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The Soul of the Horse

On an unseasonably warm day in mid-October, I hauled JEF Anna Rose to beautiful Linden Woods Farm in Durham, N.H., for one final educational outing of the season—a clinic with Jeremy Steinberg. Anna and I rode with Jeremy earlier this summer, and the experience was both positive and helpful. But this fall, most of my arena sets with Anna had left me frustrated. We have a decade-long partnership, but yet it feels as if we are always dealing with the same fundamental issue, namely, generating positive forward energy. This fall, every ride was a struggle, and I found myself losing enthusiasm for doing much in the arena with her at all.  I think she felt exactly the same way.

As I attempted to get the earpiece sorted out at the start of my ride, I told Jeremy a bit of what I had been experiencing with her: The lackluster response to any forward driving aid. The blocked right jaw. The dull and non-adjustable feeling in the contact, because without energy and thrust from the hindquarters, there wasn’t anything to actually adjust. I told him that I didn’t feel like very much of a horse trainer, that Anna didn’t even feel like a Training Level horse (never mind a Third Level horse) and that I really hated having to ride so aggressively for such a minimal response. He nodded along with my comments, listening thoughtfully before he replied.

“Remove your emotion from this—it is not you. Some horses are this way. It is just the soul of this horse,” Jeremy said kindly.

I am sure I subconsciously chose an all dark outfit for a reason….

As I blinked away unexpected tears, Jeremy proceeded to tell me about several horses from his past, horses who like Anna had many wonderful qualities—temperament, genetics, beauty— but who didn’t have much ‘get up and go’, who lacked the inner fire that would allow them to easily climb the ladder in dressage.

The thing of it is, to the external viewer, it looks as if these horses should be able to do the work. The viewer concludes it is the rider who is simply not doing enough, or perhaps not riding well enough, to get the horse to perform to his full potential.

 Jeremy recalled a time when he was working with one of these horses under the tutelage of his mentor. His mentor kept offering feedback but nothing seemed to be improving the horse’s performance. Not wanting to be disrespectful but also becoming increasingly frustrated, Jeremy finally asked the mentor to get on and feel for himself.

“And then he understood it!” Jeremy explained triumphantly. Even the mentor couldn’t get the horse to perform.

At the clinic that day, we spent the entire ride simply focused on sending Anna forward. It was not pretty, and it was not fun. Jeremy advised that I establish in my own mind a ‘minimum tempo’, and if she dropped below that pace even a whisker, I was to firmly, forcefully, apply all of my driving aids. Hard. Even if we ended up in a gallop (which admittedly still took a few solid kicks with the spur and a strong whack with the wand). The emphasis was all on the upward transition.

Even Anna’s “gallop” is really just a somewhat faster canter.

In the moments where the energy was better, I tried to stay quiet and still while maintaining a steady contact, even if only for one stride. The perpetual issues I experience with Anna’s poll and jaw stem from her stalled engine; get the engine moving again, and the connection issues usually take care of themselves.

A slightly better moment in trot.

“Leave your brain out of the ring—be instinctive,” Jeremy offered by way of explaining the reaction time required. “When she dies in the tempo, then she must go, even if it is up to the gallop.”

For forty-five minutes or so, this is what we did. Me, kicking and using the dressage whip assertively, until I felt as if I were back on a cross country course desperately trying to make time. Anna, offering a few strides of a positive gait. The inevitable slow down. And repeat. Over and over and over.

I think this is one of those nicer moments.

Eventually, when Anna did offer a few consistent strides in minimum tempo, we added in a little shoulder in or a ten meter circle. Inevitably, I had to ride out of the movement with assertive aids yet again. There were a few nicer moments, but mostly it felt like one of us was working a whole lot harder than the other. And also, as if I had taken this exact lesson so very many times before.

While I rode, I kept hearing Jeremy’s voice on repeat: Some horses are just this way. It is the soul of this horse.

After our lesson, I stayed to watch a few more riders. In particular I wanted to see Leslie Ann McGowan, Linden Wood’s resident trainer, schooling the warmblood gelding Belfast, because this horse just makes me smile. I first saw this talented duo at a clinic with Jan Ebeling in 2017; the gelding was perhaps 6 years old then, new to Leslie Ann and quite green, yet everything he did looked easy. Effortless. Joyful. Now showing at the FEI levels, Belfast and Leslie Ann spent the day’s set working on canter pirouettes. Even when the pressure increased and the work became a little more demanding, the horse never quit or backed down.

The difference between his effort and Anna’s hit me like a fist. The soul of this horse was dancing. He was happy being an elite dressage horse. She is not.

Anna and I in silhouette.

I bought Anna from her breeder as a green broke 6-year-old who had never even been cantered under saddle. The breeder described the mare’s personality by saying she “was pretty content to just watch”. Over the years, I have repeatedly been reminded of her breeder’s insight whenever I have challenged Anna to increase her performance level. Anna has always done whatever it is I have asked of her. But I have often had to ask with emphasis.

As a team, we have done and seen and accomplished a lot. She took me around my first (and only) Groton House Horse Trials and to two double clean cross country trips at the Fitch’s Corner Area I Eventing championships. She spent three months with me at Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm, where we solidified our partnership over fences and hacked in the Vermont countryside. She received my first (and only) high score of the day at a dressage competition (back at Training Level) and she has earned scores over 60% all the way to Third Level Test 3. This fall, she and I completed the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge, tackling those miles in bite sized pieces along the trails in our backyard.

Anna with her Ranger 100 Mile Challenge Medal.

When I started concentrating on dressage with her, I had hoped that maybe she would make it to FEI. Perhaps that was too lofty of a goal; I knew she would never be a high scorer there but I hoped to finally have a chance to canter down centerline in tails, on a horse I trained myself. A few years ago, I could imagine riding Anna to what would be a pinnacle in my equestrian career.

                But more recently, I have downgraded my goals for her—from FEI to Fourth. From Fourth to really solid Third. Most recently, I hoped to collect the last two scores I need for the USDF Bronze Bar in the Third Level Musical Freestyle. We spent a whole season chasing them. The closest we came was still two points too low.

                It would mean so much to me to finish that long-term project with this horse, and then call it a day for her dressage career. But not if the cost is having to ride Anna so hard that she is completely miserable, and all the joy has left her. Not at the cost of her soul.

                When we got home from the clinic, I put up her dressage saddle and haven’t taken it off the rack since. Instead, we have hit the trails, and I have let her mane grow long and coat thick and fuzzy. Anna will stay home this winter and once the weather turns, for the first time since the age of 6, she will have a few months off to just be a horse.

                It is a fine line we tread sometimes, as stewards of these magnificent animals, to know when to push them through resistance in their training and when they have given us enough. It is equally difficult to come so close to your destination and then choose to turn back. But ultimately riding requires a partnership; two hearts working together as a team.

                I do not know what is next for Anna and I. But whatever comes, I must honor the soul of this special horse, and not force her to be someone she is not.