability to step laterally. The more a leg moves away from the center of the load it is meant to bear, the less it is able to carry that weight. The limb may be demonstrating a greater range of motion and joint flexibility, but it will not be physically supporting as much of the weight of the horse. I had always been told that shoulder-in has a great capacity to collect and supple the horse. Both effects are true, but I am learning that they are not easily attainable in the complex choreography of shoulder-in on a circle.

Recently, Paul and Andrea offered a daylong demonstration clinic called “From Green to Grand Prix.” Paul discussed his system of training to an audience of auditors while Andrea rode the transitions and movements appropriate for each horse’s level of training. She rode a series of four horses currently in work at the barn, from a gelding that had been in work approximately six months to her Grand Prix mare, Galatea.

The overview of Paul’s training was the perfect antidote to my fragmentation and began with a basic lesson in equine physics. Paul began the day by giving a demonstration involving a board and two sawhorses. The point of the props was to convey that the horse has two fulcrums (a fulcrum being the support on which a lever moves when it is used to lift something), which are the withers and the lumbosacral area.

The rider must train the horse so that the hind legs come more under the center of mass and ensure that both fulcrums work in unison to shift and bear weight rearwards. The wither fulcrum must help pass the weight back to the lumbosacral fulcum by lifting the head and neck. The back of the horse must be strong and lifted in order to connect the wither fulcrum to the lumbosacral fulcrum, which is stabilized by the hind legs coming under and the large muscles of the hindquarters drawing the weight of the horse back over the hind legs.

If the neck is properly up, the back lifting and hind legs engaged, the topline of the horse connects these three sections to become essentially a single, long lever with one fulcrum, the lumbosacral area.

If the hind legs are out behind, the angle of the pelvis flattens and the back drops, losing its ability to connect the two fulcrums.

Riding and Reading

September 23, 2013

Apparently it has been a tradition for some time that every Wednesday evening the barn staff gets together for a social dinner at the farmhouse. Paul says he was inspired to make this weekly dinner a tradition by his mentor, H.L.M. van Schaik, who used to host dinner parties at his home with his riders and friends on a regular basis. It gives everyone at the barn a chance to get to know one another outside of work and talk about something besides horses. It is a delightful, casual interval in the workweek, made even more delightful by the gourmet cooking. I am sure every intern has looked forward to Wednesday night since the weekly farm dinner was created.

Working long days and existing on an intern’s budget doesn’t make for much culinary excitement at my apartment, so I happily anticipate arriving to a glass of wine and a dish like lobster risotto, venison marinara with homemade pasta, grilled Caesar salad, salmon baked with some delicious dressing, and maybe a dessert of homemade watermelon sorbet or blueberry lemon tiramisu. There is usually plenty of laughter and good storytelling at the long, narrow candlelit table, which is made of rough-cut lumber milled long ago by Paul in the Adirondacks.

Paul says that his life with horses has been a great conduit for meeting interesting people. I believe that I may have added myself to that list with a family story that involved bear hunting, a truck-meets-cow accident, and a vaporizing Hostess Snowball. I was subsequently awarded the Crown of Storytelling, which may have been created impromptu. I do intend to defend the title with the dump truck story, entailing elk hunting, four flat tires, and a frigid midnight ride in the oily bed of said dump truck.

Wednesday evening is also when we return any study materials that we are finished with and pick up new ones from Paul’s extensive library of books and film. As I have mentioned before, a significant part of this internship is “watching over fifty videos and reading as many books as humanly possible,” as Paul describes it.

I have to confess that for a while before arriving here, I had actually quit reading riding books, having found it too confusing to sort out authors’ different descriptions of sensations, movements, and conflicting theories. I once drastically changed my seat after reading a particular book and trying to emulate the author’s description, much to the horror of the next instructor I had.

Here, I am enjoying reading riding books again with Paul’s guidance and readiness to answer questions. Of course, Paul doesn’t always agree with every word we read, but he wants the interns to know the original material and be aware of the differences in the work of influential riders and teachers through history. Sometimes, he won’t reveal much about the book before handing it over for the week, simply saying, “Read this one, and tell me what you think.”

This usually makes for interesting discussion such as, “I liked X, but why did he say Y? Or, “So-and-so described the hand as…but this other author writes the opposite!” The study program is at one’s own pace, but Paul expects us to watch a video or DVD per week. The books are another matter, as some interns are readers and some are not. An English Literature major, I enjoy reading and academic study, so am determined to get through as much of Paul’s library as possible while I am here, and have challenged myself to read a book every other week.

To give you a sense of what I’ve been reading and watching thus far, here’s a list:

  • Charles Harris’ Workbooks from the Spanish Riding School,
  • Nuno Oliveira’s Reflections on Equestrian Art,
  • General Decarpentry’s Piaffer and Passage,
  • Dr. H.L.M. van Schaik’s Misconceptions and Simple Truths in Dressage,
  • Alois Podhajsky’s Complete Training of the Horse and Rider and The Art of Dressage, Basic Principles of Riding and Judging.

I have watched video footage of Paul’s past lectures on the history and influences of the Austro-Hungarian, French, German and Iberian systems. I have also seen commercial films of the Spanish Riding School, Samur, a film about the Iberian horse by J.P. Giacomini, and “Riding As Art,” (another lecture by Paul). At the farmhouse, we have viewed rare footage, among others, of Egon von Niendorff on his famed horse Jaguar, and Willi Schulteis riding in a German instructional film made for riders in training.

Paul says that he read Podhajsky’s book Complete Training of the Horse and Rider every year for nine years, and that every year he read it a bit differently. I am beginning to get a sense of what he means. As I bring more knowledge and experience to the books, my own reading becomes deeper and more relevant. When Podhajsky’s book finally began to read the same for Paul after nine years, he figured that he understood it.

Piaffer and Passage by General Decarpentry, translated by Patricia Galvin, struck a personal note for me outside of its instructional value. Decarpentry uses himself in all of the photos illustrating the progression of training piaffe and passage, and is incredibly critical of his own riding. I was actually shocked at his blunt comments about his own shortcomings in the photos.

Some of my readers have expressed surprise at my candor regarding my riding and learning, with all the inglorious “lost in the dark,” “duh,” and shining “lightbulb” moments. I choose quite consciously not to guard the metaphorical gate to the arena because I am convinced that other riders are struggling with the same things.

I do not lightly refer to myself in relation to Decarpentry, who also happened to be a former President of the Dressage Committee of the FEI and was one of the original authors of the FEI rules. But, he contributed his own self-criticisms for the sake of all riders’ learning, which is why I am writing now.

Now that I have been at the farm for about six weeks, I feel my commitment deepening to all that Paul and Andrea have to offer, and recognize their dedication to my development in return. They are never too busy to answer a question, and Paul will often pull Ryan and me out of a chore to explain a point, demonstrate something, or continue a discussion we may have started days before. Still, I am constantly adjusting my own hopes and expectations, and reminding myself to trust the teacher.

Before arriving here, I had envisioned the year being all about training my mare, Rainy. We would be doing flying changes and probably some piaffe by the end of my internship, I was sure! Instead, I find that it is really me that I must work on, and that Paul’s focus for the year is on my riding–my position and effectiveness–as tested daily on the savvy old stallion, Excelso.

Can I keep Excelso from going through my hand? Can I detect when he’s only giving me a half-hearted effort? Can I tell when he’s giving me a false lightness? Is his neck inverted? Is my back strong enough? Can I use my pelvis to aid him instead of the lower leg? What exactly is my left foot doing?

As I mentioned last week, my beloved mare Rainy is now here at the Pennsylvania Riding Academy. When I applied for this internship I was also in the process of breeding her to Cavalo Real’s Lusitano stallion, Majestoso (now deceased). I thought at the time that either the internship or the breeding would not work out, but she was easily put in foal and I was accepted as an intern, at the same time! I knew that I wanted to bring her with me, but the foal would be too young to wean at my time of departure.

When I first began riding English, I worked for Jim and Louise Bosley just south of Kansas City, where Louise raises and trains foxhunters and dressage prospects. I didn’t know anyone farther East than Kansas, so I asked Jim and Louise if I could haul Rainy and her filly Primera to Kansas, where they could stay until the filly could be weaned and I would be able to zip back from Pennsylvania to pick Rainy up. The puzzle pieces floated together and they said yes, agreeing to “babysit” my filly until the end of my internship when Rainy and I would be driving West again.

So, over Labor Day weekend, Rainy’s filly being weaned, I strapped myself behind the wheel of my trusty Ford, drove back to Kansas, picked up Rainy and my trailer and blazed back to Pennsylvania. I couldn’t help but reflect that driving 2,200 miles in four days was a far cry from the Salmon River float trip I was enjoying during last year’s Labor Day weekend!

Due to Rainy being on maternity leave for eight months, Paul decided that she ought to be longed for several weeks to regain her fitness before I begin riding her again. Paul is a staunch believer in preparing the horse’s musculature with correct longeing before riding. All of the green horses at the farm spend around three months being longed in side reins, developing topline, learning the beginning of throughness and slowly becoming accustomed to carrying themselves in a correct posture.

Up to this point, my experience with side reins has been fairly limited. I have always viewed them as a powerful tool that would be easy to misuse and thus have utilized them very little. When I have put side reins on a horse, I generally attached them to the halter, not the bit, and kept them quite long, at a middling height. Paul’s method involves starting horses in side reins that are adjusted very loosely and are ever so gradually tightened to shape the neck and educate the horse on the feel of the bit.

I asked Paul once why he uses the word “shape” instead of “position” or “posture.” I have not heard him use the word “frame,” which some people interpret as a static, forced position. He explained that he uses the word “shape” in an artistic sense. His early background as a painter led him to recognize shapes in images and composition. He realized as a riding instructor that novices who don’t know or don’t understand complex anatomical descriptions can learn to recognize when a horse is using itself correctly by the shape of its body.

He said that for him, a horse’s shape is no more static or forced than that of a classical ballet dancer who moves and forms shapes with her body. Just like a horse and rider, the dancer moves with some constant elements to her elegant posture, but she is also flexible and powerful as she moves through space.

Even though Rainy is a second-level horse that does know how to flex at the poll, she is in a sense starting anew after her foaling and is entering a new training program. In the very first days, we adjusted her side reins quite long, but due to her level of experience, we were able to shorten them relatively quickly over the span of the next week. It is better to be safe than sorry, though, and to start with generously long side reins, as the worst-case scenario is over-tightening too soon and causing a horse to rear or injure itself.

As we began to shorten the side reins, there was undeniably a part of me that felt, “Oh, my, those side reins seem really tight. Her poor mouth.” Then I realized that depending on the height of her poll, and whether or not she was properly flexing at the poll instead of rounding at the third vertebrae, the tightness of the side reins varied.

For example, when Rainy would lower her poll and round in the middle of her neck, the side reins would look as though they were too short and putting her profile behind the vertical. But, when I gave her a little chuck under the chin with the lunge line and she raised her poll, flexing there instead of the middle of her neck, her nose was actually in front of the vertical!

A similar effect occurred in transitioning from trot to canter. As she moved into canter, the position of her neck would change and the side reins seemed to look too long. This was a revelation to me concerning neck and poll position, gait, and relative length of the side reins.

Then, I saw that when Rainy was on the longe and the outside rein was too restrictive, her haunches would swing out and track to the outside. I knew intellectually that when the horse is tracking correctly on a circle, the outside set of hooves actually travel more distance, like the outside track of a railroad on a turn. Yet, some instructors are adamant about the outside rein making a very firm barrier, a guard-rail to the turn, as it were.

That said, Paul says that first the horse must softly follow the inside rein around the turn or bend and that the horse equally respond to the bend created by the rider’s inside leg. He has cautioned me not to overuse the outside rein, which blocks the necessary lengthening of the outside of the horse’s body as the inside length of the body shortens to accommodate bend, which in turn causes the hind end to swing out and ultimately not carry weight as effectively.

So, it was fascinating to experiment with the amount of bend on the inside rein combined with length of the outside rein and watch the alignment of Rainy’s tracks change.

Paul reminds us that it is not the outside rein that guides the horse around the circle. It is both reins that move the horse.

Then, of course, I had to sort it all out again going the other direction. The stallion Excelso won’t canter at all on a circle if I take too much outside rein.

I have been happily surprised to find that Rainy seems to enjoy the work on the longe. She is willing and not at all anxious. Her movement is growing freer and more fluid. When we walk back from the arena, she presses her velvety nose to my arm, a soft look in her eye. Paul compares work in a correct shape to carrying oneself in good posture; you will feel better if you stand up straighter and exercise a little! I should be riding her within another week or so.


September 29, 2013

This past week at the barn has been…well, fun! You may be surprised to read the word ‘fun’ after four weeks of rather serious entries entailing struggle, theory, and the necessary humilities of being a student. Lately though, I am starting to reap the rewards of study and practice. Excelso and I are cantering happily (well, at least I am happy about it) and Rainy has graduated to work under saddle.

My level of fitness has reached a more comfortable plateau, I have dedicated more time to the pleasurable pursuits of sleeping and eating, and I now know the barn routines inside and out which makes me more efficient and effective.

With the canter work on Excelso, Paul has raised the bar again. Whereas six weeks ago I couldn’t get the stallion to canter without undue and unattractive effort, our task now is to create better rhythm, impulsion, and balance. Impulsion is basically power, and like downshifting into four-wheel low gear in the old flatbed Ford, you can have a great deal of power with hardly any speed.

The difference between the old Ford and a horse is that with little speed and lots of power, a horse can dance. A truck, not so much. When I asked Andrea if I should use lateral work in canter to develop better impulsion, she explained to me that what I really needed was to develop a stronger, more effective back and seat.

For a couple of rides, I experimented with what I thought might create impulsion with Excelso. I tried cantering very forward to bring his energy up. I tried swinging my seat at the moment when his hind legs were in the air. I tried the whip, which mostly just offended him. Various results I obtained were not the ones sought: a strange rolling canter with a wiggly neck, a nearly four-beat canter, and a canter that was lighter in the hand but saggy in the back.

Paul had already pointed out to me that riding overly forward wasn’t the best way to increase impulsion, and I could hear Former Director of the Spanish Riding School Alois Podhajsky’s words in my head from his book, The Art of Dressage. Podhajsky says that the rider should not hear “the wind singing” in his or her ears while searching for impulsion. Instead, when the horse is properly collected with impulsion, the evidence will be the “powerful and elevated steps” with “distinctly visible” suspension.”

However, when I slowed the tempo to try to collect Excelso, I lost the energy and the “powerful and elevated steps.” Wracking my brain, I realized that I was not maintaining power in my own center, my back and seat. I was softening my back when I thought of shortening his stride, so he was relaxing, too. I may as well have been inviting him to just hang out on the couch like a big, white marshmallow while we chatted a little about impulsion.

The next day that I rode him, I gave myself a pep talk, ate a bunch of dark chocolate, and informed Excelso that his new name was Rolling Thunder and that I was going to ride his white butt right off. With new focus and strength, I stayed firm in my core and it worked!

Paul commented that whereas the day before the stallion had looked like a pony, he now looked like a real dressage horse. I had discovered more of the secrets of dressage; the seat must always be vigilant and one must eat dark chocolate before every ride.

My canter work with Excelso also involves using flying lead changes as a diagnostic tool. This probably only works on a schoolmaster horse, but I am lucky enough to be on one. Paul explained that if I was unsure of the quality of the canter, I could try a flying change and see if it was prompt and clean. The quality of the change would tell me a great deal about the canter.

Excelso can probably do flying changes in his sleep, but the style and correctness certainly varies depending on the canter that precedes the change. The first time that Paul suggested this mini-test, he told me to try three changes of lead on the long wall of the arena. We came out of the corner and changed to counter-canter. Right away, Excel changed back to true canter and then…I am not even sure what his legs were doing at that point.

Clearly, this meant that the canter was not very good beforehand. It was an eye-opening test and showed me how much more firmness, awareness, and focus I needed. As I gain more control over my core and hips, our changes are getting cleaner and straighter. We still have trouble to the right, however, which may be because I am left-handed. As a testament to Excelso’s good training and straightness, he is not one sided at all…he simply reflects his rider’s “handedness.” For example, Paul has said that right-handed riders typically have trouble on his left side.

Rainy is now under saddle after three weeks of work on the longe. She is more fit and seems well adjusted to the routine at the barn and working in the indoor and outdoor arenas. The first day that I rode her, Paul had me do trot work on long lines and circles, adding in a little leg-yield as I gradually reintroduced her to carrying a person around. Getting back in my own saddle on my own horse actually felt a little strange.

I have a necessary level of detachment with Excelso, though of course I am fond of him. Being back on Rainy, I felt a rush of emotions. This was my horse! I had pinned many hopes and dreams on her and she would reveal all of my past work, for better or worse. For a few moments, it was hard to focus. I felt that I had been parachuted into the middle of an unknown area…where were we? Where were we going? Would she be good? Would she be naughty?

It had been eight months since I decided that Rainy was too pregnant to ride anymore. I had been riding her lightly, just trying to keep her a little fit. I remember being happy with how she had been working and that I felt we were ready to start flying changes. But it didn’t seem right to keep asking her to work when she was getting quite round and seemed happiest to be groomed and take naps. I had read about the peacefulness of broodmares and I remember how dreamy she seemed, as if always in quiet meditation.

During my second ride back on Rainy, I forced myself to stay present and focused and not to relinquish any of the progress on position and use of my aids that I had gained on Excelso. It went well. Paul and Andrea both commented that they like the way she was working with a nice neck shape, head position, good tempo and some swing in the back. She didn’t get overly distracted by the horses that Paul and Andrea were working and did everything that I asked with a good attitude.

I would like to accomplish so many things with Rainy in our next ten months here, but I am getting better at maintaining cautious optimism. Now that I have had two months to watch Paul’s system of training, I understand more clearly than ever that progress will not occur without a correct foundation.

And, I am reminded of the Kirov ballet video we watched from Paul’s library; one of the ballet instructors says that the basic movements must be practiced endlessly and to perfection because every grand movement is simply a series of the basics.

Dressage is composed of the same elements as dance: correct posture, control of the limbs, strengthening, suppling, combining, stylizing. I am more committed now than ever to the basics because here at the farm I have seen them add up, and beautifully.

In addition to having fun, I realize just how deeply engrossed I am in this work. The reason that I know this is because recently I missed both of my parents’ birthdays. Terrible, I know, but after all, it’s rather easy to do because they are one day apart in September.

My only consolation is that my Mother often forgets my birthday (and calls me by my sister’s name). When I did call my Dad, he informed me that he is going to quit counting now anyway, so it didn’t really bother him that I missed it. Thank goodness they don’t stand on ceremony. I will try hard to remember for next year!

Something that my Dad did ask for in our belated birthday conversation was more detail about the horses in the barn, more little tidbits about personality, age, color, etc. So for this week, the “non-serious dressage moment” regarding horses is that I’ve learned that Rainy enjoys peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as much as I do. I was eating my lunch near her stall when she pressed her velvety gray nose against the bars.

Usually, I take this to mean, “Why am I in this box? Open the door, long-haired girl!” But this time, she huffed and puffed her nostrils at me in an inquisitive manner, so I offered her a bite. She didn’t spit it out, which is unusual because the only horses I have ever met who liked bread products were mules. So, I gave her a second bite. But that was it…it was my lunch, anyway!

To view the book trailer, read testimonials, and purchase Dressage Sabbatical, please go to (Same cover price and shipping as Amazon!)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.