Inspiration can be funny. It has both eluded me and overwhelmed me. I have sat at my laptop for a very long time searching for the right words to say, yet I have also had my mind flooded with exciting ideas and thoughts as I am pumping gas. The mind is a beautiful thing.
Recently, I had the privilege of being inspired by one of my idols. The first time I saw her ride, I was only ten years old. My mother had rented some VHS tapes of riders schooling at Aachen and they included some of the best riders in the world. We watched Reiner Klimke, Coby van Baalen, Sven Rothenberger… drop a name and they were probably on these tapes, but one rider stood out to me and this was Tineke Bartels. She was warming up a little bay firecracker on a hazy summer morning and it was like nothing I had ever seen. Her mare was sensitive and athletic, but Tineke appeared to be as relaxed as someone swaying on a porch swing. Her seat never left the saddle, not in a super glued sort of way, but in a way that appeared to so soft that she was able to follow her horses body wherever it went. It was so beautiful. Over the years, I watched her ride different horses in the Olympic Games and World Cup Finals and it didn’t matter what horse she was riding, she always looked the same… soft, harmonious, connected.
Fast forward a few years… ok, twenty of them… and I find myself sitting next to Tineke while she coaches my coach, her daughter Imke Schellekens-Bartels, on one of the most fabulous horses I have ever seen in one of the most beautiful facilities I have ever been in. It was a very surreal moment.
You never know what your idols will be like in person. I have had the privilege of meeting many of the top riders in the world and sometimes the experience is great and sometimes it is a let down. I had only been in the barn for a few minutes before I was introduced to Tineke. She was warm and welcoming and I left our conversation feeling as if I had just caught up with an old friend. I had watched her ride several different horses and found her riding to be even better in person. There is an element of relationship between a horse and rider that the camera just cannot capture. Tineke exudes a certain confidence in the saddle. Maybe it is her many years of experience, maybe it is something that she has always had, but along side her softness and finesse is a certain stability in the saddle… she is the captain of her ship.
During my time spent training with Imke, I took notes… many, many notes. Every night, I sat in bed feverishly writing down everything that happened that day. I am a “list maker”, so I had three categories of notes: training with Imke, training with Mischa and Tineke’s tips.
If you are interested to learn more about my incredible experiences training with Imke and Mischa, please click here - Training in Holland
Now I would like to share with you some of things that I learned from my time spent watching and listening to Tineke. I hope you enjoy these little bits of wisdom as much I have…
- Relaxation must be achieved during your warm-up.
This idea is paramount during training. Tineke spoke of the importance of achieving relaxation during the warm-up phase often. If our horses do not achieve relaxation, they will not be in the best mental state to receive and respond to our aids. She also made it clear that this goal is for all horses, regardless of their age or level. It can be easy to forget the importance of relaxation when your goals include things like activity, engagement, impulsion and power, but without relaxation, these elements will become stiff and tense.
- A rider should always maintain a straight line in their mind that runs all the way through their horse and we should never forget this line during training.
This is a big one, because if this line is not maintained, we are crooked. What about bending, you ask? Well this line should be flexible, but it can never break. Think about your dressage whip. Although it is straight, it can easily be flexed and bent and when you stop bending it, it returns to straightness. This is a simple, yet very important mental picture that we should all be able to envision when riding our horses.
- When we begin introducing flexion into our training, never allow the “millimetres” of flexion to be your only focus. The big picture of overall straightness and balance must remain forefront during training.
Sometimes, when a rider goes into the arena with a goal of flexion or bending, tunnel vision sets in and although everything else is falling apart, they just keep asking for that bend. Not only is this frustrating for the horse, but it is counterproductive to good future training. Bending and flexion should be ridden from straightness. It should enhance our horses positioning and balance. Only ask for the flexion or bending that you and your horse can perform while maintaining the elements of straightness and balance. Maybe today this is only a tiny amount of flexion? There is nothing wrong with this! Develop and perfect that tiny amount and soon it will become more.
- Always be aware of your aids!
If you are not using your leg aids, where are they? If you want your horses topline to be steady, why are you moving your hands? If you want your horses back to relax, why are you gripping with your thighs? So often, a rider will ask me why their horse is drifting to one direction or rushing the rhythm. Many times, this rider has allowed both, or even worse, one of their legs to slip back behind the girth and if they are unaware of this, they will be confused by the change they feel in their horse. When we are not aware of where our aids are at all times, we may be inadvertently asking our horses for the very thing we then correct them for.
- Do not give a correction without first knowing what you are correcting, why you need to correct it and what you would like to outcome to be post correction.
So lets say your horse breaks out of the canter into the trot. There are several reasons that this may have happened and a different correction accompanies each of those reasons. Did my horse lose his balance? Was he too crooked to maintain the canter? Is there a lack of respect for my leg aids? If you are not sure why the issue happened, which correction will you give? Being able to answer these questions will help you to avoid confusion, frustration and additional issues in the future.
- An angry rider gives angry aids and horses do not look to an angry riders for confidence, security or safety.
Riding angry NEVER works. My wish is that every rider learns this sitting in a chair before they have to learn it sitting in the saddle. Once your horse makes the decision that you cannot be trusted, it is a tough decision to undo. Every single rider can avoid this situation by not riding angry.
- When you are riding a nervous horse, you must give her the feeling that you are taking her under your wing.
You and your horse are in a partnership. If you happen to be partnered with a nervous horse, whether it be a permanent issue or something that popped up today, you are the only place that confidence can come from. If your horse does not feel that she can gain confidence through you, she will begin to look elsewhere.
- Always keep the bit centered in the horses mouth.
Both Tineke and Imke say this often and I absolutely love this! As a trainer, I tell my students to maintain even weight in both reins, but I really like the mental image of the bit staying centered in their mouth.
- When schooling forward, we want to train from back to front, starting in the hind legs and carrying all the way up into the bridle. When schooling straightness, we ride from front to back, starting in the atlas and jaw and then working our way back through the neck into the shoulders and all the way into the hind legs.
This is something that is developed over time in layers. A green horse or a rider working at the lower levels is working towards developing the basic back to front connection. On the other end of the spectrum, a correctly trained advanced horse can be influenced moment by moment within the back to front and front to back connections. There are so many steps in between these two stages and understanding the end goal will help keep you focused in the right direction for the future.
- Use your eyes to know where you are riding next.
If you are not sure where you are heading, do not get frustrated when your horse offers up a suggestion.
- Different horses need to be trained in different ways to achieve the same results.
Be open minded when you are training. Just because something works for one horse, does not mean that it will work for all horses. Be prepared to make adjustments during training to give each horse what is best for that particular horse. I really appreciate this in the Bartels training. Every horse in their barn is gorgeous, but they come in many different shapes, personalities and temperaments. How can one system work for all of them? It can’t. Tineke truly desires to find the very best way to develop each horse into a confident, healthy, happy athlete and this really shows.
- When riding the haunches in or out, the forehand must continue to travel straight and forward.
If you were riding on a straight line when you asked for the haunches to come in or out, you should remain on that line, regardless of where the haunches are positioned. If you are riding on a circle, ensure that the forehand follows the track of the circle and that the circle remains the same size. This pertains to everything from travers and renvers to walk and canter pirouettes.
- If the horse is too short in front of the saddle, the shoulders can become blocked. If the horse is too close behind the saddle, they will not have enough room to use themselves well. Even within an engaged hind leg and compact elevated frame, a rider must allow room for the horse to use their body. Don’t close off your horses options by riding the neck or body too short.
- It is ok to ride for a certain feeling, as long as you have a plan for what you will do next.
Both Tineke and Imke talk about having a clear plan for every ride. During most of my training sessions, Imke asked me at least once, “Where are you heading?”. If I am on a diagonal, that diagonal must have a specific goal. Am I heading towards S or H? And I cannot decide half way there, I need to know before I even step onto that diagonal… BUT, during training, there are times when we need to ride for a certain feeling and this is perfectly fine, as long as you know what you will do once you get the feeling. If you have been working towards a certain feeling in the bridle or a certain level of activity, what are you going to do with it once you have it? If the goal was a big one, maybe stopping there or giving a walk break after it has been accomplished is the right plan. If the goal is a smaller one or one pertaining to the warm-up, know what part two will be. Why were you riding for that particular feeling? Sometimes asking yourself that question can help you know where to go next.
Happy riding friends...
We all know how important “the basics” are when it comes to training. They are a common request during lessons, a common focus in training articles and books and a common subject of clinics and symposiums. I think that many riders know how important the basics are, but for some reason, their value is easily lost amongst all of the other things bouncing around in our brains during our daily rides.
I am 100% confident that everyone’s rides would improve if they kept the basics at the top of their list during every training session. So, what makes it so easy for them to slide lower and lower down the list as our rides progress? I believe that one of the main causes of this problem is the addition of “bigger” goals as we progress as riders. When I teach a beginner rider, the only thing that they can concentrate on are my simple instructions… hands closed and steady, two legs for trot, outside leg for canter, even weight in both stirrups and seat bones, look where you want to go… these simple directions fill a beginner riders mind up and that is all that they concentrate on. This often leads to huge leaps forward in improvement during a lesson. One of my favourite things to watch is how much steady, closed hands can absolutely transform a ride. Another favourite is how easily riders can achieve clarity during transitions when they put more emphasis on the actual order that each aid is given. I have had riders come to me after years of struggling to get one of their canter leads, who cannot explain to me the basic aids for picking up the canter. When you are unsure of the basics of an exercise or movement, this lack of clarity is more than enough to sabotage When you turn that situation around and look at it from the horses stand point, it is not hard to believe that this horse may become annoyed, frustrated or even mad after years of being asked for something unclearly and then corrected when he/she did not respond in the way you wanted. Often, riders believe that the remedy to their issue must include a very complicated exercise, when in reality, it is simply returning to the basics that will clarify the goal for both you and your horse.
Lets talk a little more about the reason that those “bigger” goals can take some of the emphasis off of the basics. In the last paragraph, I listed some of the things that I help beginner riders to focus on. Would you believe me if I told you that they are the exact same instructions that I use to help a client who is struggling to make a clean flying change or to ride a good piaffe? It is true! The same thing that can steady up a beginners wobbly posting trot is what can develop your “5” medium trot into an “8”. The basics are not developed and then out ranked as bigger and better things are added to your tool box, the basics ARE your tool box. The difference between the medium walk to working trot transition at Intro A and the collected walk to piaffe transition in the Grand Prix Special is a better developed response to the leg. They both require the same basic (a response every time your leg aid is applied), the second transition is just a highly developed version of that basic, but as we become capable of riding in a more advanced way, we tend to expand our options on why things aren’t successful. I love when I see a little child determined to get their pony into the canter. They just keep pecking away with their leg until the pony is in the canter. In comparison, I often see riders with more experience trying to calculate the exact position that their lower leg, upper leg, hip, inside arm, outside arm, shoulders, head and eye balls need to be in in order to accomplish the same goal. While these things are important, the odds are that none of them are the root of the reason why your horse didn’t canter. What is the root, you ask? It is a lack of response to your leg, just like that kid on the pony thought it was…
I think we often imagine dressage training like math was in school. The lower levels are like addition and subtraction and FEI is trigonometry and calculus, but this is not accurate. Does trigonometry professor often check if two plus two still equals four? Probably not. So, instead of thinking about a FEI horse and rider training toward something complicated like calculus, think about them becoming so good at addition that you could call out any two numbers and they would have an instant answer. Still the basics, but masters of them.
I recently returned from training in the Netherlands with one of the best riders in the world. My horse was difficult in the changes and was ready to work some passage, but we didn’t need to school either movement in order to improve them. We spent days perfecting the very basic ideals of responding to every leg aid and waiting with every rein aid and once these basics were improved, the changes were clean and she understood what I wanted for passage. The work spent on developing better basics was not mentally or physically stressful, it improved our connection both mentally and physically and could have been done by any horse and rider at any level of development. This is important for several reasons:
So, now it is time to start working on those basics! You may have noticed that this is part one of the Back to the Basics series. Over the next few weeks, we will begin focusing on different elements of the basics and some exercises that you can do to help develop them.
The first and most important basic is that your horse responds to your leg… always.
A proper response to the leg should be respectful, but not drastic and prompt, but not nervous. This type of response sounds lovely, doesn’t it? For some of you, maybe it sounds too good to be true? There is a reason that your horse may not respond to your leg in an ideal way. Even the nicest, sweetest horse in the world will only give you what you have historically set as your minimally accepted response level. Why would they do more? If your boss tells you that you can go home at 5pm, would you still be at the office at 7pm? I sure wouldn’t!
Now it is important to note that when I refer to the “minimally accepted response level”, I am not referring to an energy level, but a quality level. Most horses do not give enough of a response, but there are horses that resist by threatening or giving a dramatic response to the leg, both ends of the spectrum limit the level of clear communication that you and your horse can have during training. Your legs are your most influencial aid and when your horses response does not match your request, this disconnect seeps into all aspects of your work.
So now that we are all acutely aware of just how important this basic really is, we need a plan for developing it. This plan is going to be as simple as 1…2…3…
1.) Decide on the your own personal “minimum accepted response level”. Although this is completely up to you, allow me to offer some words of advice. If you go out and expect perfection today, you will have a great ride, but if you ride tomorrow and are happy with 80% of yesterdays ride and then ride the next day and forget to set your high expectation level and then over the weekend, go back to asking for perfection… although you may have had a few really good rides this week, in the end, your horse will not develop an improved response to your leg aids. Do you remember that third ride when you forgot to work on setting that “minimum accepted response level”? Well THAT is what your horse sees as the actual minimum. Now those good rides were beneficial, but good habits take consistency to develop and if you want your horse to believe that every response has to be a good one, then you have to be very clear about what you will be accepting from now on. The great Kathy Connelly says that your horse will always show the judge the lowest quality version of what you accept at home and I believe that this not only pertains to competition movements, but your basics as well.
2.) Begin treating this basic as important as it truly is during every ride. I would suggest making this your main or even only goal for your next few rides. It will only rise to the top of your list of important things to do in the saddle when you put it there… and trust me, when it IS the most important thing, every single ride, exercise and movement will improve because of it. Begin each ride with a big, forward walk and clarify the amount of leg you will “help” maintain this energy level with. My chosen amount of leg is none and it is not as impossible as it may sound. Get that walk marching around the arena and then relax your leg long and soft down into your stirrup iron. As soon as your horses energy level begins to dip below your “minimally accepted level”, close your leg and bring the energy back up quickly and then return to relaxation. Warning: This takes repetition and consistency. At first, your horse may think that this is just a joke or a temporary moment of insanity on your part, so you need to get beyond this mind set and into the phase in which this becomes the new way of doing things. Every horse gets to the point where they will take this as the new normal. Some take longer than others, but the quickest way to a new habit is consistency. Repeat this in the trot and canter as well. The reason that I am suggesting that this be your only goal is that it will take a lot of persistence and focus. The longer the ride goes, the more tired you and your horse will become and if you accept this is a reason for slower reactions, this will happen during every single ride. While you are setting this new habit, it would be better to have 25 minutes of great responses than 45 minutes with a peak and slow drop off.
Although this does sound like there is no room for error, there is some good news. Horses form habits very easily. Just as they formed the habit of not responding correctly to your leg aids, it is possible and can actually be pretty easy to create the habit of a good response to your leg aids. This basic will not only improve all elements of your training, but will make your rides more enjoyable as well… and who doesn’t love an enjoyable ride?
3.) Trust, but verify. As you are workings towards developing this basic, be sure that you give your horse room to take on the responsibility of consistently being in front of your leg. A horse is “in front of your leg” not only responds properly to your leg aids, but they should continue that response until directed otherwise. Of course, we don’t expect perfection from our horses, but if you need to remind your horse to keep cantering five seconds after you asked for that canter, your horse is not in front of your leg.
There are many degrees of being in front of your leg and this is why I want you to trust your horse by allowing them to work on their own, but verify that they will remain responsive with the use of transitions. One of my favourite exercises is to ride down a line several feet off of the rail in medium walk. At the top of the line, ask for a transition into working trot and then relax your leg and pay attention to your horses energy level. Count the amount of times that you needed to remind your horse to maintain this level of energy. Lets say that you needed to add more leg five times down that line, on the short side, ride a transition into medium walk and repeat the exercise. Each time, ask for a better reaction when you DO need to put your leg on and allow your horse to work longer in between leg aids. Once you are able to pick the trot up and trot down the entire line without needing to apply a big reminder, give your horse a pat and go the other direction. This exercise can be ridden in the canter as well and once each single line is consistency successful, you can work your way through the short side and back down the next long side. The reason that I ride these lines slightly off of the track is to prevent my horse from using the fence or wall for balance. I want them to really learn to work on their own. It is easier for all of to sit beautifully on a horse that is carrying us around the arena, it is more pleasant for the horse when we are not constantly gripping, squeezing or kicking them and it is the cornerstone of beautiful movements in the future.
Taking the time to develop this basic will pave the way for many exciting things in the future. A horse that reacts correctly to the leg aids will be much more successful when introduced to more advanced elements and movements. This is something that we as riders have control of. We have the ability to set our horses up for success, regardless of what our future goals may be.
Plus, once you have felt a horse carrying you around the arena in this way, you will never want to ride any other way…
Time is flying by way too fast this time. My last couple of rides went very well. More great changes, some beautiful passage and she is really developing nicely in the pirouette work. I was able to have some of my rides videoed and look forward to sharing these training moments with everyone.
Today is my second to last ride and Imke wanted to focus on the pirouettes. I was excited to see what we could get if we asked her to step up to the next level. I warmed her up in some lateral work, using shoulder-in and travers to improve her lateral flexion and get her quicker to my aids. We also schooled some half-pass in trot focusing on more lateral ground cover. She loves to cover ground forward, so this challenged her to react quickly to my leg aids without driving beyond the boundary set by my outside rein. It took a bit of balancing to explain what I expected from her, but as soon as she understood, the half-pass blossomed. They were beautiful sweeping steps that were fully controlled from beginning to end. It felt fabulous to be so connected with her. We were dancing together…
We began preparation for the pirouettes on a 20 meter circle with perfect alignment. I really kept her ultra straight with my outside rein and leg and focused on maintaining activity in the inner hind leg. All of the lateral work during warm-up helped make this possible. We brought the circle down to a smaller size, first maintaining the straightness and eventually adding inner bend to begin positioning her body for the pirouettes. Horses need to lower their haunches and shift their weight into the hind leg in order to balance correctly during pirouettes and with her confirmation, this is not very easy. As I ask her to shift her weight back, she tends to slow her tempo too much. It feels like it is a combination of her really thinking about the movement and me feeling the amount of effort that she needs to put into good pirouette work. This is not the worst thing that could happen, but when she slows her tempo too much, she cannot activate the canter properly. As we began moving into a schooling pirouette, we focused on maintaining a certain level of activity even as the pirouette became smaller and smaller. As a rider, this requires a lot of balance, timing and organization. I could feel everything she was struggling with, but cannot allow it to effect me, as I am in charge of riding this pirouette successfully.
She also had a tough job though! She needed to maintain activity, use her body in a way that is not totally natural for her and listen to my aids that are directing her moment by moment. She did fabulous! I was pleased to see on the video that it did not look as difficult as it felt for her. All of the previous days of development and taking smalls steps to get her to this point really paid off. Something very important to me was that was not nervous or upset that we were putting greater expectations on her today. She gave it her best and I was very appreciative of her efforts…
Our last ride together was the best. We did a little bit of everything and she tried her heart out. I have fallen completely in love with this mare and am going to miss her for sure. When I left last time, I felt as thought W and I shook hands, said “good game” and “good bye”, but leaving this mare felt as though I was leaving a friend. By this time, she would talk to me when I walked into the barn every morning and she started to really enjoy being the center of my attention. We made a special bond together and it was a pleasure to be a part of her development.
Later that afternoon, I was able to take part in a very special experience. Imke’s mother Tineke invited some of the riders to sit with her during one of their training sessions. In addition to being included in such a personal moment between them, she opened the session up for questions. This particular horse had a bit of crookedness over his topline and they have been working on not only aligning him, but teaching him to use himself in a straight and efficient way. I experienced first hand the degree of straightness that Imke required of us during our lessons, but it was interesting watching it from this viewpoint. Not only was I watching her from the same position that she watched me, but I was able to listen to Tineke direct her towards perfection. The amount of straightness that she was working towards was incredible. She watched his footfall, the degree that he used his joints, the length and depth of his steps, the oscillation of his hips and the way that he used the individual sides of his topline. It was a very eye opening experience sitting next to her as she explained what she was looking for and what was going well now and what will need improvement in the future.
She was gracious enough to teach in English and answered as many questions as she could in English as well. There are some Dutch words and phrases that pertain to training, feeling or ideas regarding to dressage that don’t easily translate to English. I will be learning as much of these phrases as I can before my next visit to hopefully absorb even more of her wise words.
Imke touched on various movements and exercises during her ride and showed us both his highlights and his weaknesses. It was such a wonderful experience. After this session, Tineke invited us into the library to have further discussion on the session between her and Imke, our own rides and global dressage in general. It was such an honour to sit next to her and ask her opinions about training and competition. She talked about her riding history as a young girl all the way up to what she is working on currently. She touched on current and past happenings in dressage and her hopes for the future. She was so open to talk about anything that we wanted to ask of her. It was such a pleasure to be able to ask such a true master anything you want. I will never forget this day.
I took lots of notes during both the session with Imke and our talk in the library and will include them in the next post of “training notes”.
After the discussion, I took a trip to the grocery store and grabbed some of my favourites for a cozy night in. They had some beautiful fresh baked bread in the bakery, bags of Asperge soup, metworst and my favourite garlic and herb butter spread (this stuff is so good that it actually improves the taste of bread). I snacked on the couch while I finished up my notes from the day. I went out to the barn one last time to give Ms B a hug. I sure will miss you girlfriend…
Today is going to be great! The sun is shining, I have stroopwafel for breakfast and Tineke is riding the my favourite chestnut. Everyone is riding early this morning, because there is a show this afternoon! Imke will be schooling Kazuki and her stallion Don Presidente in their Intermediare II test. I cannot wait to go! I love horse shows!
Ms B was a little frisky this morning. I was riding in the snaffle and lets just say that she was feeling good this morning! Imke had me warm her up using varying neck positions this morning. We began in a medium length neck focusing on maintaining a good connection over her back. It took her a bit of time to relax over her back and fill out the longer rein length, but each time she did, I lengthened and lowered her neck a bit more. Once she was following my contact as long and as low as I wanted, I asked for more roundness in a low, medium and higher frame. Although her neck is naturally flexible, transitioning between different neck positions requires a fair amount of balance and submission. Testing and improving these reactions is the purpose of “training” the neck. A dressage horse is an athlete and their neck is the bridge that connects the energy produced in their hind legs to the control center up front. If there is crookedness, stiffness or resistance in the neck, the bridge is compromised. A soft, flexible neck enables a resistance free connection from the hind leg to the bridle and this is an essential element needed to bring your training to the next level.
As we moved into the canter, she felt super! All of the transitions we did the night before, plus the improvement in her neck from todays warm-up really combined to make for a very soft, uphill feeling in the canter. After only a few times around, I could feel exactly what I needed for the changes. Imke agreed and we moved into some half-pass and shoulder-fore to put her body in the best balance for a good change. Imke had me ride her down a line off of the rail and focus on absolute straightness. Within that straightness, I activated her outside hind leg in preparation for the change and the very first one I asked for was big and clean and beautiful!! It was a real thrill to have our first change be so successful. I gave her a big pat and we began preparing for the other direction.
She was just as happy about the change as I was or maybe it was the fact that she could feel my heart thumping about 150 beat per minute… either way, she was up. We brought her back into half-pass and shoulder-fore in this direction and waited until she relaxed into these exercises. It was very important that I waited for her to wait for me before I returned to the changes or our next result would not have been as successful. Soon, I had her back with me and we had another beautiful clean change in this direction. I gave her a big hug and we spent the rest of the ride doing something that she enjoyed… moving out! It was a fun ride…
After my ride, I added another layer of clothing and we headed to the horse show! On the way, we stopped to have some lunch at Den Bockenreyder. It was one of those days where the temps began dropping around late morning, so when I rode, it was around 40 degrees, but by the time we got to lunch, it was closer to 30 and getting very windy. I wanted something warm and was advised that Erwtensoep or “snert” (Dutch green pea soup) would hit the spot. Not only were these ladies lovely companions, but they were also a good judge of soup! This soup was delicious and was served with the biggest bread I have ever seen! I wish I had taken a photo of it… the slices were literally two feet across! It was hysterical, but I am no quitter… I finished every bit of it.
After lunch, we continued on to the show. Somewhere between the snert and the show it started snowing… hard. Big huge flakes that within about 5 minutes had completely covered the roads. Luckily, my car was all wheel drive and handled the roads nicely. Even though I was not showing, I still felt that excitement in my stomach as we pulled into the show grounds (or maybe it was the three pounds of bread I just ate?). I am so glad that I had someone local with me, because this place did not look like show grounds. We walked into the show office which was a really cool little bar that ran the length of the short side with a large viewing area. Everything was indoors, but the bar was heated and had a line of tall tables and bar stools that you could watch the competition ring from. If you walked out of the bar, there was a very large viewing area with beautiful tables, plants and couch style seating. This place could accommodate a very large crowd and in nicer weather is probably a very fun spot to hang out...
Once it was time for Kazuki to warm-up, I headed to the schooling ring to watch him prepare. It was even colder now and getting dark. The schooling ring was quite small and full of FEI horses all preparing for their tests. There was a lot going on! Kazuki and Don Presidente looked calm and cool. Kazuki is a beautiful rider. He is so quiet in the saddle and doesn’t seem to be bothered by anything. He is a pleasure to watch. It was interesting watching Imke coach someone at a show. She expected a little bit more, but was very positive and motivating about it. I would love to have her with me before a test!
As soon as Kazuki was on deck, she brought him over and gave him some last minute directions while taking Don’s wraps off. The competition arena is directly beside the schooling ring, so all we had to do was walk to the other side of the wall and you were literally standing behind the judge. I wasn’t sure where we were allowed to stand, but when Imke posted right next to the wall, I figured I was in a good spot. It felt crazy to be right there… I could hear the judges talking in their boxes and could hear Don breathe as he cantered down the centerline.
They had a great test! Everything looked very accurate and neat. It was very well ridden. His pirouettes were small and clean and his changes were quite nice. After his test, we followed him out showering him with congratulations and then all headed back into the heated bar. It felt so good in there! We got a table and watched the rest of the rides. Some were great and some looked tight from the cold evening. After the last ride, the judges walked in to the bar to check out the results and say their good byes. As they walked past us, I noticed that one of them was Sven Rothenberger! He has been one of my favourite dressage riders for a long time and here I am standing right next to him! He has represented both Germany and the Netherlands in World Championships and Olympic Games over the years and is truly one of the greats. It was a such a cool moment to be in Holland at a horse show with Kazuki Sado, Imke Schellekens-Bartels, Sven Rothenberger and some of my new riding friends. I had to pinch myself…
Our next few rides went better and better! She is finding an uphill balance easier and earlier each ride, but she is still not where I want her to be for a great flying change, so we are keeping them on the back burner until the time is right.
Here are some notes from the past few days...
- If your horse isn’t waiting for you, your aids will not be heard.
Of course, we need to ride well all of the time, but it really is imperative that your horse is waiting for your aids in order for your great riding to be as effective as possible. As a horses training advances, the timing of the riders aids becomes more and more important. A horse that is running ahead or lagging behind the rider is not waiting.
- With a sensitive horse, relaxation cannot become more important that a good response.
This is one of my favourite take aways from my time with Imke. When you have a horse that can be tense or nervous under saddle, it can be tempting to avoid asking for certain things in order to avoid disrupting them. Relaxation is very important, but obedience is necessary in order to progress. At times, when Ms B would start to really relax into her work, she would start to slip behind my leg. When I asked her for more activity or a specific response, her reaction time was slow. This was the toughest moment. Do I accept the slow response in order to keep her relaxed? Or do I correct her and risk her becoming tense? If the tension is there, we have to work through it and show her that there can be relaxation within a good response. Avoiding the question, only postpones the issue.
- Always be ready to give your horse more responsibility.
As a perfectionist, this goes against my natural desire to fix things before they go wrong, so they never go wrong and everything remains perfect. Although I teach this at some point during nearly every lesson, I was surprised at how many times I was busted for helping too much! More on this later…
It snowed for the first time today! I was in the barn and heard something hitting the windows… it was snow! Even though I have been shivering for days, it felt pretty festive. This morning, I had an appointment with Dr Saskia Heijkants on the Flex Chair. I worked with her during my last visit and was excited that she would be at the Bartels this time as well. I have been dealing with a pinched nerve for several months now and really wanted to know if it was effecting my alignment in the saddle. I had discussed it with Imke, but you never know if you are truly straight until you are hooked up to a finely tuned computer system, right? So in I went…
We started by testing my general straightness, if the weight in my seat bones were equal and if I was centrally balanced. Thankfully, I was good to go! This was very important to me. Straightness is such an important element to riding and I cannot expect my horse to be perfect, if I am not. Next, we moved into the way that I used my aids. The Flex Chair not only measures your balance and straightness, but it can also read if you are even in the way that you lower each seat bone or apply thigh pressure against the saddle. Dr Heijkants is not only a physical therapist, but she is also a rider, so she understands the way that aids are applied. She also has a very good eye! On the machine, it showed that I was dropping my right and left seat bones to the same degree and with the same weight, but when she watched my hips, she noticed that I was actually using them ever so slightly unique each direction. One hip was smooth and direct, but the other was a bit guarded and would not drop straight into position, it sort of “rounded” into its position. I was able to keep them even in regards to what I was giving to the horse, but I was not getting there in a perfectly even way. She directed me to stretch both hips out more when my nerve is acting up and to avoid guarding with the hip when I am nervous that it may hurt. It was a great session and I was very excited to take this into my next ride.
Later that evening, I had a lesson scheduled with Mischa Koot. I loved my ride with Mischa in May and was really excited to ride Ms B with her tonight. This ride was scheduled in the back indoor, which is one of the most beautiful indoor arenas I have ever seen….
We worked in collected trot full arena. Immediately before each corner, I rode a transition into collected walk and rode the inside hind deep into the corner. As soon as she was back against the new wall, I rode a quick transition into collected trot. Every element of this exercise was to be ridden very purposeful. The transition into collected walk had to be ridden forward. This transition had to be crisp, but not abrupt (we repeated it many times!). The goal was that she continued her energy throughout the corner and did not stop and start with the energy as I asked for transitions and a lateral response. The purpose behind riding her inner hind leg into the corner was to place it under her centre of gravity, so that she was ready for a quick, but well balanced transition back into collected trot. As soon as she relaxed into the exercise, each transition became more consistent and her entire way of going was improved. All of her energy was waiting for me and because she was not behind me or in front of me, we were able to move in unison and it was totally fabulous!
During our break, we talked a bit about her changes. I explained to Mischa what we had been working towards up to this point and she was right on board. She asked me to ride a few walk - canter - walk transitions and they were successful, but when she asked me how much I was helping her during the transitions and it hit me that I really was helping her a lot. In order for her to take on more responsibility within these transitions, we had to find the weak spots and improve them.
In collected canter, we asked her to compress more and more, similar to the preparation for a transition into walk and as soon as she lost her balance, we refreshed her activity and then brought her back into collection. Each time I rode through the transition, I expected her to maintain better activity in the canter leading up to the transition and better self carriage in the transition. It was hard work for her, but she really stepped up to the challenge. She made some mistakes, but Mischa was very quick to forget the mistakes and praise her efforts. The more we adjusted the canter, the better she sat on her hind leg and her canter became very expressive and uphill. It was a great feeling!
Towards the end of the ride, I started to get the feeling that I had been looking for before I asked her for a flying change. Tomorrow just may be the big day…
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Please use that link to view the posts in order. I hope you enjoy!!
The next morning I woke up early and went straight to the indoor (you never know what kind of cool stuff is going in on there!) and I was not disappointed. Imke was riding one of the most fabulous horses I have ever seen (I know I have said this before, but this one actually was), Tineke was schooling Japanese rider Akane Kuroki’s Olympic mount Toots and Japanese FEI rider Kazuki Sado was riding one of his horses as well. My only complaint was that I only had one set of eyes. There was something to learn from all three of them.
Imke’s horse was being a bit naughty. It was a cold, windy morning and he seemed to be feeling very fresh. It was great watching her remain so centered and calm as her talented young horse expressed his excitement in various athletic ways. She used her voice and purposeful circles to help keep the young horses mind with her during the warm-up. It was wonderful watching his energy begin to balance and shift from negative tension into positive energy.
Tineke’s ride was very different. Toots is seventeen years old and well over eighteen hands. He has a very lofty way of going and is full of suspension. It is very obvious that Tineke and Toots are partners. During their warm-up, you could tell that a lot of conversation was going on under the surface… a little flexion left, a little flexion right, a little bit forward, a little more collection… it was so subtle that I really had to watch carefully. It was interesting to watch Tineke correct this horse. It was not a “teaching” style correction, but more of a reminder. It was almost as if she was telling him that she knew that he knew how to do this better and she would like him to give it a little better effort this time and when he did, she smiled and gave him a pat and they moved on to something else. The ride was so structured and although her aids were subtle, it was obvious that she was working towards something. It was a pleasure to watch.
Kazuki’s horse seemed to be very relaxed this morning. Once they were warmed-up, Imke encouraged him to ask for more activity through quick transitions. It was obvious that his stallion preferred to conserve his energy, but Kazuki’s persistence won out and as each transition became more responsive, his self carriage improved and the whole horse became lighter and moved more efficiently.
All three pairs were completely different, yet there was one very important common thread throughout their rides. It didn’t matter if the horse was tense or relaxed, green or experienced… they were all expected to be in front of the leg and working towards balancing themselves. I thought about this a lot as I tacked up Ms B for our ride.
She warmed up very well. Something I noticed right away was that she remembered me and picked up right were we ended yesterday. Our transitions were a little more in sync and I felt like I was able to ride her more today. She is a very sensitive horse with a lot of energy, so when I ask her for something, he first reaction is to rush instead of waiting to see what I want. I don’t mind this, because she is always willing to do something. As long as I remain patient and focused, I can begin to shape her desire to react into something that I can use.
We started in canter with the goal of potentially of riding some flying changes. This mares canter is unique. She is naturally very quick off the ground, which is pretty, but does not give her much time to do a flying change. Like I noted earlier, she is not built uphill, so her balance is more horizontal. This confirmation divides her energy equally over the front and hind legs. This is not ideal for creating an uphill balance, so Imke wanted me to begin shifting more of her energy onto her hind leg, so we could create as much lightness in her front end as possible. We did this several different ways…
First, we had to get her straight. So I alternated between riding full arena along the wall and on the quarterlines. I used the wall to help get her between my inner hip and outside rein and then tested her straightness on the quarterlines. Imke wanted her straight… very straight! She teaches in a chair that sits facing right down one of the long sides and you can feel her analyzing your alignment as you ride towards and away from her (it feels like a combination of walking a runway and walking to the front of the classroom after the teacher calls your name). Not only did we want her footfall to be aligned, but she also had to use both sides of her body the same. We found that she tended to be a little more open in her left shoulder and tight in the right. So once she was traveling straight, we moved onto a circle to addressed the unevenness in her shoulders.
Imke wanted me to develop better flexion in her inner jaw on the circle, but was quick to correct any loss of straightness. This was quite a difficult balancing act. Like most horses, she was happy to bend her neck to the inside, as long as she could fall through her outside shoulder. Every time we lost correct alignment, we returned to straightness for a moment and then added the flexion to that. One of the things that I love about Imke (and have “borrowed” from her) is that she breaks down a big goal into tiny reasonable pieces. Ms B needed much better right flexion, but we started by asking for 2% more and when she achieved this, we asked for 2% more and so on, always checking to make sure that we were keeping the balance between asking more of her and keeping her happy. The fun thing about this mare was that she felt as though we would never get to “too much”. She was always willing to give the next step a try. Now, there were mistakes and we exposed weaknesses within her development, but mentally she was always looking at the chalkboard and ready for the next question.
By this time, she had already worked very hard for the day. We both agreed that today was not the day to work on the changes, so we ended on playing with some adjustability in her canter. Not only does this address something else that we will need for good flying changes, but it also gives us a fun way to finish the ride.
Later that evening, a few of the riders and I went to a fabulous restaurant in Hilvanrenbeek, Taverne Paulus. I ate here several times during my last visit and knew I wanted to go back again. The food is warm and homey and really hit the spot on this cold, rainy evening…
The first time I went to Holland, everything was unknown. I had no idea what any aspect of the experience would be like, so I felt about a 50/50 mix of nervousness and excitement. Well this time, I knew what I was in for, but I was still feeling that 50/50 mix! Now don’t get me wrong, I had the time of my life a few months ago, but on that first trip, nothing was expected of me. I was a stranger on a difficult horse that I had never sat on before, why would anyone expect much out of this combination?
Well, by the end of my stay with the Bartel’s, I had made great strides with W (both literally and figuratively) and received some very confidence boosting words from Imke and Mischa on the progress that we made together. W ended up selling very soon after my time with him and I was on cloud nine after making a real improvement on a horse in front of riders that I have idolized for so many years. Now that I was returning, I really wanted to be able do that again and soon, I would have that chance.
Later that week, I boarded the most beautiful FinnAir flight from Tokyo to Helsinki. This plane was sweet! Roomy seats, big bathrooms, the nicest crew and I’ve saved the best for last… baskets of warm bread with each meal. It is no secret that I love bread, but maybe a lesser known fact is that I am not a fan of airplane food. I think that I have been on so many planes this year, that I just start to feel a bit green when the cabin fills with the smells of tin foil wrapped fish. A few hours in, they announced that dinner was being served, but didn’t say what it was. Most of the Asian airlines (which is what I have been flying lately) pass out little menu cards with “Japanese, Chinese… etc” or “Western” meal options, so you typically have a choice between two or three options. As they began to serve dinner, I noticed that it actually smelled good… really good. The person in front of me asked what their choices were and he was told that if you didn’t mark a preference when you purchased your ticket, that you would be getting shepherds pie tonight. Shepherds pie on a plane? I was not holding out a lot of hope… until my plate (yes an actual plate) was set down in front of me. Remember, I fly economy, so I usually don’t get real dishes and silverware. I usually get a little tin tray and a plastic spork. Well, let me tell you that FinnAir goes all out my friends! A glass dish filled with a tasty little shepherds pie, a salad, crudité and warm dinner rolls.
I slept like a baby for the rest of the flight…
↓Look how skinny Okinawa is!!
The Helsinki Airport was very cool. Modern and all dolled up for Christmas. They had these cute little mistletoe stations set up (where is Nate when I need him??), piles of reindeer pelts for sale and lots of good shopping…
I landed in Amsterdam late that night. It was 3°C and pouring. Thankfully, Desiree (the Bartel’s stable manager extraordinaire) stayed awake late into the night to let me on the property when I arrived. The farm is all locked up at night, no one in or out without special provision, so I am very glad she was waiting for me! During my first trip, I stayed in the “hotel”, which is a small barn finished out just like a modern hotel, but this time, I stayed in one of the on site apartments and they are warm, cozy and very inviting after a long trip!
The next morning, I woke up bright and early with one thing on my mind: my horse. So, I put on my riding clothes and headed for the door. Unfortunately, as soon as I opened that door, I turned right around and added several more layers. It was cold!!… and raining! Once I was properly layered up, I headed for the stables where I was introduced to my new friend Ms B. She looked beautiful, but reserved. She looked at me quickly and then returned to her breakfast. I don’t like to be disturbed when I am eating either, so I let her do her thing and I headed for the indoor. Sitting in the viewing area of the main indoor at the Bartel’s is second only to actually riding there. It is like an assembly line of the coolest horses on earth, one after another, being ridden right in front of you by some of the very best riders in the world. I can literally sit there all day.
This morning was special. Imke was riding this stunning young stallion, there was Christmas music playing over the sound system, I had a cup of hot chocolate and someone brought me a little dish of kruidnoten (little Dutch spice cookies) from the kitchen. It was awesome!
Later that morning, I had a meeting with Imke to discuss the horse. B is a nine year old KWPN mare out of the stallion Johnson (Jazz/Flemmingh) and this excited me, because I have been a fan of these bloodlines for a long time. She was working some lateral movements, but was struggling with flying changes. This can be very disappointing for a horses future, but I was looking forward to the challenge. I consider flying changes to be one of my specialties and I now have a chance to test myself with this horse.
Next, I headed to the barn to get her ready for our first ride. She was a lot bigger than I thought once she was out of her stall and I noticed that she was built a little high behind. Sometimes this effects a horses way of going and sometimes it doesn’t, so I kept an open mind. She has a lovely personality. She was reserved, in an elegant way, but not snobby. She wanted to take look at each brush and towel that I brought into the wash rack and loved having her shoulders curried. I needed to find a little ladder to bridle her (she is tall and I am not) and then we were on our way to indoor…
I took our first ride slow. I really wanted to give her time to get to know me. I think it is very important to introduce yourself to a mare in a fair way. Of course, we should ride all horses kindly, but if you get right on and tell a mare what the plan is, you have a good chance that she will explain her plan to you soon after.. In the end, I am the boss, but it is imperative that a mare feels that WE are working together. If I don’t take the time to get us on the same page, we will remain at odds and this is no way to develop of a positive relationship with a horse. By the end of this first ride, I felt confident that we understood each other and I was really looking forward to tomorrows ride.
That evening, I was invited to dinner in the library with the Bartel’s, the stable crew and the other riders. The library felt so cozy. There was a big fire in the fireplace, soft music playing and it smelled incredible. Annet Broeckx cooked the entire dinner and every bite was delicious. She made traditional Dutch winter dishes like stamppot (mashed potatoes with spinach, carrots and onions), rookworst (smoked sausage), warm clam chowder and an apple tart with whipped cream and her homemade caramel sauce. Annet rocks!
After dinner, we watched some video snippets of Imke and Tineke from past competitions. It is a surreal feeling to be watching the same videos that I used to watch over and over as a little girl now sitting right next to these women. I had to pinch myself. As the evening went on, someone brought up Santa Claus and asked me what kind of Christmas traditions that we have in the United States. Then someone told me the story of Sinterklaas (the Dutch Santa) to me and we all had a good laugh discussing the differences between our two Santas.
It was a lovely evening and I slept well with a belly full of Dutch winter favourites….
Click here for Training in Holland 2.0 - Part II
Are you a complementary rider or a mirror rider? In order to properly self diagnose, let’s talk about the differences. According to my trusty dictionary, to complement someone or something means that you “fill in where there is a lack” or “add where needed” or (this is my favourite definition) “make something complete”. In contrast, to mirror someone or something means that you “show a direct reflection of” or “give an exact replica of” whatever is being done. Now that we have the facts, let’s ask the question again, do you complement your horse or do you mirror your horse?
Buck Brannaman once said that, “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see in this mirror and sometimes you will.” This statement is true on so many levels. The right side of our brain immediately applies this to our emotions and this is true. If you are not happy, your horse knows. If you are not enjoying todays ride, your horse is aware of this. If you are still upset at the guy who cut you off in traffic on the way to the barn, your horse will pick up on this. Now different horses respond to human emotions in different ways. I have worked with horses that are acutely aware what is passing through my mind at any given moment and will respond accordingly. I have also worked with horses who seem to be eternally happy and unchanged by human emotion. Although their responses may be different, I believe that both horses are equally aware of our “condition”. Just like humans, horses have unique personalities. Some horses are more forgiving than others and some horses are more responsive, but they all know.
Although horses vary in the way they mirror us emotionally, the way they mirror us physically tends to be a bit more consistent. If your back is tight, it will be very difficult for your horse to relax his back. If you are crooked in the saddle, your horse will not be straight. If your body is full of tension, your horse will not be able to relax. At times, this feels unfortunate. When you are nervously warming up at a horse show, it is really inconvenient for your horse to mirror your tension. When you are having trouble controlling your body in the saddle, your horses mirroring this can really add to the issue. When you decide to work on one element of your riding and everything else falls apart, this can feel disheartening. Well, I have some good news and some bad news. Bad news first…. this will never change. Our horses will always mirror us and there is nothing we can do about it and in my opinion, we shouldn’t want to do anything about it! Allow me to explain… horses make wonderful trainers. No matter how much I develop my eye, I will never be as quick as your horse. So instead of becoming frustrated by this “mirror”, look at it often and use what you see to make yourself a better rider!
With the understanding that our horses mirror us, lets figure out how we can best complement (hint hint!) them during training…
Now, lets look at some of the affects of complementary riding vs mirror riding…
Affects of mirror riding:
Affects of complementary riding:
Striving to be a complementary rider is one of the best goals you can work towards. Since our horses mirror our actions, if we turn around and mirror them back, we will become stuck. You and your horse are partners and partners need to complement each other in order to get the most out of the relationship. We are supposed to be the leader in the relationship, but ultimately, we are only fully in charge of our own actions. Next time you are about to respond to something your horse is doing, think about responding with complementary aids to help “fill in where there is a lack” and make the feeling or the movement as good as it can be.
for Pat Mulligan...
Even as a very young rider, I knew that I wanted to work with horses for the rest of my life. I always had a deep desire to be a part of the process of developing horses into something great and for years, I was blessed with the ability to do just that.
This all changed a few years ago, when my husband joined the United States Marine Corps. We knew that we could be stationed anywhere in the world, so while he was away in training, I campaigned and sold the horses that I owned and made arrangements for my clients. Soon, we were sent far from home and my life was instantly changed. Our early circumstances made it impossible for me to ride, but after my equine interlude, I was approached for lessons in our new area. I had given lessons for years and had nice group of clients up north, but I was primarily a rider. Most of my passion had been geared towards riding, training and competing horses, but this was all about to change.
I soon began giving lessons to the most wonderful group of horsemen and horsewomen near our new home. Up until this time, I had always thought that I preferred to working with horses over humans. There was no good reasoning behind this belief, I think it was just the fact that I had more experience in training horses over humans. For the most part, your training relationship with a horse is simple, you are either making progress or you are not, but the relationships that I have developed with my human clients are much more complex than this.
The forty five minutes that I spend with my clients in the arena is only one element of our partnership. When two unique individuals partner together for the purpose of accomplishing goals, both short term and long, reasonable and lofty, small and large, with a living, breathing animal, you are bound to get close to each other. Just how close, depends on the people involved and I believe (unbiasedly, of course) that I have been blessed with some very special people.
I have always strived to be the best that I can be. I believe that conducting myself in a professional manner is very important. My clients look to me for direction, guidance and counsel in regards to many aspects of riding, training and care for their horses. It is paramount that I give them advice that not only helps them to feel accomplished today, but will continue to make them successful down the road. I want them to be able to trust me with the small decisions and the big ones, when they are in the saddle or when I am and with their personal goals and dreams for the future.
A relationship like this typically does not remain in the arena. For my personal clients, I prefer that we warm-up together, so the first ten or fifteen minutes of every lesson is done walking and talking. Sometimes, we talk about yesterdays ride or todays goals, but other times, we talk about our lives, families, politics… whatever we need to hash out before we begin the ride. I have really gotten to know so much about everyone during this time. We have become more than friends... we are family. We meet for breakfast, lunch and dinner, celebrate each others birthdays, holidays, accomplishments and awards, cheer each other on at horse shows, encourage each other when we struggle and praise each others triumphs. I have been at my clients barns at 5am and at midnight, for the purchase of a new partner, for the birth of a precious foal and for the passing of a dear friend. We have cried together over everything from a first flying change to a pulled shoe and I have been entrusted with more secrets than I can count. I act as a surrogate mother, sister, agent, middleman, psychiatrist and consultant and I would have it any other way. I truly love every minute of it.
Last year, when my husband was told that we were being sent to Japan for several years, a wrench was dropped into our well oiled machine, but after the frustration and tears subsided, we pressed on and figured out a way to make the worlds most complex long distance relationship thrive. I have processed through several “seasons” while being separated from my circle. The weeks leading up to and immediately following a clinic visit are the best. I have something to look forward to and then am left on a high after spending time with such dear friends. We do a good job of staying in close contact between visits, but I am often frustrated by the 8100 miles between us. I find myself day dreaming about riding one of “my” horses or about one of my clients rides after we discuss training options via email. This frustration is always eased by hearing that little notification on my cell phone and seeing one of their names pop up in my inbox. It makes me know that I am still involved in their plans and progress and this warms my heart. I need this partnership just as much as they do. We are friends, family, partners and I love them all. When you care for someone deeply, you feel their joy and you share in their pain. I thought I understood this fully until a about six weeks ago.
My dear friend and client Pat Mulligan had been fighting off a lung infection for quite some time. We would talk back and forth about how she was feeling, what the doctors were saying and how she could not wait to get back into the saddle. We laughed about how her mares were enjoying their “vacation” and how sore Pat was going to be once she was allowed to start riding again. Looking back now, it feels like one day we were laughing about how sluggish her mares were going to be and the next day, I was being told that she had cancer. Now I know that there were a few weeks in between, but not nearly enough time to process this information.
I have been called on to help my clients through a variety of hardships since I left. There have been some unfortunate accidents, a few injuries, surgery and regrettably, the loss of two wonderful horses. In my experience, this has been a tough year, but this all pales in comparison to receiving the news that one of your dear friends is suffering in the way that she was. I didn’t have the tools to help with this information and felt useless because of it. For years, Pat had been bringing her training concerns to me and I had always been able to set things right for her, but this time, there was nothing I could do for her.
On August 17th, my dear friend Pat passed away. I know that she is in a better place and that she is no longer suffering, but right now, it doesn’t make losing her any easier. Pat was special. She was so full of personality and brought fun with her wherever she went. She felt like my sister, because she was just a little too naughty to feel like a mom. Her’s was the first name out of anyones mouth when it came to getting everyone together. When the weather got too hot to ride in the Summer time, we would all head over to Pat’s pool for a party. She always brought her famous bbq chicken dip to our get-togethers and seemed to always have the ingredients for a White Russian on hand.
I will never forget the first time I “met” Pat Mulligan. I was headed home from Wilmington exhausted from a really tough ride, so when I saw an unknown number pop up on my phone, I sent it to voicemail. A few seconds later, she called again, so I answered. She sounded surprised that I had answered and told me that she was calling again just to leave me a voicemail. Then she started giggling and asked if I wanted to hear what the voicemail would have been about. This was the first of many times that Pat made me laugh out loud.
She told me that she was in charge of finding potential clinicians for the EDCTSA and saw that I had moved to the area online. She was very clear that she was only calling me to ask some questions and that I would have to be approved before we would proceed any further. She warned me that she was going to be very direct about what the club was looking… “You are not one of those trainers that kicks and pulls on your horses, are you?”, she asked. As soon as I said no, she asked, “Well, do you tell your students to do it?”. It was a great question, but the answer was the same. Her last question was, “Do you yell a lot during your lessons?”. I chuckled, as I had never been asked this before, and told her “not usually”. She said that she liked my answers and wanted to have me come to her farm for a “trial” day, so she could meet me and watch me teach before she would schedule a clinic. I had no idea what I was in for, as we settled on a date.
A few days later, I was greeted by a bubbly little woman wearing shorts and carrying one of those extra large drink mugs. She introduced herself and I immediately asked her, “Aren’t you supposed to be riding in 5 minutes?”. She laughed and told me that she wasn’t going to ride with me until she knew what I was all about, so she brought in a guinea pig to ride her horse for the lesson. This guinea pig was Rachel Edwards and I believe she rode three out of four of the horses that were scheduled for that day. I must have passed muster though, because Pat called me that evening to schedule our first clinic.
A few weeks later, I arrived at Jasmine Meadows for our clinic. Pat greeted me in the driveway and gave me a little background on the riders. She told me that her friend Wanda had just gotten “one of those fancy dressage horses that does all of those upper level thingys”, that I would have to yell at Davo because he can’t hear anything and that her mare was going to shake her head during the whole ride, but she didn’t really care. I was intrigued by watching her sweet smile and crackly little voice cutting straight to the point, but that was Pat. Although she did a great job of introducing me to almost everyone, she failed miserably in warning me about Davo. Yes, she told me that I would need to speak up, but she did not tell me that he was…. Davo. He came busting out to the dressage arena a few minutes late and asked me if I was “knocked up” in an accent that I thought someone would have mentioned. I just stood there thinking about the fact that I did eat a lot of Chinese food last night and how these breeches are not really the most flattering ones that I own…. when Pat stood up and said, “Whoa, whoa Davo! She doesn’t know what you mean!” (my face must have given that away). She explained to me that “knocked up” means worn out in Aussie talk and then she explained to Davo that “knocked up” meant pregnant to Americans. Davo blushed a little and we all had a good laugh. Pat promised me that she would translate Davo’s sayings for me from then on and she always did…
Before every lesson, Pat used to tell me that her money was hidden under her cell phone just incase she didn’t make it through her ride. I always joked back and told her that if this happened, the ride would be no charge. Pat would also shower and shave her legs before every lesson, so she would look good just incase she had to go to the hospital at some point during her ride.
When I think about how Pat would only ride Miss Ty on a twenty meter circle at A, in her safety vest and if nothing terrible happened within the first twenty minutes, she would be done, I am so proud of how much she accomplished with her.
I remember the first time she cantered full arena. As I was explaining what a huge step this was for her, she began to tear up and I knew that Pat had bigger dreams for Miss Ty than she had verbalized. She had every reason to be cautious when working with Miss Ty, but that fire inside of Pat kept her going through the tough times. One of those times was at Jasmine Meadows on a cold, windy day. Pat was the first ride after the lunch break and when I walked into the indoor, she was lunging Miss Ty and things did not look good. I told Pat that this was not something that could be lunged out of her, so she pulled her up and we walked to the top of the arena together. Pat asked me what I thought she should do and I told her that it was not going to be an easy ride, but she had two options. She could devote the rest of her lesson to ground work in preparation for tomorrows ride OR she could find her “inner balls” and ride like I knew she was capable of. We all laughed a bit, but I told her that she would only have a successful ride if she was riding at 100% today. This look of determination came over her face, she flipped the reins over Miss Ty’s neck and walked to the mounting block. After she did her usual “post mounting ritual”, she looked down at me and whispered, “Are you sure I can do this?” and I told her that she was already in the saddle, so she better start riding! She rode like a pro that day and if I only had a dollar for every time Pat mentioned how big her balls where after that ride, I’d be rich….
Pat always let her opinions be known. We always had a lively discussion on what was and wasn’t a lengthening, she shocked everyone by saying that she didn’t care for Valegro and she was notoriously cheap when it came to buying tack. I almost had to sit down on the day that she told me she wanted help ordering a new dressage saddle. There are so many things worth mentioning about Pat, but words could never fully do her justice.
I am so blessed to have been there as Pat and Miss Ty developed together. Pat was always quick to let go of a difficult ride, but would never let us forget her great ones. I have text messages, emails, FaceBook messages and comments from Pat with her classic, “Did you see my ride??” line. Pat wasn’t only this excited about her own rides though. There were many times that I would get a phone call on my drive home, because Pat wanted to talk about how good someones ride was that day. She was the first one to clap after everyones test and I remember dreading taking her to a recognized show, as I knew that she wouldn’t have been one notch quieter with her post ride celebrations. She was everyones cheer leader and her uninhibited boisterous encouragement will leave something missing from every lesson, clinic and horse show.
I love you Pat Mulligan…