Planning for Perfection

On Lesson #114 we attempted to recreate Lesson #113: a perfectly pleasant winter’s day ride. However…

The temps were actually single digit – this time without the benefit of literary license. These days, we’re happy enough if we don’t see the minus sign in front of our numbers. As Gerry (on Habakuk) and I (on Windy) discovered as we followed Karin (on Charley) lemming-like through the Kiddie Trail, the footing was less than ideal. Discretion being the better part of valor, we headed inside. The Chicken Part of my brain – science calls it the cerebrum – insisted.

Within the confines of the Great Indoors, Windy and I performed some dressage moves. These included “Snappy Salute at X” and “Precisely Perfect 20 Meter Circle.”

Anyone who knows anything about dressage knows that after you enter at “A,” you proceed to “X” and make a Snappy Salute. Anyone who knows anything about the English alphabet knows that “X” should be “B.”    

I’m wondering if the letter-sequencing discrepancy has something to do with the roots of dressage itself. While the Germans and miscellaneous Europeans developed dressage into the sport/art form we know today, it was the Greeks that first came up with idea. Way, way, way back. Its origins are in fact attributed to the writings of a gentleman named Xenophon who was actually an army guy. Xenophon and the Greeks had their own take on the alphabet with letters that were simultaneously very pretty and very confusing to look at. Kind of like the script you might see on the back of the One Ring to Rule Them All. The one that Karin wants.

After Snappy Salute, I performed a Precisely Perfect 20 Meter Circle and announced that I had done so.

Karin expressed partial disagreement: “That wasn’t 20 meters.”

“Really, Karin? It’s the 20 meter part of that you object to?”

“Bob… a meter is three feet…”

Well so much for precision.

“… and the arena is 72 feet across. That leaves you six feet on each side…”

Her calculations were exquisite. In all honestly, my Precisely Perfect 20 Meter Circle had been probably closer to an 8-meter version of the Greek small case letter “phi.”


Karin then demonstrated to Gerry (who didn’t ask) and me how to make a “change through a circle” and a “change out of a circle.” They are two different things that can put you in different directions, so it’s something you have to know if you want to do dressage without an awkward early exit.

That’s the biggest thing I learned about dressage circles: there’s context to them. They don’t just come out of nowhere and end up nowhere. Striving for perfection means you have to plan ahead.

Second Careers


Back in Lesson #99, Pete caught me mounting Dromie from her right side. Mounting is properly done from the horse’s left side.

“So, Pete, what you’re saying is that left is right and right is wrong … right?”

Oh, the feeble foundations of pun-based irony. But it was fun to say.

Pete didn’t miss a beat, “Well, yeah. Do you know how that got started?”

He obviously saw this as an opportunity to share an equestrian related historical tidbit. So many equestrian related historical tidbits have to do with military riding. Remember, Xenophon, the gentleman who came up with classic dressage, was an army guy. I took a shot:

“Something to do with cavalry, I’m guessing?”

“Yes, you’re right. Back when the cavalry used swords, riders normally hung them on their left sides, since most mounted troops where right handed. You don’t want to try getting on a horse with your sword in the wrong place.”

This made immediate sense to me. Razor sharp objects dangling in that region present a clear and unpleasant danger. This equestrian stuff is tricky enough as it is without that kind of thing going on.

“At least that’s what they say, it could be a lot of different reasons,” added Pete, making room for the miscellaneous that makes up the majority of human experience.

In any case, mounting from the left side of the horse is a strong tradition in the equestrian world. And it’s good to be aware of this, because while horses should be trained to accept riders mounting from either side, you just never know. And not knowing could get you kicked or worse.

You can never assume what a horse knows and what he doesn’t. Because it’s not unusual for horses to go through several careers and have multiple handlers in a lifetime.

Dromie herself is a good example of that. I know her as sweet and passive, a semi-retired babysitter. But according Mike Strauss, Dromie’s trainer from age 8 – he still refers to her as “my girl” – until she was retired to Kim and Pete, she was a “true alpha” in her early years:

“Put her in a field of horses and she quickly had them all in line!”

And Dromie was an accomplished alpha. “In 2005 she carried the Topaz Vaulting team to being the National Trot Champions and has often been named best trot horse in the show,” Mike tells us.

And like Karin’s horses, Dromie has always known how to take care of people. Mike shared this story:

“Before we got her she was owned by a breeder here in Virginia and had two foals of her own. One day some of the girls at that farm went out riding and one of them threw a saddle on Dromie and they had a great ride. On returning they were met by the breeder who was standing at the fence laughing. What was so funny? Well, he said, you should have asked about Andromeda (Dromie), she’s never had a saddle or been ridden before!”

Yes, a horse can experience all kinds of career changes in the course of a lifetime. Sometimes it has to with training or with changes in the horse’s health. But often as not, it has something to with changes that we go through: school, work, marriage, family or even changes in our health. And sometimes horses that are accustomed to a lot of human interaction go through periods where they don’t get much attention at all.

Meanwhile, there is always some horse crazy kid out there – the kind that has it really, really bad – wishing, longing, obsessing for a horse of her own. In a storybook universe, the two would inevitably connect, simply because that’s the way it ought to be. In ours, the connection is made because someone – a parent, a mentor, a friend, sometimes a entire little network of people – made it happen.

In the next two posts, I’m going share a little story of how one such connection was made.


Jamie Gives a Lesson

As I scaled the heights of Mt. Samson (we used the mounting block), I had Hiliary’s recent riding videos of me very much in mind. If nothing else, I was going to keep those heels down. Or try to.

I hope she was telling me to put those heels down...

Jamie was there to help. And help turned into a lesson. Which is good, because I need all the lessons I can get.

We tried this once, a long, long time ago. I recall being on one of Jamie’s horses and having everything from Xenophon to George H. Morris presented to me in less than two minutes.  I felt like an old Star Trek computer that short-circuited and threw sparks and made smoke because it was receiving data too fast from some super-speedy alien computer. I dismounted with a headache.

The instruction begins.

Jamie has come a long way as an instructor.  The average male brain is capable of processing only one instruction at a time – at the very most – and this has to be repeated multiple times.  Language can be such an annoyance to us and it takes a moment or two before we realize that the irritating noise that is buzzing around in our ear is actually a form of communication intended – sometimes – to help us. I think she picked up on this over the years.

My main problem on Samson was that I kept bringing the right rein across the top of his neck to turn him to the inside.  Jamie told me to stop it.  “He’s a dressage horse, Dad.”  I was instructed to use my outside leg to cue him.

So, I dutifully used my right leg to cue him for the turn.

And then, on the next turn, I brought the right rein across his neck.

Jamie told me to stop it.  And I did.

Then on the next turn, I brought the right rein across his neck. Again.

Jamie told me to stop it. And I did. Again.

Then on the next turn, I brought the right rein across his neck.

And again.

And again.

And again.

Finally, I glanced down to make sure it was my right hand that was actually doing this and that my arm was still connected to my body. It was maddening.  The Errant Hand and his accomplice, The Arm were doing what they wanted and were ignoring what my brain was trying to tell them. They just weren’t list…en…


Ah… so that’s what’s it like.

Apparently The Errant Hand was putting up some form of last-ditch resistance.  A bitter-ender representing the final vestiges of male incorrigibility.  The Hand was listening to my ego and not my brain.

I think I was enjoying that 19 hands of elevation just a little too much.

I thought Jamie might jump up there, grab a leg and drag me off Samson, but she was very patient.  She calmly repeated the instruction as if each time was the first time. And the few instances when I managed not to bring my right hand across the horse’s neck was cause for celebration:

“Good job, Dad.”

“Now you’re getting it!”

“Way to use your leg!”

It was a good lesson.