What would it be like to live in Wellington?

It’s a tight schedule at Lendon Gray’s Winter Intensive Program. After the fitness class the riders get busy preparing for their lessons. I often have a gap of time before Jack has to ride so I take my bicycle out of the bed of my truck and tour the neighborhoods of Wellington. There are paths all over the “village”. It’s fun to see through the enormous iron gates elegant dressage horses floating in a perfect grand prix frame in their front yard arenas. Occasionally, I see polo practice, or jumpers perched out of their saddle making tight turns aiming for a jump. I can’t count how many hackers are on the trails enjoying the fresh morning, or dressed in their whites on the way to a show. It’s amusing to see someone cantering along a path beside a road. I lament the riders, mounted, and heads tipped towards their phones, not even looking where they are going. (the emergency room if they don’t get smart.) There’s something about seeing others taking a walk in the neighborhood on their horse that creates an itch in me I search to satisfy.

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The front gate. Nice.

I try to imagine living in a community unique as Wellington. The whole village of Wellington is small enough for me to ambitiously bike anywhere. (and I do.) There are neighborhoods with “normal” houses without horse facilities. But I am captured whole by the neighborhoods with two or more acre lots efficiently designed to fit five paddocks, a barn, an arena, and a nice house connected to the 57 miles of trails. That is the order in which I would prioritize the suitability of my real estate search. Horses grazing in paddocks, barns alive with activity, and arenas freshly dragged and ready for some lofty trotting. Friends exit the driveway and meet on the paths to hack together and give their equine friend a change of scenery and some break from the arena work.

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The colored lines are horse trails.

I haven’t seen a hitching post at any of the local convenience stores. That’s because this place is posh, there are grooms to take the horses while the riders zip over in their sports cars to do errands or lunch. That’s not appealing to me. I only desire to be steps away from caring for my horses and working in the barn. I have an old standard jeep to do errands if Amazon can’t deliver. Mostly I love to take my bike wherever possible. When I realized this was possible here in Wellington, I approached my husband with “those” eyes and suggested we should retire here. Please. Pretty please. I’ll do anything for you to say yes.

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After a long day enjoying horse activity in the WIT barn with Jack and Mica’s barn with our other two horses I’m too tired to concentrate or move another muscle. But I’m not too tired to do an internet search of the equestrian properties for sale. We have moved eleven times all over this country and to the UK in our 28 years of marriage, so understanding local real estate is something I do when I’m a visitor.  Can you imagine there are over thirty properties in Wellington that cost between ten million and thirty-four million dollars? It’s unreal. Way down the list I compare value for what we can buy at home and my head shakes in disbelief. Nevertheless, I find some interesting homes and I jot them down so the next morning I can ride my bike past them. It’s just how I get to know a community.

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It’s possible to show every week and walk over to the show grounds in your whites.

The weather, the horse amenities, excellent trainers, farriers and equine vets, tack shops, feed stores, horse trails, the accessibility by bicycle to local errands, and friends who enjoy the same activities all sums up to the way I would love to spend my days. Sigh. I’m not saying I experience discontent with my home set up, I have just entered a world that couldn’t be better designed for the way I wish to use these precious days God gives us on this earth. I’m thinking life is too short to live a half hour drive away from my horses.

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At Pierson Rd. and Southshore you stop for horse crossing.

If anything were possible I’d pick a modest property in a great area here in Wellington, keep Kira in the Ideal School of Leadership where she attends and not look back. But I’m patient and I’m flexible. And I trust God has the exact right place for us just waiting. When we retire, Wellington here we come. Until then, the door is open to winter here for the season. But first we still have six more weeks of 2018 to enjoy in Sunny Welly World before we head home to San Antonio, TX.

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The Horse took my Pedicure.

Equestrian Mondays here are meant to be our day off, but I am quickly learning that’s not a free day to visit the beach. I’ve tried for eight weeks to get a pedicure on a Monday and failed every time. We organize and prepare for the next busy week! We meet the farrier, the vets, and make sure our supplies are topped up. There’s no fitness class, lecture or riding lessons, but plenty of barn work and horse care. No one complains. Truth is, the barn is where we want to be.

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These two. That’s love.

 

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Benson and our farrier having his new shoes made.

 

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Thanks for my new shoes mom, sorry you missed your pedicure because of mine.

On Tuesdays we often have the privilege of visiting a prestigious farm. This week we were invited to Mikala Munter (Gundersen)’s farm. She rode three horses for us and demonstrated her approach to bringing out the best in each horse. She admitted that the showing is necessary but her true joy and passion is what she called, “dressage nerding” as she delves into the mysteries of her horses to bring out their very best qualities. After watching her work the word, “patient” came to mind over and over. One of the best benefits of being here in Wellington is we get to see excellent riding and exceptional horses everywhere we go. I remember Whit Watkins teaching us to be very careful about what we let ourselves watch and to only study good riding. This is so easy to do here.

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Mikala Munter’s up and coming star “Salsa Hit”

This horse is the precious project of Mikala’s. He has history with a sore back so he has his own Physiotherapist who works with him for two hours a day to help him be able to use his back better and to build the necessary strength. His therapist, Klaus from Denmark, was most interesting as he demonstrated the routine of preparing Salsa for his rides with Mikala. I learned about the use of equibands, Franklin balls, stick massage, hand jogging together for a 5k now and then for fun, and creative lunging techniques with therapy bands. He was fascinating. And the horse was clearly devoted to his every move.

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Thankful for the visit with Mikala Munter at her beautiful barn as she demonstrated her riding program with three of her horses.

After spending the mornings at Hampton Green with the WIT program I go to Mica’s barn to spend the afternoon with Rudy and Princess Buttercup. My brain is sweating the most as I try to retrain it to respond correctly with the use of my riding aids. The riding coordination complexity I’m working to master is similar to writing the alphabet with my toes as I use sign language with my hands at the same time. As difficult as it can be to learn to ride better each and every day I can say I feel the progress. There are ups and downs but over all I’m not disappointed. (I have ridiculously high standards for myself. Classic over achiever.) I make sure to take a ride each week to practice and test myself to be sure I can put it together without Mica in my ear. I might not get it perfect, but I really enjoy the freedom of riding my Rudy and feeling him with me more and more. I will never lose my awe for the intimate nature of communicating with my horse as we ride together. If I tweak my outside hand and nudge my inside heel he understands I want him to stand up taller. That’s just amazing and only one word in the language of riding. I hope I can be fluent some day.

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Kira and Princess Buttercup are back to work. Butter cup had a bone bruise on her hind left ankle which took a couple weeks to heal but she’s great now!

I think we should look out for this young equestrian lady, Kira LaTorre. She has a beautiful seat and a can do attitude. She will be eight next week and likes to remind us that Jack wasn’t even riding when he was eight. I think she’ll be a jumper. I have a rule though, she has to pass the training level test three before she can be a jumper. (And one dressage lesson a week no matter what.) God help us all if she chooses eventing.

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That is Lisa Wilcox. Gasp. I spend every afternoon observing her ride and teach Mica. I still pinch myself to make sure this is real.

Mica has gone into full training with Lisa Wilcox, Olympic silver medalist in dressage. I try my best not to miss one of her lessons. I am learning about the process of training she learned while living and working in Europe. She follows the classic disciplines and I confess I’m a complete nerd about reading the classic dressage theories. Lisa is just stunning. When I was a young girl I studied ballerinas so I could dance like them. Now, I study Lisa because I want to ride like her. She has this presence of absolute confidence. Her position is flawless (on purpose) and what she can get a horse to do is inspiring. Every. Single. Day. I’ll be satisfied to get 3% of what she can do into my own abilities.

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Morning Mist and Horses. This must be heaven.

Flexible Goals

It’s not easy to plan with horses. We can set some goals but it’s best to have them loosely attached to any sort of time line. It’s wise if we can develop flexibility to stop and drop what we thought we were going to do and shift to a new direction on the spot. If we can do that without emotion, even better.

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Jack and Benson standing for their portrait.

There have been a few fevers spreading around the barn for a couple weeks. There have been sore backs, bone bruises and colon ulcers. Expensive show entries had to be cancelled and funds forfeited. This pony is off, that horse is agitated and some are tired. Others are completely unaffected and ready for more work. Summer sores have declared war. The fungus is among us. There’s an occasional colic symptom and everyone goes on high alert. A rider is on crutches. A shoe has been thrown and work cancelled until the farrier can arrive. It is always something.

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Kira and I enjoy some traill rides together

So we make loose goals and try to keep our focus on our purpose. What is the purpose? It’s good to know the answer to that question when the work comes to a halt. Our relationship with our horse is not just the riding. We are responsible for their overall wellbeing at all times and it can change in a breath. He didn’t beg us to bring him to Wellington where there is a greater concentration of horses than anywhere. He doesn’t care what we spent or sacrificed to get him here either. He only knows right now. He either feels great or he hurts. He’s simple, and we should be too.

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We couldn’t resist a visit with the minis.

What we hope for the most is that our horse feels good in his body and enjoys the riding relationship. Our job as rider is to be sure he feels his best, and offer him enough variety in the work that he doesn’t resent the saddle the moment he sees it. We must take on the help of a variety of professionals to help us interpret how he is feeling by how he moves, responds to touch, and has improved or declined in his work. It often takes an objective eye because the change can happen so gradually it is hard to perceive and register accurately. Hopefully the riding can culminate into an opportunity to go show and compete. But that’s not such a predictable opportunity.

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Mica riding Rudy in the field. He is looking and feeling fantastic. I am still trying to figure out how to ride him as well as she does.

When the riding takes a pause, we realize what we take for granted. We reacquaint ourselves with the deep love and care we have for our equine friend. We commit to helping him in any possible way to feel his best. Some of the WIT riders have spent the night in the stable taking temperatures on the hour. Some spend their entire day off with the vet, or hand walking frequently for stocked up legs.

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Jack and Benson

I was attracted to dressage as a discipline for horses because if it is done correctly it strengthens the horse to carry the rider in a way that is balanced without breaking him down. Their bodies usually last longer than jumpers or barrel racers. Sometimes though I can’t help but worry that we ask more than we should and for what? A score? Bragging rights? Proof we can ride? A place on the podium? Attention? Ego.

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I am so thankful to be able to share this experience with Jack and Kira.

I evaluate my ambition and motives daily in regards to our horses. It is too easy to get carried away with goals and ambitions then find the horse has suffered because of it. It makes me sick to see someone riding and pushing a horse that is clearly hurting. I can hardly watch when a horse is drilled, worked, and pushed long past a time that is fair, and then back at it day after day. For what? Our sense of perfection?

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And that happens.

There is a balance of good strength building work that develops skill against the overwork that breaks a horse. It takes a knowledgeable team of professionals to help keep us on the path that is best for our horse, but not necessarily best for our goals. I was with a new friend, Erika-West Danque, Friday night at the Freestyles and she said it best, “I love my horses more than I love showing them.” I will bring my equine friends to her barn any day, because I do too.

Intense and Playful

It’s Friday. It’s week five of a twelve week “intensive” program. I notice some droop, some lag, a little glaze in the eye now and then. I have witnessed a couple breakdowns over nothing. And this is what I would expect about now. There’s a crossing line for grit, gumption, and determination and we are approaching it, if not already staring it down with trembling uncertainty.gdw+UH0sQXOh6m%xgNBAVw

Joining anything named with the word “intensive” in it inherently suggests we should reach the edge of ourselves and try to go beyond.  Maybe we pause for an assessment, ask some questions then give some honest answers. What changes am I being asked to make in hard set habits? How much more effort, focus, and submission am I required to give to cross this line towards improvement? How much more courage do I need to practice? But here’s the question I believe everyone forgets to ask: Is the pressure making me so serious that I have created disastrous tension? Uh, tension is transferred to the horse as he reads your body language the moment you approach him. Forget his ability relax once the reins are in your hands and your legs clamp on as your serious seat bears down and you make it clear: “There’s a show coming up buddy and you are going to be perfect all the time from now on.”  I’d throw a few bucks to give an opinion to that message. No wonder they learn to evade us.

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grateful guests at Jan Ebeling’s stables learning as he teaches

I never want to forget: our horse doesn’t have ambition for the show ring. He doesn’t know how much he cost. He doesn’t know what scores he produces. He doesn’t know what his performance might mean for the career of a trainer. He doesn’t understand he’s the answer to a parent’s dream for a kid. He doesn’t know he is in an intensive program. He needs to know he has a good, fair, clear leader to follow around. He likes to eat hay. He likes his horse friends to be nearby. He likes to feel safe. I think, he likes to play. I believe that if work is approached playfully with humor, guidance, fair limits, and reward no one realizes it is work. That’s true for humans and horses.rrMOcXDcQxKNdENwAguNTA

So, in response to the droop, as the fitness instructor at WIT, I took the group to the local playground.  They jumped rope traveling forward around a paved circle for five minutes and then we had our second snowball fight. Afterwards I set them loose on the playground. The energy and the fun was several notches higher than usual, quite intense, but the physical output wasn’t any different than going for a jog or jumping rope back at the barn. It was fresh, it was playful and it was fun. They finished a little sweaty, rosy in the cheeks, energized and happy. I encouraged them to compare how they feel about exercise when it is fun and fresh with variety versus the same old thing every day. Now ask if your horse might have the same response.RI7vui%RQWSPz7R3iPH31w

I guess after I’ve ridden my horse I would like him to be a little sweaty, energized and happy. But how often do we drill? Do we get greedy and push for too much in one ride when really we should give that accomplishment a few weeks? We are also responsible for keeping up with developing soreness. A horse who is hurting is not lazy or naughty. It’s our job to know the difference.  It’s also our responsibility to arrive emotionally neutral to the barn, and positive is a bonus. What if we approached our rides like the kids who go on the playground? What if the arena was a place our horse loved to play?

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The Lendon Gray WIT group with Jan Ebeling

The few times I have shown Rudy have taught me what a monster of tension I become when a test is coming up. I get “serious” about our perfection in everything! The accuracy, the frame, the energy, the promptness. Oh poor Rudy. It’s no wonder he refuses to give himself to me in the show ring. All of this reveals to me terrible character flaws and it motivates me to stop, and change. Mica is helping me play with a new approach for him, trying to keep it fun, but still precise, prompt and excellent. I think about our ride as a series of questions and answers. When he gets the wrong answer my response doesn’t have to be emotional (frustrated), I just need to correct him in a way he understands so he can learn to give the right answer. Because he doesn’t like to get in trouble any more than I do. It’s my lack of clarity that’s at fault. Always. Mica tells me “don’t help him, let him make a mistake and that’s the training moment.” When we get tied up in knots we have to laugh and remember “serious” is not a good word. When he has the right answer, we reward and celebrate our harmony. If I haven’t laughed a lot during a dressage lesson, there’s a big problem.

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Buttercup likes to watch us from under that gate rather than over it. Cuteness.

Why do I believe playfulness is so important? Because the two goals I have in riding are for him to be relaxed and forward. Horses who achieve this are fun to watch because it appears they like what they are doing. They float across the arena and we can’t help but wish to have a ride like that. Well, it takes perseverance and discipline but we can keep the word “work” out of it. Let’s call it play.MCvjROoqQ4+1Gi%TfDJ0FQ

We had the privilege to observe Jan Ebeling teach two of his students and then ride three of his horses this week. He explained to us while he rode all he was trying to achieve with each horse. Set aside the fact that these are jaw dropping fancy movers. I was watching his riding style and behavior towards the horse. I’m so curious about how dressage Olympians work with their horses. Jan’s presence is disarming and relaxed but his riding standards are high and intense. He smiles more than he wears the serious concentration face. He goes over all the tack before mounting in concern for the horse’s comfort. He exudes a joy to be on a horse as he laughs, encourages them with his voice and pats them frequently to let them know he is happy with their effort. He gives them frequent walk breaks and they in turn work so hard for him. He demonstrated a playful approach to partnering with his dressage horses. It was inspiring.

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In Kira’s new school here in Florida they never use the word “test”. They call them “celebrations” as they get to celebrate all they have learned. I can’t tell you how much I love this shift in thinking to make something serious become fun. I will also say I’ve never seen Kira as excited to go to school, or do homework, or learn something new, or approach a school “celebration”. Maybe we should think about our next dressage show as a celebration rather than a test. I’m very sure we can be intense and playful at the same time. I’m willing to bet our horses would thank us by being more relaxed and forward. At the very least, let’s make the arena a playground.

400 Hours of Learning countdown

 

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Thank you Louise Natthorst for a special lesson with you! (Olympian from Sweden)

Everyone went to see Laura Graves earn an 84 in her freestyle at Global Dressage Festival Friday night. I mean probably everyone who wears dressage boots in this town was there. I went to bed. It was one of those feelings of, “I wish I could do everything but I lost my wonder woman cape somewhere on the trail today.” Her ride was a few minutes before ten at night. Isn’t that a little crazy? If I asked my horse to be at his best performance that late at night he might gallop me straight to the emergency room to have my head examined. This sport is interesting.

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A special visit from Arthur Kottas

With all of the options to go and do and see in Wellington available to us we absolutely have to pick and choose how to best use our time. In some ways, we gravitate towards our interests but, in other ways we follow the crowd. I am interested in learning while I am here.

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Hilary Clayton teaching the core exercises with Benson

Almost every afternoon Lendon’s program has a scheduled lecture. These experts donate their time to help these young equestrians improve their horsemanship. I do my best to show up for as many of these as I can attend. Hilary Clayton, a professor at MSU, lectured about keeping our horses fit by cross training and how to do core strengthening exercises for our horses. Laura King is a sports performance counselor and hypnotist. She lectures every other Wednesday to teach these equestrians how to improve their thinking to improve their performance. I love these lectures.

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putting together the double bridle

We had a vet talk about horse care in Florida, and vets came to talk about horse body composition and nutrition. We observed a demonstration about how to identify the perfect bit to put in our horses mouth. Scott Hassler gave a lecture and we were inspired to practice better horsemanship, especially with the younger horses. Charles de Knuffy had a clinic with a couple of lectures our students were invited to attend. Someone taught them how to use social media to promote their training business. And tomorrow a dentist will demonstrate good dental care for our horses.

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they were tested on setting up the arena

That was the free list of educational opportunities. I also enjoy engaging with the vets, masseuses, and chiropractors who help us know our horses better. Princess Buttercup went a little gimpy on her left hind last week so we first called the Chiropractor recommended by our home doctor. We gave her a few days off before Mica’s vet was able to evaluate her. We did a thorough evaluation including jogging her with flexions, then blocking the joint to see improvement and isolate the soreness. Then we did xrays as well as ultrasound. We determined it’s mostly arthritis and probably she pulled a muscle playing out in turnout, and with all of that she got her ankle and hock injected with cortisone because she’s old enough to appreciate the help. She’s also taking muscle relaxers for a couple days. Hopefully on Tuesday she’ll be good as new.

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they had three minutes to name all these bits

Rudy has had “fecal water” on and off since I’ve owned him. When I asked the vet about this she said let’s look for colon ulcers, and yes there they were on the ultrasound. He’s on meds to treat these and I’ll say already he’s feeling so much better. Over the years I have so enjoyed learning how the Equine veterinarians work with various horse problems. I find the science of it all fascinating. It’s an expensive education for me but I think if it helps me be more prevention minded then it’s worth it.

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WIT students with Scott Hassler

My favorite education of all is sitting in on lessons with great trainers. I stand close enough to hear their instruction and I watch closely to see how the rider applies it to improve the horse. It’s especially useful if their issues match the struggles with my horse! I like to see what exercises they give the horse to improve suppling and thoroughness. Having my eye on so much dressage here in Wellington is definitely improving my riding.

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Mimi has said she has “400 hours of learning” while she is here, and believe me this young woman doesn’t miss one opportunity to learn from watching lessons.

At the shows I like to watch the warm-ups more than the actual test. What are these top riders doing to get their horses ready to give their very best for about seven minutes in the arena? That’s where all the secrets are revealed.  It’s Saturday night so everyone is heading out to watch the jumpers! And Sunday afternoon is all about the polo matches. Mondays, the horses rest and we start it all over again on Tuesday.

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Buttercup with the Chiropractor (yes she is the cutest)

I’m so thankful my first experience in Wellington is with the WIT program because I see how generous the dressage community is with these students. Those with the knowledge, expertise and experience are so happy to pass it on to the next generation. It gives this industry integrity. It helps me see the best of this sport and have great hopes for the future as these young riders go forward to keep dressage excellent.

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Ali Brock gave a demonstration at her barn and everyone got to meet her Olympic horse Rosevelt afterwards.

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Let’s not forget many of these participants are keeping up with school while in this program! (Jack having FaceTime with his teacher)

Wellington Fashion Show

We attended a Wellington fashion show, and I’m not talking breeches and show coats. These were high quality horses demonstrating not their accessories but their development and potential as top dressage athletes. Our folding chairs were lined up close to the rails in the covered arena. Hundreds of people turned out to see the glamour of the gliding horses and the beauty of the new and prestigious barn. As a NYC runway would present the most amazing new creations, this show did not disappoint, causing us to maybe drool a little, take notes, and lean sideways to whisper to our neighbor the qualities of movement we covet. As all shows have some unexpected moments, this one did not have wardrobe malfunctions, but instead a young spooky horse who really preferred we were not so close to where he was told to work. We all giggled as he passed us with his suspicious eye and sideways moving stride.  (I didn’t photograph the fashion show)

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We were first shown the finished product of their “old” grand prix horse at fourteen. He’s maintenance now and the fun of teaching has been finished.  Then they brought out the ten year olds who were finishing the grand prix, then the seven year olds who were prime to be polished up, and finally the five and four year olds who were simply everything we could want in a project to create the next athlete partner to make our Olympic dreams come true. Americans were teased for buying finished products rather than the darling fun young horses. Naturally none of them had price tags dangling. I’m fair to guess the starting point is half a million dollars. Yes, if you are reading this because you’re just curious about this equestrian gig, pick your chin up off your chest. We are in Wellington. It’s a lot like how the baseball league owners make contracts for their players in ridiculous amounts of millions to win a game. I’ll never understand that, but the quality of these horses and the way they are built, trained and move causes me to find a balance with the cost and the product. If we decided to live in the stall next to a horse like that for retirement I could maybe have one someday. (Being actually able to handle it and ride it is another story.)

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When the grand passion is riding a fun horse and this kind of parade passes before the eyes inspiration sets in gear. They demonstrated some of their training tips with the youngsters so if I’m smart I’ll ask my old stodgy friend Rudy to use his body with more transitions within the gait. It’s always about having the horse listening and ready to do what we ask with as much or as little gusto as we desire. These horses made it look so natural to be up in a grand prix frame, through the back, and swinging over the top line. It’s easy to assume if they can do it, we can do it too. Why not try?

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This is Ali Perkins and Sante

Which brings me around to remembering to stay grounded in a place like Wellington where the world’s best horses, riders and trainers converge for a season. We serve ourselves well if we stand on our own truth each and every morning as we head to the barn. Take the inspiration but don’t become downcast or pressured. There I was, an Adult Amateur, first level rider sitting among Olympians and top dressage riders in the world looking at horses I would never be able to handle. It’s ok. I also look at diamonds in the case, cars in the window, and fancy vacation destinations I will never reach. Beauty is uplifting. The truth I stand on is simply I love to learn and discover the mysterious combination of horse and rider, and that makes me no different than any other person at that fashion show. With a good work ethic and a little talent so many sparkly surprises can develop along the learning journey.  The best part of being here are the regular doses of inspiration that are on display for our total sensory satisfaction. We can hear the breathing rhythm in the canter, smell the sweat and feel the hoof beats resonate into our hearts. Let the dreams soar, but keep the feet firmly in reality, and this place is an Equine amusement park for aspiring riders.

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Fit to Ride: Serious Playfulness

It is 6:20 a.m. and I load my truck in the dark to go teach fitness to the WIT participants. I arrive as they scurry to complete morning barn chores and prepare for the daily fitness activity. The horses dip their heads over the windows to observe the odd activities. Benson smiles for some attention causing an explosion of giggles. Some of the horses have to be removed from their turnout because they want to run and play with us too! Other riders who pass by our strange workouts can’t help but stare, smile and appreciate our efforts to be fit to ride.

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They walk/trot/skip their dressage tests on their own feet twice a week.

I approached Lendon last summer offering my fitness instructor experience and she was quick to take me. It’s a rigorous schedule being at the barn ready to teach six mornings a week at seven a.m. My husband is a little shocked that he is solo with Kira’s morning school routine. (Thank you Honey.) It is worth it because I am getting to know these exceptional young riders in a meaningful way and hopefully helping them improve their health. I believe wholeheartedly that riders who give their fitness  priority will serve their horse better, and be more effective in the saddle.

I am not training them to become the next crossfit champions. I don’t think it matters much if they lose weight, gain weight or develop visible definition. We don’t get on scales or take body measurements. We do time our one mile runs and check our heart rates. I do think it’s vital that they feel more relaxed, playful, flexible, centered emotionally, cognitively quiet, and overall energized.  I want them self-aware of their body as it moves in space and with the horse. They absolutely will be stronger in their core and improve their riding position.  If an equestrian feels healthy they connect with the horse in a positive way. Feeling strong and energized builds confidence. Confidence is the equestrian oxygen.

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Benson hates to be left out of the fun.

I ask them to hold their physical fitness participation at the same standard as they hold their horses. Be prompt, quick, attentive and hard working. Some have realized they ask a lot of their horse and aren’t quite as willing to match the ranking. That will change. I have them six mornings a week for an hour, and there’s no escaping my program. Many of them are giving it all they have and seeing great improvements already.

We are using a variety of activity in the fitness classes to prevent injury and keep it fun and interesting. Playfulness reduces stress and increases positive thinking and emotions.  We only run a couple times a week. We do circuits for strength exercises. We hoola hoop to increase suppleness in the hips. We jump rope several times a week to improve coordination and cardiovascular fitness. We hand walk the horses for half an hour with high energy walks and trots. I am teaching them a series of core exercises that have tremendously improved my riding position. I am giving them a short yoga routine they can do before riding and especially during showing. It’s helpful to get the blood flowing, stretch and engage all the muscles of the body in a way that is energizing yet calming for the mind to quiet the nerves. We take our dressage tests and we walk, trot, and canter on our own feet in the sixty meter arena. I ask them to visualize their perfect ride first, then they run it to practice accuracy with the geometry. We had a snowball fight using the wrong throwing arm to practice ambidexterity. It is fair if we ask our horse to canter equally in both directions that we should also know what it feels like to have to develop skill on a weaker side of the body.

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It’s surprising how many of these young athletes have aches and pains in their bodies. If they are asked to work through it, I remind them our horses have these same aches and we push them through as well. In fact, we use the whip when they are not prompt to our request. Perhaps we should tune in more carefully to how our horse can work in a way that doesn’t cause aches but instead gradually increase the work load so they can grow strong rather than get hurt. I know what it feels like to be stiff in my joints because I am getting older.  I definitely have more sensitivity for my nineteen-year-old Hanoverian who appreciates a long brisk walk before having to pick up the trot. I plan my day to be sure I arrive early enough to give him that walk. If he is a good boy in twenty minutes of decent work why would I drill him for another half hour? I won’t because I’m more interested in his soundness than my practice.

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One cold morning we hand walked the horses for 30 minutes.

We had an interesting lesson about feeling tired and having to perform. Last week after their break when they felt fresh and for the first part of the work out I asked them to run their best mile and they all improved their time. This week I had them time their mile at the end of the week and after we already did some hard work in that session. Most of them did not improve their running time. I pointed out that often we work our horse really hard and then we put them in a show and expect him to give us their best score. It’s good to make it personal for the riders so they can have more compassion and insight into what we are asking of their horses.

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We talk a lot about form and getting it correct so the exercise has the desired effect. Going through the motions is useless. It’s a lot like going through dressage movements without having quality in the gaits, not that impressive. Everything we do in fitness should improve our riding posture and strengthen our core. Those elegant, floating, rider-horse pairs that we admire do not dismiss the value of fitness.

I am helping them all improve flexibility  for riding. A rigid rider cannot create a lovely supple flowing horse. Stretching is painful but over time progress can be achieved. A year ago Jack could not touch his toes but now he can almost get his whole hand on the floor with straight legs. Flexibility will also help prevent injury. If a horse ducks and twists quickly and throws the rider out of position it could pull a muscle. But if you are flexible, you are more likely to go with the horse and be fine.

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It’s actually very hard to throw with the wrong arm! The game got very aggressive when I said they could play with their true throwing arm.

We are also working with exercises that practice balance. They are all very good at balance exercises and this doesn’t surprise me. Anyone who can keep level hands, relaxed long legs, and a steady torso on a big moving horse has talent for balance. We practice it anyway. It is balance that keeps us on the horse, not strength.

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Love the teamwork! Everyone encourages those who try hard and push for a good finish.

There are regular exercisers who are actually too strong for riding. Nick Handy, our trainer at home, sees a trend in all of his riders who exercise regularly: they get too strong with the horse and actually block his ability to move freely. I am in that guilty group. A key component to riding well and communicating clearly with the horse is the relaxation/rest phase of a contraction. If we stay tight the horse becomes tense and confused. He is looking for our body to melt into his to know he is doing his job right. So we practice the sensation of knowing how to not contract a muscle while holding our position. We isolate muscles to contract, or influence the horse, and then make sure we totally release it. For strong people the hard part is doing nothing! But it is the most important part of riding well. We have to train our mind to know what relaxed feels like, and train our courage to trust the horse if we give him that vulnerability.

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It is actually FUN to jog with our horses!

A side effect of dressage is the serious monster who shuts the door against all fun and playfulness producing fierce hard to please humans. This riding discipline attracts the type of people who tend to be demanding, perfectionistic, and controlling. I personally think that being too serious is detrimental to riding well. We need to have rules, be clear and consistent with our horse, but we absolutely must find a way to be playful and emotionally neutral while riding him. So, I want everyone to laugh a lot and have a good time. Exercise is a great release valve for stress and we should use it to make sure we aren’t bringing our stress to our horse. He deserves better than our scary serious selves. He deserves our most alert and playful self-aware approach to interacting with him.

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I hope these young riders learn valuable tools in fitness that they will continue to use when the season is finished to improve their relationship with their horse, their quality of riding, and performance in the arena. I will be so pleased to hear reports that they are running their test before shows, jumping rope, doing yoga and using their core workouts long after Wellington is a memory.