A View from Letter A – Pineland Farms – Carl Hester MBE

The woodlands and fields surrounding Pineland Farms Equestrian Center in New Gloucester Maine were shrouded in thick mist on Sunday morning. A young horse sculpture, Gwyneth McPherson fondly calls Rusty, watched as travelers drove through the entry gates and parked in the adjacent fields A select group of 14 horse and rider teams participated in a unique opportunity to advance their skills with one of the world’s best riders and trainers. The big red barn with two cupolas welcomed dressage riders, trainers and enthusiasts on October 14 – 15th for the New England Dressage Association’s (NEDA) Fall Symposium 2017 with Carl Hester MBE.

After checking in at the registration table, auditors entered into the large indoor arena fitted with stadium seating behind letter C, long side B and A. NEDA reported a total sale of 989 seats. The welcome packet included a glossy magazine with a biography for every team working with Hester. Everything was so carefully arranged, down to the announcer reminding the audience to be cautious about the chairs habit of flapping up when the sitter rose, “don’t let it slap the back and startle horses.” No photos, cameras or videotaping were allowed. The penalty would be the culprit finds themselves on the outside looking in.

Hester was dressed casually in a soft black sweater, jeans and barn boots. He was spare in his movement but his posture was tall and alert. He often commented on the most fundamental of movements and praised as much as cautioned riders. Whatever was presenting, Hester went with the block or tension that needed softening to bring out the best in horse and rider.

Your right hand, oh your right hand is open and not connected on the rein to the horse. It’s a habit of having the hand open when you ride. But it’s confusing the horse. Work on that. It’s a habit, you don’t know you’re doing it, you try to change but go back to it without thinking about it.

“Yutt, Yuutt that’s it, Yahutt” Whenever Hester made that sound, the rider could smile inside, “Yutt, that’s fine.”

There’s a Zen expression that says, every time you meet someone, they are different. So true with teams that participated on Saturday and Sunday. Hester told Emily Smith he was speechless after she rode the asked for uphill canter, and was that the same horse? Apparently, the nerves got to Dublin the previous day. Hester often informed Sunday participants on what happened Saturday. It was this attentiveness to the audience that was appreciated most. He commented to the trainers in the crowd on what was important here.

Breathing, you’ve got to breathe when you ride or it messes everything. Sit up straight, sit up when you ask for the transition, you are pitching forward and confusing the horse on what to do.

Jessica O’Donnell and her five-year old, Don Dreamer, received high praise with Hester talking about looking at a young horse and thinking someday Grand Prix. Yes, this horse, even when tired, kept giving something back. He had the cadence and calmness to get there.

Don’t move about like that when changing leads, it’s bouncing around upsetting the horse. It’s too much motion. Sit quiet.

Karin Persson and her beautiful Swedish horse Giuliano B surprised us all with his enthusiastic kick during a gallop around the arena. Hester had encouraged Persson to let him out a bit with a romp to settle down. Hester commented that it was a positive sign in the six-year old gelding. He hasn’t forgotten how to have fun along the way up the levels.

Your reins are too long, too long. They are long enough that you can scratch your belly already. After that, where are they going to go now.

The outstanding training moment in the day came when Hester became the center post for Molly Maloney and Fellissimo’s canter pirouettes. He was the anchor which they moved around in a lovely series of careful wide pirouettes. The cadence and impulsion were excellent. It was inventive and delightful all at once. Hester has a charming and grounding manner of teaching. When he asks, and how he asks enables the confidence to flow between trainer, horse and rider.

The horse is not so good in the corners. Well, let’s fix that now. Ride him straight into that corner and stop. Make him stop, turn around and trot back. Do this until he gets the idea, you are in charge. This horse wants to take over and tell you where to go.

What a surprise it was for this auditor to hear the same words heard in lessons, repeated and reinforced in the riders on Sunday. I had at first said no to this event, what would an amateur, returned to riding after a 25-year absence learn from this? A lot! It was all about position, clarity of the aids, being one-sided (horse and rider), straightness, inside eye, blocks in the body, tension, breathing, hands, etc… The thought was at this level, horses and riders are more advanced and complete in the training. The horse is athletic and responsive. The riders have dedicated years to cultivating their dressage skills. It’s still the attention to the ever-changing details that makes a skillful ride.

To feel what you are doing, ride the transitions with eyes closed.

Everything about the day was wonderful. The horses were spit spot in almost ready for the show ring turnout with brilliantly white NEDA saddle pads. Several of the riders presented a uniform appearance in white breeches and gloves with a fitted dark blue long-sleeved shirt. Even the boxed lunches were fresh and filling. The mist was just starting to lift when we sat down to eat on the hillside in back of the big red barn. The horses were out in their paddocks munching on hay. The warm gray Maine skies were quiet above us. This was a day to remember. Thank you NEDA staff for the two years of hard work organizing this event. Thank you Carl Hester for encouraging all with kindness and sincerity.



Never a Last Ride; Older Adults Riding Horses

“C Bar Joker was an Appaloosa raised by a teenage boy. When he joined the army, the horse ended up at the stable where Sharon took riding lessons. He missed the boy so much he kinda soured on people and would not go along with anything. Sharon leased him, and later on, brought him home.” Mary’s voice is gently buoyant talking about daughter Sharon’s first horse. “He was smart, 24 hours after moving in, he figured out this was a better deal and sweetened up a whole lot.” Mary was happy to support her horse-crazy teenager and would occasionally get on and ride. When Sharon bought her OTTB (Off the Track Thoroughbred) Sammy in 1991, Mary said, “I’m tired of walking behind you on foot so get out there and find me a horse.”  The search began and ended with a sixteen-year-old Arabian mare.

Mary and Munoz

“Cosha was my first horse. She had two gaits, a fast walk and a jerky trot. She let me know in her way that she was happier being a mamma than a riding horse. We had Cosha for eighteen years and eight months.” Mary bonds with horses and this kinship keeps her in the saddle. She speaks affectionately about each horse’s character quirks. Sharon has a nine-acre farm in Washington State. This is home for her three-day eventer, Mom’s new Quarter Horse Munoz and Cosha’s grand-filly, Amat Victoria Curam (Tory), born in July 2015. Mary divides the year between her two daughters, with six-month stays in Washington and New York. She does barn chores every day with a trail ride in the afternoon.

At 57 Mary, an able-bodied person, started riding at a time in life when people begin to be affected by the natural changes in the body due to age. Mary says, “Riding is fun, I love the view from the back of a horse. I see kids with disabilities riding as therapy. This sort of chance ought to be offered to frail adults. They’d do great to get outdoors and get moving like that.” Mary is 83 with the goal to continue riding until 92.

Mary’s story is not exceptional. Women in their 50s, 60s and 70s are reviving an interest from their childhoods or fulfilling a lifelong desire. Jackie Cochran, a rider with the blog, Barnmice, commented on the challenge. “All these older women are BRAVE, otherwise, they would never even try to ride a horse.” There are fears that accompany any rider at any time in their riding career. The mind has an influence on cultivating the confidence a rider needs to do well and progress in their skill. It may create scenarios around one of the strongest fears humans can have; failure in front of others. Will I be able to control the horse? Will I fall? Will I be able to afford this? Will I look bad? Part of learning to ride is pushing through comfort zones and the ability to move past tension, apprehension and self-doubt. Self-esteem is a key ingredient to personal success in horseback riding.

In her blog post, “Middle-Aged and Older Women Who Start Riding”, Cochran wrote, “Once in the saddle, it is harder, much harder, for us to get our aging bodies into a proper position and it is even harder to stay in it!…We have to relearn how to move our hips, and we have to teach our bodies…to stay in balance on a constantly moving platform.”

Riding is a unique form of physical exercise. At any age, it requires balance and flexibility. The best riders have a light centered seat, responsive to the horse’s movements. As with any sport, it takes time and practice to build muscle strength and stamina. A stiff body, tight joints and muscles create an uncomfortable experience for horse and rider. Dr. Frances Kistner, an expert on Human Gait and Ergonomics, says a typical woman over 50 will be tight in her body. “The more sedentary the lifestyle, the shorter the muscles are going to be. There is soreness in the groin and inner thighs because they are being stretched by the width of the horse. The muscles are functioning in a new way.”

A horse’s hindquarter at a walk replicates the same movement in a human pelvis at the walk. If the rider is relaxed but active with the movement, it will strengthen the back and trunk. Physically fit riders will have a better experience. Movement-based activities that are slow, such as tai chi and yoga, are recommended as they require more control and focus on strength. Regular exercise with a hula-hoop will strengthen the arms, abdomen, hips and legs. It tones and improves joint flexibility and balance. Kistner says, “The key thing is relaxing and getting into your seat. Someone who is really tight, all the muscles are very tense, it’s harder to relax and get that motion and the horse will feel it.” Horses are sensitive to the rider’s actions, voice, and mood.  Former riders will have muscle memory. New riders have a physical and psychological challenge. The spirit may be willing but the body may resist and the mind generates fears.

Kistner cautioned that, “women who have vertigo, take medications for hypotension or that cause a drop in blood pressure, should be cautious about riding. Persons with osteoporosis or osteopenia should consult with their doctor. Anything more than a walk causes a pounding. A trot, unless posting, causes a lot of compression in the spine.” New riders might borrow some tips from eventers. Some wear a mouth guard to protect their teeth, and a vest filled with gel, or one that inflates with air when a rider is ejected from the saddle to cushion a fall.

Along with their inherent beauty and grace, comes the instinct of a prey animal most comfortable in the protection of a herd. Horses have a complex social order that includes a leader, lookouts and everything in between. When in doubt a horse will spontaneously flee. If threatened, it can buck, bolt or rear up to protect itself. Sharon and Mary are conscious of fall risk while riding, but serious accidents can also happen on the ground when something scares the horse. This reaction is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Sharon said, “Just like when you check that I Accept box blindly on-line, Mom accepts that falls happen around horses. It’s part of the deal.” Riders have to understand and cope with these moments that may occur.

Leanne, Sage and Kris Copper

The US Dressage Foundation offers the Century Club. The rider and horse’s age combined equal 100. Leanne Tousey (72) and Sage (30), Team 256, completed their dressage test on August 14, 2016 to become part of this prestigious group now at 279 teams. Tousey’s  childhood dream was realized when at 72, she began lessons with Kristann Copper at Anchorage Farms in Conifer, Colorado. Copper teaches dressage and says, “Finesse is more important than strength.” Several of her students are over the age of sixty. Copper and Sage entered the Century Club a year earlier as Team 249.

Tousey describes herself as very fit and active. However, riding took a little getting used to. “The first few times I rode, I could hardly walk after 45 minutes in the saddle.” It took several months before she got on and off without body aches. “Sitting up straight needed all my concentration since I had become lazy about my posture as I have aged. And, clearly, my center of gravity has changed and to find that position of balance is still a challenge.” Tousey has insight into animal behavior from her thirty years training and showing Miniature Schnauzers. She understands the confidence factor it requires to ask and expect results, as well as how to correct performance. Copper said, “Nowadays there are senior citizens who are very fit and supple, perhaps even more so than middle-aged riders.”

Why do they do it? The overwhelming motivation for women deciding to ride is the challenge and joys of being with horses. The riders speak with clarity on the horses’ spirit and generosity for keeping them in the saddle. They are bonded companions. Horses bring women outdoors and out on the trail. A supportive friend or family member often contributes to the enjoyment. A dedicated instructor who understands their limitations is essential. In the end, it is a woman’s decision to ride.

A comment from Ezduzit, Chronicle of the Horse forum, “I was 60 when I really started to ride, I am now 70 and despite a myriad of health problems, cardiac and diabetes, I ride several times a week. I love my barn time, the exercise and the one-ness I have with my boy. When I am on my horse, I am ageless, young and healthy again. I never want to give that up and hope I am never aware of when my last ride is.”

Reference List

Cochran, J (2013 July 28), Middle-Aged and Older Women Who Start Riding. Retrieved from http://www.barnmice.com/profiles/blog/list

Cochran, J (2017, February 24). Women Who Start Riding at 50 or 60 Personal message retrieved from  https://www.chronofhorse.com/forum.

Ezduzit (2017, February 24). Women Who Start Riding at 50 or 60. Message posted in https://www.chronofhorse.com/forum.

U.S. Dressage Foundation, The Century Club News (2017 January) Issue 21 pp. 25, 32 http://www.dressagefoundation.org/grants-and-programs/century-club/about.html

A Day with Pino

Since the age of twelve, I’ve wanted to have a horse of my own. I cannot say why or how the fascination started but the ambition is one step closer to reality. Pino, I am leasing Pino for the winter from my riding instructor. He is an eleven year old Andalusia gelding living quietly in a paddock with his long time pal Bastian. So far, he’s had light duty being ridden only a half-hour on Saturday’s by a lovely teenager. His skills as a riding horse have advanced slowly these three years. However, his days are now becoming more involved.

I’ve volunteered at a horse rescue for going on eight months. I made a nice living as a small barn manager thirty years ago and was willing to give it a go with horses once more.  There I was on Sundays, back in a barn giving myself one sore back for a few weeks. Curious but lacking confidence, I stated taking riding lessons and have been getting back into the swing of things since June. I attended several workshops on horse handling and training. I even went up one level in Reiki to be able to give support to the horses. However, I also kept bumping into a barn manager whose frequent comment was; we don’t do that here. A dead-end was reached.

It was my instructor’s suggestion that I attend the Tristan Tucker workshop at Ashby Farms in October that helped me see what it was I wanted to do. My on going fascination with horse communication will now be quite satisfied. TRT method is a training that starts with specific ground work and continues in the saddle. My riding instructor is one of his students, and now, I am one of hers in this program. On Wednesday evenings, I blast out of the city and speed out to the barn for the 5:30 p.m. training hour. I’ve had to be clever and find every short cut along the way to be on time. We’ve had to fetch Pino out of the muddy paddock as it’s been suddenly wet this fall after months of dry. It was quite something to be in the covered ring last week with the rain pounding on the roof. Nevertheless, there we were five women and their horses learning to move together. TRT involves a lot of circular motion as a ground work for connecting the horses hind legs to his front legs. We teach the horse how to be relaxed and confident in their body. To trust their own ability to be safe in otherwise challenging circumstances. The horse is given clear direction and clear confirmation when they make the right move. However, it is a dizzying business at first and I wonder if Pino feels the vertigo as much as I do when we pause.

pinoiiSo today, the lease started and I had a glorious afternoon with Pino. It was so nice and warm midday without any wind. He took a lie down and enjoyed a sunbathe as I tidied his paddock. He is a chunky horse, very compact in shape with a large Roman nose.  I think it is better called baroque, sounds a bit classier. We are getting used to each other now. I learned today if the hands are light, he is too. I remembered Tucker’s frequent comment of release of pressure is the reward. When I realized the hands were tense on the reins, I lightened up by just relaxing the grip. Didn’t Pino respond instantly. He tends to weave and lean his shoulder out on circles. He’s out of balance when he gets moving at a quicker pace. He doesn’t know it’s okay to stretch his body with a rider on his back. His back is tense and he’s unsure what to do. Today’s goal was simply move forward on a steady, round light circle. We only trotted and worked on transitions. He does understand the aid for halt going right. He wasn’t so clear on the same aid going left. He is sensitive and when I let go sitting deeply in the saddle, he naturally moves well into a nice downward transition. I can see the more we work on the TRT ground training, Pino and I will both move with clearer understanding toward confidence together. At least that is the goal I can tell he wants to know what I want, and I am not so clear at this moment. But, he is curious, part of something more now. We shall see how things work out over the long winter ahead.  What a good afternoon to be with Pino.