(© 2108 Kip Mistral. All Rights Reserved.)
One soft spring morning long ago, air perfumed with the fragrant blossoms of our home’s citrus orchard, I stood with my back to the living room screen door I had left open as I concentrated on a phone conversation with my mother. Yes, I assured her; I had finished vacuuming the house and was now shaking rugs on the back porch. Suddenly, I felt warm breath on the back of my neck. I froze in fear—I knew I was alone in our house! Dropping the phone, I shrieked as I whipped around to face the intruder.
He stood his ground calmly. From this vantage point in the middle of the wall-to-wall carpeted living room, he turned his head from side to side, surveying all before him. My dapple-grey Welsh-cross horse, Tony, who had a puckish sense of humor few people would ever think of attributing to a horse, so clearly and so greatly relished the effect of his surprise visit. And it says everything about me that despite my fear that the worst might happen (any one of numerous outcomes unacceptable to my mother), I found myself having a laugh with the horse in the house.
For this suave metropolitan was a far cry from the tougher-than-nails farm boy that had arrived at our house a couple of years earlier after enduring a 36-hour straight drive through late winter blizzards from Idaho Falls, Idaho to Phoenix, Arizona. A nauseous-looking grey gelding had backed out of the homemade one-horse trailer and stood in the gravel driveway, head down and weaving with exhaustion…
But Tony, we found, possessed legendary stamina. Several hours later a now fully-rested Tony was recovered and ready to kick major b***. During his getting-acquainted period over the next couple of months, he took us all on. He bucked my former saddle-bronc rider dad off—it was a real wreck, too—and gloated. Tony kicked the burly horseshoer enlisted to help trailer-break him properly in the head so hard that when Dad came home from work that night, he found Ramie still lying semi-conscious under a tree…just coming around after having engaged with Tony’s determination to not go in the trailer earlier that day.
Sound rough? He was, indeed. Looking back I cannot believe that my parents let my twelve-year old incarnation handle that wild little horse. All I can say is my farm-bred dad pretty much expected horses to put up a fight. My mother, well, I can’t explain it, except I think she just didn’t have any idea how badly horses can hurt people by accident.
And Tony didn’t have accidents; he could always be trusted to have a trick or a twist planned for the unwary. He bucked, reared, kicked, scraped people (including me) off against fences and walls, and knocked them off under low tree limbs. Once he chased me under a thorn bush where I had to roll for protection. I have tender reminders of him now, forty years later, when I get up in the morning and coax the old back injuries into motion.
But sometimes love does conquer all. Tony was a captive audience, living as he did at the five-acre orange grove property on which our rented farmhouse stood. I wore him down. I petted, I groomed, I wheedled and coaxed, I fed, I …worshipped him. Two months after his arrival, Tony’s heavy Idaho winter coat was shed out and he gleamed silver in the sun. One day, he stopped trying to stomp me and started tolerating me. He was an only horse and I was all he had, so we became a herd of sorts. I could jump on Tony after school and ride with a halter and lead rope into the desert. After paying for the $125 horse, we did not have money for a saddle for almost a year, so my bareback riding gave me that so-called “velcro seat.”
In our first local show, we entered “Bareback Pleasure” and won first place out of 27 entrants. Having had no formal instruction, my own training methods were probably somewhat primitive, but Tony was very smart and caught on to the point of horse shows and gymkhanas immediately. He was literally unbeatable at the events requiring real precision and accuracy, such as pole bending and the keyhole race. He got right down to his business, never wasting a second or a footstep flailing around like most of the other more excitable horses did. His reward really did seem to be winning…he just loved to prance, piaffe and passage back into the arena or show ring to pick up a (usually blue) ribbon or an occasional high-point trophy.
While my friends on the next street over lived in new houses on small lots and had to board their horses out at local stables, my horse would hang his head over the bottom half of the old farmhouse kitchen Dutch door, watching the family eat supper. Mine would stand on the back porch all day outside the closed screen door, switching flies and dozing on his feet with lowered head. If the door was open Tony would just step into the living room. The Christmas of 1970 he begged to be let in to join the rest of us and stood calmly, enjoying being in the middle of it all. It is one of my favorite memories of him…a moment of pure delight.
I went to college and Tony was sold, the years went by and different horses passed through my life. But for the last 15 years, my horse has been another grey, a beautiful and kind Andalusian named Valentín.
By the time Val arrived in my life, I no longer was satisfied with the unorthodox. I wanted real methodology which had stood the test of time; I wanted something deserving of him. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew what it looked like:
[Ferdinand Albrecht II, in a blue coat, in a landscape with a castle beyond. John Wootton (British, 1686-1765)]
This old painting appealed to me in every way. Poll high, on a loose rein, the horse is advancing proudly, carrying himself and his rider in a powerful, balanced way. What was this?!
This would be, I learned in time, a classically trained horse. So I went looking for all things classical in training and riding, to bring the gold back to my Val.
But being based in the western United States and on the West Coast, to actually see with my own eyes anything truly classical by classical’s own standards was elusive, besides reading about it and watching the odd old video posted on youtube. As I researched, I began to gather names of riders and trainers who interested me. Invariably they were far away in Europe. To my surprise I was asked to write an equestrian seminar review for a magazine and this began a very prolific 10 years of article writing for international equine magazines. In my “real life” I worked as a full-time technical writer, but my curiosity about and eventual passion for classical equitation led me to spend every extra penny and every moment of vacation time on international travel to meet these classical luminaries and write articles about them.
I was on fire to share what I was learning with Val, but strangely, as soon as we would get started or re-started in our work, year after year he would get hurt and we would be back on the ground again, waiting for him to recover. And this continual stalling out became the crucible in our relationship. Because I had no goals, other than Val being sound in body and mind at one time, the time on the ground was turning ours into a very fine-tuned relationship where Val and I learned every expression of the other. I learned so much from Val that I would never have learned not just about him, but about horses at a very high level, had we not been *grounded* so much. My friend Kim Walnes, former Olympic eventer who has ridden, trained and coached riders of many breeds of horses over her admirable career, commented to me recently that Iberian horses demand that their owners step up to their spiritual standards, and this is so very true.
From the beginning, Val insisted that I look him in the eye. He wanted me to know how he felt about things, and he made his feelings clear with his amazing combination of direct looks, facial expressions and ear movements. As I learned how to watch him, I began caring more and more about making him truly happy, to the best of my ability. I learned that even as gentle as I was with him, I had the vestiges of the typical human “dominance paradigm” in my monkey brain and I worked hard at recognizing when it raised its ugly head. After all, the emphasis in classical riding was on balance, grace and deep consideration for the horse. When I decided I wanted to learn to ride Val with my seat, my friend and riding coach Stacey Kollman helped enormously with this point by teaching me to make myself energetically “desirable” to my horse on the ground. “If they’re not with you on the ground, they are not going to be with you from the saddle.”
How do you make yourself energetically desirable to your horse? You take all his tack off, put his halter on, put two fingers on the noseband only with a hair’s touch with no pressure, zero aids, no voice, and walk on. But the walking on part doesn’t happen! Horses are used to being pulled, pushed, dragged, hauled around, etc. Once they know that isn’t happening, AND you can’t use any voice commands, clucking, any urging whatsoever, only your breathing, relaxation, and happy thoughts, even your own beloved horse will look at you and grin a big toothy grin.
Decades of leading a horse here and there where I want him to go, and suddenly I’m not the general anymore. I’m not anything except frustrated because without pressure, my horse is not only laughing at me but is just as confused as I am about what to do. For more lessons than I care to count, we both stood rooted in the arena sand, not able to go anywhere because we didn’t REALLY have a common language of voluntary partnership. When Val wasn’t looking down at me with an amused glint in his eye, he was looking out into space. I was struggling with this lesson, he was taking a long break.
First, I had to confront my sense of frustration that suddenly after 50 years of riding I didn’t know anything and couldn’t do anything. And had to acknowledge that Val, who I trusted loved me after our decade together at the time, wasn’t energetically attracted to me! And, I was a little humiliated and even a little angry at myself as I realized that I, like almost everyone else, had been living in the land of illusion. I probably actually had softer hands than many, and might even be much more gentle than many with my horses, but the fact that we were stuck in the sand spoke for itself. Without pulling on my horse or using any other aids, I couldn’t make him go.
And my frustration spoke nasty blaming things! After all, Val knew what I wanted and what to do, or he should after all these years! Why can’t he play along?! He’s taking advantage of this situation, certainly, when he’s not actually confused, but as Stacey said from the side, “Do you want to learn to ride by your seat, or not?” So I had to decide if I was going to keep going. I thought, This is hard! It wasn’t that bad before, maybe I want too much, maybe I’m reaching too far. Maybe I’ll find out I can’t do this!
Everyone knows when you hold your breath, you tense up, right? And when you’re tense, you hold your breath and turn into a block of human wood? And if the human is tense, naturally the horse gets tense? Imagine the joy a tense horse must feel to carry one of those human blocks of wood around on his stiff back, by the way.
“Don’t forget to breathe,” Stacey would say from the sidelines. “I AM breathing!” “No, you’re not.” “How can you tell?” “I just can.”
We went through this little patter so many times I actually started to learn when I was breathing and when I wasn’t, and could then make an effort to breathe on purpose. I noticed that when I was breathing, Val looked a little happier. I realized, if both of you aren’t relaxed, no magic happens.
I remember one lesson in particular with Val when he was “in a mood”, in some far off mental place. He was being a bit lazy and leaning on the forehand, and for fun Stacey and I played around with the effects of using the hands versus using the core to balance us. All I got from using my hands was a stiff neck (mine), but when I put my core into overdrive, suddenly Val woke up, became a Ferrari, put himself under me and turned our trot on the circle into a piaffe. He was so excited to feel his own gears click in. He became balanced, powerful, light and all his attention was in the moment, in that circle, with me.
What Val and I have found together is that when we push through some layer of apathy or ignorance or mood, or some other limitation, this is where we find the gold. It’s amazing to me how much a horse can enjoy his education, even if it can be hard work sometimes. It’s equally clear to me that the process and prospect of said education can be just as overwhelming to our horses as it can feel to us, but if the work is handled with understanding, diplomacy and appreciation, they will come out the other side of a challenge with more trust in their rider, great pride in themselves and even more confidence.
Today, we are coming back from several years back on the ground again. Val is now 18, has been diagnosed with insulin resistance and has spent a year recovering from laminitis. He has arthritis in his left hip and stifle from being severely kicked as a young horse, moderate navicular and ringbone. His right shoulder gets jacked up easily. But, I know all these things and take them into consideration. His back has always been very sensitive and even three custom dressage saddles didn’t fit him. So I’ve had a western saddle made to fit him, built with a classical seat so we can ride dressage. It distributes my weight on a much larger area over his back and I think this makes him happy. He remembers everything he ever learned and is lighter than ever. We mainly have to focus on suppling and getting fit again.
After all these years, Val still calls to me enthusiastically when I arrive at the barn every afternoon, and hearing his silvery, rich neigh still absolutely makes my day. My monkey brain berates me because I haven’t been able to give him the perfect life he has always deserved, but Val doesn’t love me because I’m perfect. We’ve both done our best.
I look back at my rider’s journey. I have learned from all my horses, though my sweet Val is my master teacher. Persistence, dedication, and continuity pay off in the development of moments of success and then we string them along, closer and closer together as they multiply, and suddenly we realize we are really making progress. Mental, emotional, physical, spiritual…the horse and rider each work through their own levels and then come together for a few steps in perfect balance, where we are both weightless together and can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Val looks for those moments as much as I do. It’s always a process and we both understand this. And he knows I won’t ask more from him than he can give. Because, at the end of the day, he also knows that my real reward is just the pleasure of his company.