Saturday, April 26, 2008

Summer Camp

With summer just around the corner, it is a great time to be thinking about horse camp! Kids of all ages enjoy spending the summer around horses. When I was a child, I attended many camps with horses, and I learned a lot about discipline, safety, and hard work. Most horse camps have about ten to fourteen kids per week, and there are usually two to three qualified instructors.

Some of the things taught in horse camp are grooming, riding, bareback, games, and safety. One of the kid's favorite things to do is bathe the horses. The horses usually enjoy this process too because it cools them off after a long ride. The games on horseback include capture the flag, four corners, and simon says. The games build teamwork skills among the kids and also provide a break from the hard work of lessons.

At the end of camp, there is usually an in-barn horse show for the parents to see the progress that the kids have made during the week. The kids like to dress the horses up for the show, and it is often an exciting and creative event.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Most of my equestrian experience involves jumping, but there is another style of English riding that deserves recognition. The type of riding that I am referring to is called dressage. The essential purpose of dressage is to develop a horse's natural athletic ability and willingness to perform. This process involves a high degree of dedication and training methods between a horse, rider, and trainer. Dressage is sometimes called horse ballet. A perfect dressage horse appears relaxed and effortless while responding to the rider with amazing finesse and grace.

The video that is included in this post is absolutely breathtaking. Make sure to watch it with the sound turned on. Even though it appears that the rider is not doing anything, I assure you he is performing dozens of slight and invisible commands to his horse. A few of the ways that he is communicating to his horse include: a small amount of leg pressure encouraging the horse to move a certain way, a shift in his weight causing the horse to bend, and a steady pull on the rein allowing the horse to change his gait in an instant.

Watch this video and be amazed...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Learning to Canter

Everyone that rides horses likes to go fast. The feeling of speed while on the back of a horse is exhilarating and rewarding. The equestrian term for running is cantering. Cantering is a three beat gait, meaning the hooves hit the ground three consecutive and quick times with each stride that the horse takes. A canter is the same gait as a gallop, only it is not as fast. The walk and trot are four beat gaits, meaning the hooves each hit the ground separately with each stride.

Learning to canter can be challenging at first, but it is something that everyone can learn with practice and good coaching. I do not recommend cantering for the beginner, but if a student has mastered the basics of walking and trotting, it is safe to advance to this quick and exciting gait. It is important that the horse is well-trained at the canter before deciding to teach a novice how to proceed.

The horse and rider should start from a halted position. The reins should be fairly tight, and the rider should make sure his weight is in his heels before asking the horse to canter. If a rider has most of his weight in his seat, rather than his heels, he is merely sitting on top of the horse. It is important that his legs are wrapped around the horse snugly. This style of riding is the safest because it protects the rider from losing his balance during the transition from halt to canter.

In order to canter, the rider should bring his outside leg back so that it is slightly behind the girth, and he should then squeeze the horse with both of his legs. The horse should begin to canter. Some horses are lazier than others and may need a little kick before moving into the canter. The rider should sit in the saddle and let his body move gently with the horse. The canter feels similar to a rocking chair motion, and it is the easiest of all gaits to maintain rhythm and consistency.

When the rider wants the horse to stop, he should sit back, pull the reins, and say "whoa." This technique is the basic for cantering and stopping. Many students advance quickly at this point in their training, and they can hardly wait to gallop after feeling the thrill of speed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Joy of Teaching

The experience of teaching includes a wide range of clients and skill levels. While I enjoy teaching more advanced riders how to jump and accomplish more challenging tasks, it is just as rewarding to teach a new student the basics of riding.

Seemingly, I invited a friend of mine, Ross, to go horseback riding a few weeks ago. He had never been on a horse, and he was eager to give it a try. He claimed to be slightly nervous and hesitant around the giant beasts, but he remained calm and focused. I put Ross on Legend, a black and white Quarter Horse. Legend is a wonderful horse who is very trained and eager to please his riders.

After only a few minutes of coaching Ross on the basics of steering, stopping, and getting the horse to move forward, we adventured out into the woods. It was a gorgeous day, and the woods were full of Spring life! We crossed through a deep creek and rode up the embankment and entered a world full of trails and fun. We ducked under trees, trotted over logs, and cantered across open plains. It reminded me of childhood, innocent and free.

The reward of sharing my equestrian knowledge with an inexperienced beginner was truly great. Sometimes, I forget just how invigorating and special horseback riding is. Ross expressed adoring gratitude towards Legend. After so many years around horses, it is easy for me to take them for granted, yet it is indeed a privilege to be atop these magnificent creatures without a care in the world.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Horse Shows

Horse shows can be fun and exciting, but they are not for everyone. Some equestrians thrive on the challenge and the pressure to ride well in a competitive environment, while others cringe at the thought of riding in front of a judge. For me, horse shows were an integral part of my equestrian background. I lived and breathed for my weekend horse shows.

In between the ages of 14 and 21, I participated in over 100 shows. It was definitely a way of life. I graduated high school early and became a working student in order to pay for the high expenses of this "rich man's sport." I rode 6 or 7 horses everyday and cleaned thirty stall daily just to pay for my lessons and show fees. In Georgia, I primarily showed with the organization, GHJA. It stands for Georgia Hunter Jumper Association. Click on the link view the GHJA website.

In Georgia, I won Equitation Year End Champion 3 years in a row. I also won Children's Year End Hunter Champion 2 years and High Jumper Year End Reserve Champion. Year End means the total number of points you have accumulated over the entire year. Each place (1st - 6th) is worth a certain number of points, and at the end of the year the rider with the most points for each division is entitled an award. In GHJA, my favorite award was the Year End Sportsmanship Award. It is only for riders between the ages of 15 -17, and you have to be nominated and then voted on by your peers and competitors. It is a great honor. I was fortunate enough to win this award my last year as a junior rider at the age of 17. It is a wonderful memory.

On a national level, I competed with AHSA. This stands for American Horse Show Association, but it is now called USEF, United States Equestrian Federation. Check out this link view their website. I competed nationally because I was trying to qualify for the Maclay Medal Finals in Madison Square Garden. This is an annual and prestigious event held for riders between the ages of 15 -17. Since I do not come from a wealthy family, it was very difficult for my trainer and I to attend a lot of these expensive shows. These shows are called "A" shows. They are extremely competitive, political, and challenging. An average A show usually costs between $500 and $900 dollars. That said, I was only able to go to five A shows my last year as a junior rider.

I traveled to Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida to compete with ASHA. I always did very well and usually won all or most of my classes. I was blessed with an amazing trainer and a fantastic horse! Most of my competitors showed in A shows every weekend and rode six figure horses. My trainer and I would show up late because I couldn't afford to pay for stabling all week, and I would watch the show and get nervous with anticipation. It was a great feeling to be able to win against these very privileged riders. The horse that I showed was an X-racehorse. My trainer, Sharon, bought him off the track when he was three for $500 dollars! She trained him herself, and he became an amazing and talented show jumper.

I didn't qualify for Nationals; I got third at Regionals out of 44 riders. Only the top two riders got to New York for the finals. I was sad at the time, but in hindsight, I feel blessed to have had such a wonderful experience in my life. Horse shows taught me the rewards of hard work and discipline. With enough determination and focus, there is nothing to get in the way of one's dreams.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Trail Safety

There are many different styles of horseback riding. Many equestrians enjoy trail riding because it is adventurous and exciting. It is a way to escape the hard work of riding in a ring, practicing for a horse show, or taking lessons. Trail riding is good for horses too because it is an escape from the routine ring work. Many Olympic level horses are on intense training programs that involve a day of trail riding. It allows the horse and rider to clear their heads and enjoy freedom and exhilaration. The feeling of galloping a horse through the woods is indeed wonderful.

However, trail riding can be dangerous since the horse and rider are not in a confined area. Important safety tips include wearing a helmet, being alert for approaching people or dogs, and riding a horse you trust. Especially if riding with a group of people it is essential to be cautious. If something scares one of the horses, such as a barking dog or a falling branch, many times all of the horses will sense the fear, and this can cause them to run. It is the fight or flight instinct of the herd. A galloping herd of horses can be difficult to control and stop, even for the most advanced riders. Check out this link for more information on trail safety .

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Horse Talk

Training horses can be difficult and challenging, yet I love the process of developing trust and communication with these giant beasts. I had an experience a few months ago that is well worth sharing. The horse in training was an older buckskin named Cisco. Buckskin refers to the color of the horse. It is a creamy color with black legs and mane and tail. He is named after the horse in Dances With Wolves.

While most horses in training are young, Cisco is about fifteen. This age is not that old for a horse, but he is definitely set in his ways. Even though younger horses are often more spirited, they are sometimes easier to train than older, wiser horses. Cisco was a new addition to our barn, and the previous owner said that he had been ridden a few times, but was still not very broke. This turned out to be quite the understatement.

On this particular day, I was teaching a lesson to a group of beginners while Rusty and Pam were attempting to ride Cisco. They manage to get the saddle on him, but he is refusing the bit. The bit is probably the most important part of tacking up a horse. The bit goes in their mouth and enables the rider to have control and communication. Rusty begins to get frustrated because Cisco is not behaving. When horses are confused they often get scared. This fear causes them to buck, kick, rear, or even bite. Trained horses very rarely, if ever, act this way towards humans. Cisco, however, had begun to sweat and was trying to run in circles. Rusty tied Cisco to a tree, hoping he would calm down. He continued to paw out at the air and neigh very loudly. There were several people watching and wondering what would happen next.

I finished teaching my lesson and walked over to Cisco. He jerked his head up and looked at me with wide eyes. I untied him from the tree and walked him to the middle of the field we were in. I had the bridle in my hands. I slowly reached my hand over his ears and tried to get the bit in his mouth. He jerked his head up so fast that both of my feet came off the ground! I knew what to try next: twitching. Twitching means to grab a horse's ear and gently, yet firmly, twist it and hold it. It doesn't hurt the horse, but it calms them. It releases endorphins and relaxes them into submission. It is very similar to a mother cat who picks her kittens up by the scruff of their neck, causing them to go limp. I had to have Rusty hold his ear while I attempted to get the bit in his mouth. It worked!

Next, I had to try and get on Cisco. He was prancing around and still neighing very loudly. I decided to lunge him to get some of his energy out. Lunging means to let the horse run in large circles around you by attaching a long rope to the bridle. Cisco was not very good at this, and I had to keep trying over and over again for him to understand. He kept looking at me with that wild eyed look of panic. If he could talk, he would have said, "I am so confused. What am I supposed to do?" Finally, he got the idea and began to lunge correctly.

I took the lead off of him, and put my left foot in the stirrup very slowly. Just as I attempted to swing my right leg over, he reared straight up in the air. I managed to get my foot out of the stirrup. We repeated this several times. He continued to get frustrated as I did. I stopped and took a deep breath. I knew something had to give or we would make no progress. I walked over to Cisco, and I looked right at him. I put my hand on his head and began to talk to him very softly. He looked wary at first, but then he turned his head and looked right back at me. As I continued to stroke him, he slowly lost the wild-eyed look. I squatted down to the
ground, and he lowered his head towards me. I felt hopeful.

There is a horse term called "Joining Up." Joining up is a natural approach to training horses. Basically, it is when the horse finally realizes that you are in control and also understands that he needs you to be in control. It is similar to becoming the pack leader in a group of dogs or in a herd of wild horses. The horse undergoes an enlightening moment of trust, and he will do anything that you want him to. I, personally, had very little experiences with this concept, but I could tell that I was very close to making this happen with Cisco.

I stood up from the ground, and he didn't move a muscle. I put my left foot in the saddle, and I swung my right leg over. I was in the saddle! Cisco tensed up, but he didn't move. I got right off and gave him lots of praise. Then I got back on and off several times, ensuring that we had made progress. I got off of him and let go of the reins and started walking away from him. He followed me! When I turned, he turned. If I stopped, he stopped. It was amazing. I got back on him, and I rode him around for several minutes, practicing stopping and turning. I even layed across the saddle, and he stood perfectly still.

I have ridden horses for many years, and this experience was one of the greatest equine moments of my life. To see a horse like Cisco undergo such an intense change in less than an hour, was a sight to behold. He was truly like a different horse. It reminded me about the beauty of communication and loyalty between animals and humans. As soon as Cisco understood what I wanted, not only did he comply, but he transformed into a loyal and loving friend.