A horse is a magic carpet with four legs.
A horse is a magic carpet with four legs.
It’s been a stretch of time since I rode ten horses a day and started youngsters for ranches on the Central Coast. When Encore! arrived as a four month old thoroughbred filly that I bought for one dollar sight unseen, I’d been away from equestrian pursuits for a while. Now back in the saddle with the hope of dancing with Encore! I find I’m worse than rusty; the tell-all is my sitting trot. I’m fine for the first few strides into the trot, but when Encore! gets going, I get bouncing. I am improving, so there is hope, but I had no idea how far down the ladder I’ve slipped. I have tried to find a thoughtful approach to sitting Encore!’s spirited trot, but have come up empty, until that is, I got my surcingle repaired. Yesterday, I waited patiently while Jose Carrillo (he owns the shoe repair in Solvang) stitched the broken strap. He took a few extra moments and found a ring and then zip, and he had the long line equipment back in play. While I waited, I picked up a classic cowboy straw hat and bought it for six dollars. I love second hand treasures; but I digress.
Back home it’s late afternoon; so late the daily breeze stopped. I bribed Encore! to leave her paddock for dance practice with carrots.
I prepped Encore! with my meager, but effective long line skills and verbal commands to walk trot walk trot halt trot walk, etcetera, so that when I’m aboard, I can simply ask her to walk when the sitting trot becomes a bouncing trot. This is particularly useful, because I can’t do much when my hands are flopping around when Encore! picks up speed. With a review for Encore! in the long lines and my voice commands, it all becomes more manageable. Yesterday, I got a glimpse of how I might actually be able to gain dominion over this most difficult and necessary skill for dressage as I coax Encore! to listen to the aids and, mercifully, slow down.
Long lines are a double bonus for me. First I’m able to encourage Encore! to focus and mind my voice commands and second I get to watch the progress from the ground. Best of all, at this point, is setting up her square halts and half-halting for transitions. I get to watch the effect of my aids from a distance and when it’s right it’s beautiful. I’m encouraged by Encore!’s natural ability to move gracefully and see how I can influence each stride. It’s a little like being a puppeteer with a thousand pound horse held by two strings. It’s my hope to do everything on the ground with long lines that I do when I ride. It’s an art; wish me well.
I don’t have mirrors (which are common for dressage training) so I rely on a glance at the reflection on the French doors, near where I mount up, to check my position. In the arena, I use our shadow to check square halts. Nothing is perfect about our journey, but it’s a beginning. Since this entire project of dancing with Encore! is outside the norm, I feel free to go ahead with enthusiasm and intuition; devil may care.
Dancing with the wild on the back of a horse is heaven.
Encore! and Daubry graze while I walk the evolving dressage arena. First order of the day is to measure the Standard arena and figure out where the letters will go. Daubry and Encore! stop in to check on the progress. They check out my tape measure and blue stake markers and move on to greener pastures.
I stretch out my measuring tape and layout the rectangle. Primitive, but effective, I measure twenty feet at a time to come up with a rectangle sixty meters by twenty meters. Fumbling around, I finally get the markers in place and gasp! It’s twenty-five feet short. Despair. So close to perfect; how can this be? I panic and text super-hero-tractor-man Jon. I sleep on it and by the next day, I realize I forgot to include one twenty foot section in my count. Bingo! I have exactly what I need to do USDF dressage tests. Big sigh of relief and a huge apology to Jon for doubting his measurements.
It’s time to dance on dirt floors with a twelve hundred pound partner that is ready to learn all the moves with panache! The question is can Encore! learn to do it; can she learn to dance? I know I can. I danced Flamenco for seven years. Encore! is another story. Born to run, can this high-spirited Thoroughbred slow down enough to learn a sport some people describe as watching paint dry.
We have our goal to dance. We’ll put out our best effort. We’ll start at training level and waltz our way up to level eight. Encore!’s got the sass and flash, but it takes more than good looks and attitude to learn to dance; it takes patience. Patience is not Encore!’s strong suit. If it looks like the dance floor is torture to this high-strung brunette, we’ll pack our bags, load up and ride the wild places for adventure. At the moment, Encore! loves the dressage game. If I keep the lessons interesting and lighthearted, she’ll learn the steps and dance Flamenco!
Ballet is for everybody; especially big equine divas in shiny fur coats!
A break in the rain for two days and I’m up on Encore! We do a few natural horseman turns and two back-up requests. I wave the flag with the flat helium balloon attached and she’s ready; it’s our safety-check. On the way to mount up from the tiny deck attached to the workshop, I pass a large tarp I spread out to dry. I encourage Encore! to step on it, but she avoids the request. I circle her and ask again. She’s hesitant, but co-operates. I walk her back and forth a couple of times and she relaxes. It’s important to mix things up with the unexpected for Encore! It’s the best way I know to keep us safe; practice surprises.
We do our usual routine with a walk up behind the geodesic dome, around the circle drive and down to the small rectangle between the paddocks and retaining wall. We do some circles and halts, rein back and rein forward exercises, side passes along the fence, leg yields and figure eights ridden only at the walk; the ground is wet and soft. Encore! is quiet and agreeable. I have discovered feather fingers are the way to gain co-operation; it’s also the most pleasant way to ride. With Encore! the lightest touch on the reins prevents resistance.
Warmed up and feeling secure, I take Encore! for three or four loops around the five acres. Trees and bushes, open grass meadow, a walk around the shelter and makeshift nursery with a jumble of pots, on to the circle drive and back down the driveway to the front gate and we’re ready to take on the evolving dressage arena. The arena is in a rough form; ridges, puddles and small gullies cut out by the storms. We go round and round, ride diagonals and serpentines and a few figure eights at the walk. The ground is sand; it dries enough in a day to offer a safe ride at the walk.
Encore! is more dog than horse. If she wagged her tail, I’d register her with the Kennel Club. She loves people and her curiosity matches our late golden retriever, Mozart. Perhaps it’s allowing her to roam around the property with Daubry, or on her own, that makes me think of her as a dog. This is a thing good, because I approach her training with a different mind-set. I think of dogs as domesticated. Seeing Encore! as a twelve hundred pound dog is not a bad thing. I can expect her to stand, square up, move over, head down, stretch, back, walk, trot, canter and halt with my voice. Translated, these commands become invisible cues, like feather fingers and body tickles. Sounds like a plan.
A horse moves a fly with a single muscle twitch; they understand a feather touch and tickle.
The grass is as high as an elephant’s eye…no that’s corn. Today the sun is shining and the grass grows at lightning speed. It’s a good day, because the electric gate got repaired and Encore! and Daubry can enjoy the taste of fresh grass again.
The dressage arena is coming along and upon release from her corral Encore! ran down the property and danced on the rough surface of the evolving dance floor; Surely it’s a sign. I can hardly wait for the rain to stop falling and the sun to pour warm rays all over the ground. It’s time to dance.
However, until that time when California beach weather returns, Encore! and Daubry will celebrate the restored gate and play together in the rain on a carpet of long-overdue green grass.
Meanwhile, I take long walks at the mission and the beach. I pull myself through yoga poses. Watching Encore! jump and spin, I take stock of my ability to ride the wild. My only hope of enjoying the dance is to get in shape; more fit than I’ve ever been. Swimming, stretching, walking and jumping rope are my new joy. At first, I thought the workouts were torture, but soon realized, if I thought it torture, I would quit. Instead, I think of workouts as a kind of massage and have fooled myself into thinking I’m having fun!
I love riding Encore! and owe her the favor of sitting strong.
Just when I thought I could have four days of sunshine to ride Encore! the rain came again and sent me back inside. Encore! and her stable mate Daubry were resigned to the damp, cold weather and simply looked forward to chewing hay. I on the other hand decided it was a good time to think about my dressage letters for the new dressage arena.
My friend Mary challenged me with her expectation for me to create something artistic; something original. I hadn’t even considered the option of making my own letters. I thought about what might work and express my art passion at the same time. Light broke through the creative fog and I knew exactly what I had to do; go to my favorite wetlands and gather smaller pieces of driftwood to form each letter. I could create sculpture to identify each place where a dressage figure would begin and end. My excitement grew as I thought about creating a space with art for training Encore! to dance; art inspiring art.
Making dressage fun is my number one goal for me and for Encore! Now I have a whole new perspective on making the space where we play as much fun as the dance that we do. Thanks Mary!