I found help for my own horse in the pages of the August America’s Horse.
I’m not talking here about co-workers asking for favors. Rather, it’s the smorgasbord of equine activities that I get to sample in the course of doing stories for America’s Horse. I’ve been sorely tempted to take up trick riding (loved it!), Civil War cavalry re-enacting (way more fun than it must have been 150 years ago) and cutting (talk about addictive!).
But truthfully, I’m much too busy to take up a brand-new sport. The demands on the bank account and the limited number of hours in the day just don’t make it possible.
That’s why it’s so wonderfully rewarding when a story meshes with my current interests, bringing me a new level of understanding or offering up information that I can easily incorporate into my regular rides. (And I hope the same holds true for readers. … I figure if it helps me, it’ll probably help many of you!)
Dressage and western dressage are where my interests lie, and I also consider myself a student of natural horsemanship, which provides a solid foundation for both me and my ponies. I love trying to see things from my horse’s perspective and figuring out how to present my ideas so that they make sense to her.
The more I learn about both dressage and natural horsemanship, the more I see how compatible those two fields are. It’s true that good horsemanship is good horsemanship, no matter what type of saddle you ride.
That’s why I was so excited to meet Ellen Eckstein of Templeton, California, and put together a story on her for the August issue of America’s Horse. Ellen is a grand prix dressage rider who spent years learning from Tom Dorrance, who is revered as one of the fathers of natural horsemanship. She has created a bridge between those two worlds, using Tom’s philosophies to make her dressage horses better.
It’s about teaching horses what the bit really means, connecting the reins to their feet (so that you can guide and shape how they move their feet) and helping horses understand concepts, rather than just cues. By no means is that just the provenance of dressage riders or natural horsemanship students. Get these concepts down, and you’re well on your way to advancing your skills as a rider, no matter what your preferred discipline is.
Ellen, with co-author Betty Staley, has produced a book and DVD set, “Bringing It Together: An approach to a lighter and happier dressage horse,” and an excerpt is available on America’s Horse Daily so that everyone who’s interested can get some exposure to these ideas and start to experiment with them.
I experimented with them myself, and I so wanted to “get” this. My mare, “Zen,” and I worked on the exercises in the book (resea
rch for the story, right?) and I loved how they helped her. I could feel her progress, and I’m going to continue down this path because I think even better things are ahead.
But some days she was more responsive than others, and there were times when I went to take a soft feel (light contact, which the horse responds to by rounding up and shifting weight backward, toward the hind legs), and her uncharacteristic reply was “Nope, not today.”
Now, Zen has a cleft palate, which we won’t get into here. But the short version is that a very reputable veterinarian says that it’s best left alone (with no surgical repair) and that Zen adapts very well, although she sometimes needs to lower her head and cough to clear her throat. I wondered out loud to Ellen if perhaps that explained her difficult days, that maybe Zen was feeling constricted in her breathing and felt less able to flex at the poll?
Ellen had told me previously that Tom helped her learn to problem-solve, so that after he was no longer around to help her (he passed away in 2003), she would be able to deal with whatever came up. I’m sure she has used that skill set a million times over the years, and she put it into play here. It was really fun – and extremely helpful – to talk things out with her.
She once had a horse – pictured in the book, in fact – who was very tight in his throatlatch area. Physically, it was difficult for him to bring his face onto the vertical. So, did that mean he was done as a dressage horse? Not at all. It just meant that Ellen had to think outside the box.
Collection starts at the hind end of the horse, as weight shifts backwards and the hind legs engage, or flex. It comes up through a rounded back and into an elevated neck, with the poll being the highest point. And although collection isn’t about headset, most people generally expect to see the horse’s head being vertical or slightly in front of the vertical.
Zen, she thought, might be a lot like the gelding she had ridden. If there is a physical issue in the front part of the horse … then put your focus on the back part.
Instead of thinking about his head and neck, “I would stress that he lower his hindquarters and I would get him round from that direction,” Ellen said of her horse. She let him stay loose in his poll and jaw, which kept him comfortable.
She recommended that Zen and I work on the “reach rein-back” exercise in the book, which uses backing steps to teach the horse balance. She even suggested a one-handed version of the exercise that would help teach Zen to engage and lower her hind end.
I couldn’t wait to get saddled up, and Zen responded beautifully to Ellen’s suggestions. This was one of those times that I’m glad I ride alone, because no one was there to make fun of me for grinning from ear to ear like a goober.
It’s moments like that – progress and glimpses of improvement – that keep us saddling up, isn’t it?
Here’s hoping for moments like that – more and more of them strung together – for each of you who are out there on this wonderful journey of horsemanship. I hope that, like me, you’ll find tidbits in America’s Horse that you find helpful along the path.
p.s. If you’re interested in learning more about Tom Dorrance, the August issue of America’s Horse also includes a story on a new book about him. “Tom Dorrance: More than a horseman” is a collection of anecdotes from his students, friends and family. Ellen Eckstein is one of the contributors.