One Level at a Time.
A Personal Journey.
By Else Donnell
I was living my life. Riding, training, teaching, showing, attending clinics with world renowned trainers. I was doing what I loved to do.
Then in September 2004 I was involved in a car crash that changed my life dramatically. Someone turned left in front of me. I remember thinking: "I'm going to die". Well, I didn't die. As a matter of fact, it seemed I walked away from the accident relatively unharmed. My fractured sternum wasn't even discovered until two weeks later when I came back from the California finals, and complained that my chest still hurt and breathing was difficult. I've always been a fast healer, so I took a couple of weeks off riding and figured I'd soon be back in full swing.
Slowly over the next year my back started hurting more and more. Nobody could tell me why I was in pain. I was going to the chiropractor, massage therapist and acupuncturist just to function and I was exploring any psychological, emotional and spiritual aspect possibly related to my condition. By summer '05 I was only working half time and by the following summer I stopped working all together at the insistence of my husband. He was very concerned seeing me in constant pain, my lack of energy, inability to focus and having to assist me out of bed in the morning. My pain still went undiagnosed.
In the spring of 2007, I was loosing coordination in my legs & feet and withdrawing within, when an angel was sent in human form. A client from Las Vegas, Sue Hoffert. Like so many other healers Sue has dedicated her life to helping others. A psychical therapist for 25+ years, she is also an IMT
(Integrated Manual Therapy) therapist, and it was with this form of therapy that I was finally given a beacon of hope. After her initial treatment, I woke up the next morning and my husbands first words were, that it was the first time he did not see suffering in my eyes. Sue's diagnosis: My Aorta was
pinched in my lower back, and as a result, my entire body-system was using every possible means at it's disposal to keep the aorta from getting torn.
I've been thinking a lot these last 4 years, and I've come to the conclusion that my journey mirrors that of the different levels in dressage. You never give up. You never do it alone, but have a network of support. You stick to the basics, move forward a little, one day at a time, check your work progress, find the holes and go back and fix them till such time improvement is made and then move to the next level. At all times remembering to check on the inflation level of your four "tires": Physical,
Emotional, Spiritual & Psychological.
I'm training & showing again and loving every moment of it. My young horse is turning 5 this year and appropriately named Gabriel, the messenger. I'm sure he's one of many angels sent to help me on my
Life has a way of moving you to unexpected uncharted territories. I know I'm a work in progress, and by taking each day in stride, remembering the principles of dressage and retaining my humor, I've once again found: Life is a Gift.
By Else Donnell
Lately, I've been thinking a little about the saying: "There's nothing as good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse." I've often wondered what it is about the horse that either make or break my day. It's something I've observed in other horse owners and riders as well. It can be almost anything that triggers a "bad" or a "good" day.
Just recently at my barn several horses have had one problem or another. Something outside the owners control. Two are lame from shoeing and one has had a rather severe reaction to spring shots and all of these horses are not able to be worked.
From an outsiders view, these are not life-threatening circumstances. All of the conditions should with time completely heal and the horses recover and therefore shouldn't have much influence on ones mood. In reality, quite the contrary happens, every one of the owners are feeling down. Something about your horse not being 100% simply makes it a bad day.
However, it doesn't have to be anything as dire as above mentioned. It can be something as simple as having a bad ride, or even if someone says an unkind word about your horse. Now, most people can deal with someone not liking them, but not liking their horse is a completely different matter.
What is that all about? What is it the horse represents or possesses, that it can influence our life to such an extent? What is it that makes us worry and even obsess about the health of our equine companions to the point that we will sit for hours researching on the internet or snap at the people around us?
In the country where I was born (Denmark), there's a saying that "Once bitten by a mad horse, it's forever in the blood." I'm sure the saying does not refer to any sort of vampire act, although I'm certain many of us have been bitten. I have more than once, and I forgave everyone of those horses (Is that sane?). No, it must refer to something else. Maybe something buried deep within the psyche of mankind. The horse is our companion, our friend, our trusted sounding board. He is always there when we need him the most. He handles our moods, our insecurities, our training,
our show schedule, and rejoices with us for just being alive. All of this without judging us. Instead, he's happy to see us the next time we show up.
Our spouses, family and friends have long ago realized that fighting this obsession is a loosing battle, so we may as well learn from them and join them. Because how can you but love this generous creature and not obsess a little when times are less than smooth. Well, that simply goes with the territory. Of course, maybe a little moderation is possible. At least I'll try and remember that the next time I have a bad horse day.
By Else Donnell
This month I've been asked to write about through-ness, one of the fundamental principles of dressage. It's really a bit of an abstract concept and in the end must be felt to understand it.
There are many different degrees of through-ness, starting from Training level to Grand Prix. It's a feel that every dressage rider works for every time they sit on their horse. Even at the Grand Prix level, the riders are focused on improving this bottom line in each and every session.
So what is this Through-ness exactly? In dressage we use the term with the same meaning as the german word "durchgelassenheit", which in the best interpretation means: "A throughness throughout the horses body without any restrictions so the rider has full access at any moment to any and all body parts. For instance if I close my right hand, I can feel the ripple effect through the horses body. He will raise his withers and shoulders, lift his back, bend his hindleg joints and get softer contact. In essence, through-ness is a prerequisite for a proper half-halt.
It's very close to the definitions of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) for submission and impulsion which are: "Submission does not mean subordination, but an obedience revealing its presence by a constant attention, willingness and confidence in the whole behavior of the horse as well as by the harmony, lightness and ease he is displaying in the execution of the different movements. The degree of submission is also manifested by the way the horse accepts the bridle; with a light and soft contact, a supple poll or without resistance to or evasion of the riderís hand; being either above the bit or behind the bit respectively." and "Impulsion is the term used to describe the transmission of an eager and energetic, yet controlled propulsive energy generated from the hindquarters into the athletic movement of the horse. Its ultimate expression can be shown only through the horseís soft and swinging back to be guided by a gentle contact with the riderís hand ".
The greatest influences on through-ness are the riders leg, seat, & hands and the understanding of lightness of those same aids and properly fitted equipment (saddle, bridle, and bit). Quite often you see riders struggle with a forward issue, because the hand connection is so strong that the horse becomes unwilling to go forward. Or, the rider's need to improve their seat to produce independence and non-interference. Other times it's a mental picture/image, as in 3lbs in the hand is correct contact, or the neck must be at a certain place at all times, which limits the ability for through-ness. Ill fitting tack can produce pain and quite obviously will result in reluctance.
Knowledge of the bio-mechanics of the horse and rider goes a long way in understanding through-ness as well. Knowing what muscles to look for in the neck and back for instance makes a big difference as does an understanding of the horse's psyche and your own. Quite often, it's a
combination of some or all of the above.
In the end, I find that once, even for a brief moment, you experience the feeling of through-ness with its swinging back, energy, and soft contact, riding becomes play instead of work and a whole new world opens up to enrich your riding experience.
By Else Donnell
Last month I wrote about throughness and how it influences the horses ability to respond to your aids. I also indicated that it's a prerequisite for a proper halfhalt, so in this months column I'll explain more what we, in dressage terms, call halfhalt.
The best explanation I ever received for the definition of a halfhalt was from the multi olympian Rober Dover. He said, that it's the way to put the horse into a momentary state of perfect balance. It's a harnessing or containment of forward energy and power into a better balance. Its a
doorway you must ride through before, and quite often after, every movement, transition, and corner and in order to gain bigger expressions and fluidity in all gaits and paces.
Bio-mechanically the horse bends the joints in his hind legs more, tilts his pelvis and hips under, brings the hind legs further under his body, transfers his weight back onto his haunches while lifting his back and withers up, and thereby creates a shorter and taller wheelbase with more active hind legs working further under his center of gravity. In short, how the horse uses his engine. Granted, this sounds like an amazing amount the horse must accomplice in a matter of seconds or even split seconds. However, the good part is that the aids the rider applies are fairly simple.
The simplest definition of an "aid" is that by itself it must accomplish a specific desired response from the horse. The aids we use are legs, seat, and hands. Artificial aids would be voice, whip, and spurs. An aid can be used by itself, or in combination with other aids. The important factor is
that if the "aid" does not result in a predictable desired response from your horse, it is not the correct aid, since arguably anything you do is an aid. Obviously, if you want your horse to walk from a halt, pulling on the reins won't make the horse move forward, and likewise kicking to make the horse stop won't accomplish that either.
The great challenge lies in using an aid or combinations of aids in a complimentary manner rather than a contradictory manner. Both kicking and pulling on the reins at the halt would send a contradictory signal to the horse even though each by itself is a perfectly useful aid, as we will discuss in more detail below. However, applying leg-pressure, waiting for the horse to start moving forward, and then closing the hands collecting the forward energy, would instead signal the horse to get ready for the next movement.
There are two phases to an aid, first the active part and second the release of the same aid. The timing of the second part of the aid is of greater importance since it lets the horse know that he has responded correctly.
I'm a great believer in keeping aids as simple as possible. There are so many other things going on at the same time, that anything to make both mine and the horse's life simpler, the better. For instance, 3 different forward driving aids would be your lower legs, upper legs, and seat, and 3
different halting aids would be your upper legs, seat, and hands. If you combine these two different sets of aids, you have the aids for a halfhalt. These aids by themselves are not complicated, the complication is rather in what combination and to what extend you would use the different aids at any given moment and for how long.
Clearly, if the horse is charging forward versus rounding a corner, the amount of pressure you use in the seat, hands, and legs would be greatly different. The length of time any aid is used is of importance. The faster you can release the aid, and if need be reapply it again, the better. The longer you hold an aid the more the horse learns to ignore that aid, and you will need to apply the same aid stronger each time. This is simply because the horse has become used to a certain amount of pressure, and because he didn't receive the positive reinforcement of the release in a timely manner. So for instance, if you ride with 10 lbs. of constant pressure in your lower legs just to keep him going, it may require 20 or more lbs. to get the hind legs to come under for a halfhalt. Conversely, if you ride with mere ounces of pressure in your lower legs, the increase of even 5 lbs. would be very obvious to the horse and therefore much more effective. This of course, results in a much more pleasurable ride for both horse and rider.
It's my hope that I've helped unravel the mystery of halfhalt.
By Else Donnell
There are many breeds of horses in this world and within them many different types. We have for years bred and trained for vastly different disciplines, creating amazing athletes. Modern horses and ponies are able to do what we could only dream of 20 years ago. I would like to make a tribute this month to one of the specialists in the horse world, whom I consider to be the unsung hero: The Lesson Horse.
Many years ago, more than I care to remember really, I owned a riding school in Southern California with several lesson horses and ponies. I taught basic western, hunter/jumper, 3-day, dressage, and trail riding. My lesson string consisted of beginner to more advanced ponies and horses. The horses came in all breeds, shapes, sizes, and ages. Some were good enough to go to shows and in this way gave the students their first experience in the show ring. Everyone of them could go from a western lesson to a hunter course to basic dressage work all in one day and
never object. Nothing was too odd for them. If the kids were learning to stand on top of the saddle and walk, trot and canter around, they took it as par for the course.
The oldest lesson pony, Dandy, was from a former rent string and the best we knew of her age was that she was over 30. In her younger years on the rent string, she used to buck people off going down hill, but when I got to know her, she had mellowed quite a bit and became my most valuable beginner pony for the smallest children. She was a Paint and had a skin condition that made her look like she was moth eaten, but her heart was pure gold. She taught numerous children their first lessons and could still trot poles and tiny jumps, and she was bomb proof on trails. I could, if needed, stand in the middle of the arena and yell out her name and a command and she would perform the command.
Another was a palomino quarter horses, Amante. One day he was being led into the arena by a 6 year old girl. It was very windy that day and he was standing right in between the gate on one side and the little girl on the other when the roof of the tack room blew off and landed behind him. He never moved a hoof, but simply stood still shaking from head to hoof keeping this little girl safe.
These attributes are invaluable when you have the lives of young children at stake. Other horses would be extremely careful when dealing with beginners, but gave the more experienced riders enough challenge to keep them learning. Three such horses were Seaweed, Ringer and Tonto. All had their strengths that they used to teach the different riders. Seaweed was conformationally a bucket of spare parts thrown together with a very bouncy trot, but he never refused a jump. Ringer was, as the name suggests, was rather round with a jokers heart. He could carry the heaviest of students and gallop with the kids on trail for the pure fun. And then Tonto, which means "stupid" in spanish, was anything but stupid. He taught humility to many a grownup, but never to a little kid unless they were cocky, in which case he simply stood still and refused to move.
At shows they always performed their job, never letting me down. Here were my clients in different stages of nervousness in their first shows and my lesson horses ignored the riders nerves completely and took them around the ring whether it was a dressage course, hunter course or 3-day course.
To this day I remember every one of my "co-teachers". They have a special place in my heart. I believe that each one of them was worth his weight in gold. Without them I could never have become the teacher I am today. They taught me how to pay attention to my riders, conveying to
me what was going on inside the person. I learned to watch as the riders approached my horses to catch, groom, and ride them, and with their attitudes they would let me know how that person felt that moment on that day. I owe them my gratitude for being patient enough to work and teach not only the numerous riders over the years, but especially me.
In dedicating this months column to the lesson horse my hope is that you, the reader, will look below the surface of the horses in your life and see what lies beneath. Who knows what your horse is helping you learn or when the next "teacher" shows up? As the old saying goes: "Pretty is what Pretty does." And that is no more true than in the horse world.