Sacrificial Lambs

There is a new training horse at the Pennsylvania Riding Academy and while his owner was spending time grooming we chatted about their journey so far. She mentioned that she thinks dressage will be good for her gelding. She hopes that dressage will be good for her gelding because she’s exhausted all other options; all that’s left is western pleasure and her OTTB doesn’t seem like he would enjoy going around a ring at a funeral march lope. She then disclosed she hopes she is doing right by him, or at least not screwing him up.

I quickly looked up from my work and I said “Oh, they are all sacrificial lambs in their own way. Which is a tough pill to swallow but we screw them up no matter how hard we try to be perfect. I don’t even want to think of all the things I have ruined for Kelso in the 8 years I have had him.”

Kelso has been subject to me learning everything on him, and this is why he has been dubbed the Wonder Pony. For every thing I have ruined and then had to fix again, it’s amazing he doesn’t need medication. He seems to look at me sometimes and say “Even though we have been doing it the exact opposite way for the last 389 days, I am game to do it this way today if you ask, mom.” There are things I have broken that I don’t even know need fixing, and there are other things that I know I let slide. Like him being a treat fiend.

I have created a treat monster but this seems to be my penance. “Kelso, remember that one time I wanted your flying changes at Liberty so badly that I broke them and they moved across the pond for a bit? *cringes* Here’s a cookie.” [Rose once commented on how she has never seen a horse who transforms into a look-alike plush toy immediately upon hearing the crinkle of a treat bag. It’s one of his many talents.]

If I start thinking too much of all the things my partner in crime has had to endure on our journey, it’s easy to work myself into a guilt ridden inner monologue. As hard as it is to stop myself, I have to gently remind myself that nobody is perfect + we are trying our best. We sure are lucky they are so forgiving. I do try to comfort myself with the knowledge that Kelso will still trot up to me in the pasture or spend hours by my side grazing. Sans cookies. Okay…maybe a few cookies.

To add to the list of things Kelso has had to figure out while I also learn them myself are flying changes. We have officially begun to try to get flying changes in our lessons with Paul, instead of just “seeing what will happen.”

Kelso and I have had quite the journey with F.Cs. While on our Parelli journey, we worked with no fewer than 4 different instructors to get the elusive flying change of leg. We were able to get them running around bareback and hopping over a pole, but as soon as I would put a bridle on him, we would freeze. We had every prerequisite and tried every exercise. He would get so worked up and I would get so frustrated that I couldn’t “get it” that I finally laid them to rest. I am happy to report they have rose from the dead.

I added a video of most of our trot work during our lesson this week, and the preview to the lesson is our first ever documented flying lead change! At first, which you will see in the video, we tried getting flying changes by really collecting his canter on the long side, so he would get so boxed up that he would be uncomfortable enough to change. We then graduated from this exercise when he would tease me with just switching his hind end {You can hear Paul tell me “Yes! Just Kidding!” multiple times in the video.} We then started to counter canter on the long side, then come across the ring in a Figure-8-like pattern; I would again box him up to encourage him to switch to his true lead and continue so that lead remained on the inside. So, if I started on the right counter canter lead, I would come across the middle and switch to the left and continue going to the left.

I would not explicitly give him any aids to switch leads because in the beginning when they don’t understand lead changes this can just cause them to become anxious. Instead, I lightly switch my hips and follow his movement over, and focus on keeping his shoulders and neck straight so he doesn’t switch only in front.

This was the first day of doing this exercise, and the next day we got four more clean flying changes. It seems that left to right is easier right now, but the jury is still out on that since they are so new that it could easily be the other way around in the next couple of days.

I have to keep pinching myself when I think of how far Kelso has brought me. While he might be my sacrificial lamb, he is also my best friend. For this, and everything else he has given and taught me, I will be forever be in his debt. Which I plan to pay off in cookies.

Off to go buy more treats and practice flying…..changes,

Erin and The Wonder Pony

Week Seven Trivia Answer: The first competition to have Arena Markers were the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Their root is not known, but my favorite story that I have heard is that in ancient Greece, the dressage letters were instead different animal heads where you would have to perform certain movements. B for Boar’s Head, A for Ape, etc….

Week Eight Trivia: In Gueriniere’s Book, School of Horsemanship, he talks a lot about different ailments of the horse and his remedies; can you guess what any of his treatments involved? Let’s just say, I am happy we have modern science.




The White Buffalo

The White Buffalo: a sacred Native American symbol that signifies abundance. The animal itself is rare and held in the highest respect. 

The White Buffalo in Dressage: The Half-Halt. An abundance of uses in the saddle and of definitions; every dressage rider has their own, very right, and very strong opinion on what a half-halt is and what it is not. Every god-fearing rider respects the sacred half-halt. (Thanks, Julie, for the inspiration for the title!)

A few weeks ago, during a break in a lesson with Paul, I asked how he describes a half-halt. After talking with him, I was driven to collect more opinions on the most important commingling of a rider’s aids. This commingling makes it one of the hardest concepts to grasp, learn and teach. This blog post is not meant to tell you what a half-halt absolutely is. If I have learned anything in this search for an answer, it is that there is not a clear one. At its most basic, a half-halt is simply whatever you need it to be. [Helpful, right? I aim to please.]

Read a single dressage theory book or watch a film and it is an unavoidable phrase. To new and old riders alike, though, it is one that is riddled with questions. Am I half-stopping? And how does one half-stop? There are a million opinions on The Big Double H, but most agree that is not aptly named.

One of the most debilitating side effects of the name ‘Half-Halt’ is that it can paint the picture of pulling to fix your horse. In Paul’s book, Riding Towards the Light, he states, “In true dressage the hands only work at refining the edges, adjusting something that is already relatively in balance. They can never by themselves put the horse back into balance, any more than a person can pull [a] seesaw back up to an equilibrium if the balance is tipped off center.”

Leah Nelson, a USDF Certified Trainer, Owner of Sweetwater Equestrian, and Treasured Friend/Mentor, echoed how the name can mislead riders to “intuitively misinterpret the term half-halt when they first hear it because it sounds more like slowing down than shifting balance.” This rebalancing is the core idea of the half-halt.

During my lesson, Paul told me that a half-halt is an aid that is used to do exactly that or prepare your horse for your next movement. It can be on one or two reins, and will differ in the weight of the aid. We agreed it is ambiguous; a German Grand Prix Man’s half-halt will be significantly different than a Young Rider trotting down the Centerline at First Level, but they are the same at the core. There are a million half-halts and there are a million degrees of half-halts. Leah Nelson shared this idea when she said “Each horse, in each moment, at each level of training may require something a little different.”

I am incredibly lucky to have so many talented trainers to learn from + discuss ideas with, including Andrea Velas. She also describes a half-halt as a rebalancing, and that it should never disrupt the rhythm of the horse or the rider. If you disrupt the rhythm, you are doing it wrong. We then talked about how she teaches a half-halt to a new rider. She will begin with doing walk-trot and trot-walk transitions and then begin to turn them into trot-pauses; the horse will not completely stop. This teaches the rider to begin thinking about what the hind legs are doing, which is imperative in the half-halt. You are not fixing or stopping the front end, you are adjusting the whole horse.

Julie Davies Pagel, owner of Full Sail Farm, Bad A$$ Pony Club Advocate, and a horsewoman I truly look up to, similarly teaches half-halts. She “tends to break down the concept like this: teach a correct halt from the walk. Leg and seat “on”, stretch up tall (think knitting the lower abs to the upper abs-brings the pelvis slightly under) while closing the hand. Softening when the horse halts. Then start the halt process but before the horse actually halts, soften the aids and drive forward again. Think of it as a “not-halt”. This can progress to trot-walk, trot-not-walk too. As the riders skills develop, the whole process is compressed.”

It would be inappropriate to discuss half-halts without discussing the most important part of them; the release. Paul writes in Riding Toward the Light that, “If the driving aids/or the restraining aids are applied to shift the centre of balance back further, they must be released the split second the rebalancing occurs.”

Leah Nelson echoes this when she says “The bottom line is that the half-halt has the effect of rebalancing the horse more onto the hind legs and that if your half-halt doesn’t include a release and a driving aid, you’re doing it wrong. The rider should feel increased control, attention or ‘state of readiness’, and ease in the contact after a successful half-halt. It’s important to keep in mind that every half-halt may not work and no half-halt lasts forever.” If there is no release in your half-halt, you will simply be holding your horse up, and the adjustability of your dance partner will quickly disappear.

Half-Halts are incredibly difficult to learn/explain/put in a box. When I was discussing this White Buffalo with Paul, I said there are times when Half-Halts simply translate into “Do something.” The trainer on the ground can’t talk fast enough to say that you need to half-halt on the left rein which might need to be mirrored by a two-rein half-halt all in the span of 8 seconds. This has driven us to adopt a catch-all phrase. This also makes it something that you have to learn by just riding. Feel cannot be taught, but before you know it, whatever degree or kind of half-halt needs to be done will become intuitive.

Julie Davies Pagel talked about how they are difficult to learn when you don’t have the opportunity to ride a well-trained Schoolmaster to develop an independent seat. Many people aren’t thrilled, either, with spending months on a lunge line to develop this skill. But, “if you struggle to sit in the saddle in balance, you grip with your legs to keep you in the saddle or balance on the reins-explaining an aid like the half-halt is either impossible to perform or will just sound like noise to the greener horse that really doesn’t understand it anyway. So, what we often have are riders trying to develop independent aids while teaching a greener horse how to go around without falling on his face, running you into the wall, or burying you into the ground.” To these riders who are training themselves and their horses at the same time, I urge you to take every opportunity you have to ride a well-trained horse + to keep your chin up during the journey of dressage. And I remind you: we have all cried in the bathroom/truck/saddle.

The White Buffalo of Dressage will remain just that; The Half-Halt is a sacred and well-respected art form in itself, and one that can quickly be lost or muddied. You can’t look too hard for it, or else you will never find it. Instead, it is something that must be learned by spending hours in the saddle. It does help, though, to have great horse people around you to talk about its greatness.

A sincere thanks to everyone who helped contribute to this blog post. You have all had a major impact on my riding career, and for this the WP and I thank you.

Off to go practice my half-halts,

Erin and The Wonder Pony

If you want more literature on the half halt, this is a great article from USDF. Thanks, Leah, for the tip!

Week Seven Question: When were the Dressage Letters of today first introduced in competition?

Week Six Trivia Answer: There is a really great video by Paul about this, but a Half-Pass is not the same as a Haunches-In on the diagonal because of the bend and the action of the front legs. In a Haunches-In, you want the front legs to remain pointed straight with no crossing action and the forehead of the horse pointing to the wall you are riding towards. In a Half-Pass, the horse’s neck will not remain straight as there is a bend to the direction they are traveling, and the front legs are crossing over one another.

A Day in the Life

When I first arrived at the Pennsylvania Riding Academy, the day when everything became second nature could not come soon enough. It was incredibly overwhelming at first, but now sitting at the three month mark, I feel like I know what I am doing about half the time 😉

Our day starts at 7:00 AM, when we feed grain and do the first turnout set. There are four turnout paddocks that 12 horses are rotated through every 3 hours. There are also two pastures that house horses overnight; they are brought in and two other horses are put out. Additionally, two other horses are brought in from the farthest back fields.

From here, we begin cleaning the barn. The barn manager and one of the hardest working people I have ever met, Nikki, and I alternate days doing water and cleaning stalls. Everyday we dump the water buckets in the stalls and refill them. While one of us does this, the other begins cleaning the 15 stall barn. When these tasks are completed, we sweep the barn, make the grain for the PM shift and refill the hay pallet in the back of the barn.

We typically finish the barn around 9 AM. On full riding days [Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday] we are also in charge of tacking and untacking horses for Paul and Andrea. I can now proudly say I can groom and tack up a horse in 10 or 15 minutes.

Tacking up a horse includes the typical curry combing, brushing and picking feet. There is also the unusual step of hair-spraying their mane; this helps their mane lay flat throughout the ride. [And makes them look and feel fabulous. Or so Kelso has told me.] Some horses get two polos while others get four, which depends on their level of work. Every bridle and saddle is cleaned at the end of the day, and each saddle pad and set of polos is washed after every use. We roll more polos than I care to count…

I ride four times a week around 11 AM, and am able to watch one set a day of either training horse rides or a lesson. The days can be long, but the weeks fly by. This is my first true exposure to a full-training dressage barn, and I often have to pinch myself to make sure I am actually living this dream and not just dreaming it.

Off to go live my dream and muck some stalls,

Erin and the WP


This week, we are going to take a break from trivia, so check back next week for the answer to last week’s question. Even better, check out the link below and like the page!

One of my oldest horse friends is participating in the Trainer Challenge of the Unwanted Horse for the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation. This challenge holds a huge space in my heart as it is what Kelso completed during his time at MHARF. It is an incredible organization that is helping to give homes to horses and other hooved creatures. I owe them the world for giving me Kelso.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

While practicing my half-steps in-hand this week, I told Paul that Kelso and I were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Paul smirked and said that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, as the tunnel doesn’t end. Ironic for the guy that published a book titled Riding Towards the Light to say there was no light, huh? 😉

This conversation got me thinking. While there might not be an end to the tunnel in the sense that you can always improve, it is imperative to always have a little candle you are riding (or crawling, at times) towards. When you hit that little bit of light, take a moment to bask in the glory.  If we aren’t looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, what are we riding towards? And if we don’t take a moment to enjoy the glory of our goal, no matter how big or small, when will we be happy with our progress?

There is a quotation by John Lyons that states “Only two emotions belong in the saddle. One is a sense of humor and the other is patience.” I am adding to this. Gratefulness. Be grateful for the little things that come unexpectedly and the ones you worked your [imaginary] shadbelly tails off for. Be grateful for getting that medal you have been working towards for months or years. Be grateful that there is alway something to work on, and that there is always something that is improving.  (Even if you don’t feel like there is.)

Each tunnel has candles on the way to a few moments in the sun before you jump right back into the darkness. On the way to the end of the tunnel to getting a Bronze Medal, there are candles at points of getting your horse on the bit, learning to sit the trot, perfecting your walk pirouettes and lateral movements, and figuring out flying changes. When you do emerge from what can be a dark tunnel, you can be blindsided by the fact you made it. Be grateful you made it through then pick a new tunnel to go down.

The big tunnel that Kelso and I are hoping to get to the end of is getting both my USDF Bronze Medal and Bronze Freestyle Bar. This week, we had a pretty big candle moment that has us jazzed for this future. Near the end of my lesson Paul told me we were going to experiment. Kelso and I have figured pretty much everything out as the result of an experiment so we were pretty excited to hear those words. [Paul informed me this week that he usually doesn’t have interns practicing half-steps so quickly, but he saw that I was getting bored and he was scared of what I would make up on my own, so he gave me something to do. I plead the fifth but I will say Kelso and I were playing with rearing and spanish walk before we came.]

The experiment turned out to be experimenting with Flying Changes; our counter canter is solid and adjustable from extended to collected canter, so we are able to start with introducing the Big F.C’s. I still can’t quite believe that the WP and I have been deemed fit to start down this tunnel, but we are excited all the same!

The exercise that Paul had us do was to pick up counter canter on the long side, and then bunch his canter up approaching the corner. I was not to push him over with my legs, and I was only instructed to lightly encourage him with switching my hips. My main objective was to keep him straight in front so that he wanted to change in his hind end before, or at the same time, as changing in his front. It can be pretty common for horses to only switch the front without switching the hind, which is what we were trying to avoid with keeping him straight + changes must be straight. The bunching up before the corner would load his hind end up to make him uncomfortable enough to switch. I am proud to report that Kelso got a couple of flying changes. More importantly, he didn’t lose his mind when I asked so much of him!

I am blessed with how many moments in the sun Kelso has given me, and I am thrilled with the light he gave me this week.

Off to bask in flying change and half-step sunlight,

Erin and The Wonder Pony

Trivia Answer from Week Five: Colonel Podhajsky gave General Patton’s Widow Red and White Carnations to honor her late husband. General Patton gave the United States troops orders to protect and help move the Lipizzaners during the Second World War, ultimately helping to maintain the historic Spanish Riding School.

Trivia Question for Week Six: Half-pass is often incorrectly said to just be haunches-in off the wall. Why is this incorrect? (This is definitely more theory than fact based; it is something that I studied in the past couple weeks that got my gears spinning, and I hope it makes you think, too!)

The Battlefield

Sometimes, riding isn’t pretty. While the life of being an equestrian is glamourous at its core (har har), this glamour doesn’t always leak into the 45 minute sessions of the battlefield  arena.

This week, Kelso and I had a ride. We all know them. We have all had them. We try to avoid them, but they can sneak into our training despite our best efforts. They often have a focal point of one issue that leaks into everything. Maybe your horse won’t half-pass to the left just because it’s windy/it’s not windy/he doesn’t want to, even though that’s his easier side. This can then turn into a melt down and now you can’t even turn left. Or maybe your hot rod won’t even go forward when you usually can’t stop him until you canter for 15 minutes straight. These rides can make us question when/if it was ever good, make us feel like maybe we should quit altogether and take up a profession/hobby where your coworker won’t flip you off in the form of a buck when you touch them with your right leg. (I have never held a job outside of a barn, but I feel it would be ill advised to touch your coworker in any way with your leg in normal work environments.)

I would love to say that all rides I have are great, I always know when to push my horse and when to stop, and Kelso always yields to whatever aids I give him. If this were the case, sign us up for the next Olympics. It’s a tough post to write, but it’s important for me to stand in solidarity with all the riders who have had tough rides. So, all riders.

The theme of this ride was that Kelso decided my right leg didn’t mean anything. It started out calm and yielding in our lateral work. That’s the thing about these rides; you never see them coming, then all of the sudden you’re in the middle of convincing your horse that your right leg does indeed work and does indeed still mean move over. After getting up to the canter on the circle, he continued to switch his left lead to the right in his hind end when I asked him to shorten his canter and add weight to his hindquarters. This would happen even if he were on a mini travers on the circle, despite this being his easier and favored side. Once he remembered he couldn’t blow through the outside leg, we moved on to our lateral work on the canter.

It seemed innocuous at first. He was once again yielding and cantering like his normal self. We did a nice demi-volt to the right and he was a rock star, and on his weaker side, too! Then our world fell apart in the left lead. We, again, didn’t want to keep our hind lead when we came off the wall for the demi-volt. I began with the full demi-volts to try to work through it. When it was evident this was not going to work, I tried to simply come off the wall without switching the hind lead. No luck. I went back to lateral work to fix it and then tried to return to a baby demi-volt and it was the same problem.

At this point, Kelso was tense and I was sick of getting after him for blowing through my leg which resulted in his leads switching. We fed into each other and it just kept getting worse. At one point I looked at Paul and I said “Learning how to get along with a horse and yourself while moving up the dressage levels can teach you to get along with anyone.” Kelso and I have been together for almost 8 years, and we act like an old married couple, in both good and bad ways.

Paul was thankfully and sadly in the arena to see our meltdown. Sadly because he saw us at our ugliest, but thankfully because he was there to give some of his sage advice. Paul reminded me that him switching leads was a sign of tension and to return to something that he knew. This led to discussing the fine line of working through it or letting it go. This ride was a battle because Kelso would be fine in other moves like shoulder-in and travers in canter, but then fall apart in the demi volt, no matter how simple I tried to make it. There seemed to be no middle ground.

Sometimes, on a particular day, a particular movement isn’t going to happen, even though it has been happening for the last two weeks. Other times, you do have to go to battle and do it 30 times to help them lose the tension and anxiety around it. We have to remember that while the horse has to be obedient, these moves are still tough. There will be days where they take everything new and old in stride, and other days where they mentally, physically or emotionally cannot understand or execute the simplest request. [We can be the same way!] Half the battle is deciding whether pushing the nerves will lead to a break through or a break down.  Nuno Oliveira said “a lot of riders know inside rein, outside rein, but they do not know how to work all those degrees between nerves and relaxation.”

That ride ended with me hanging up the demi-volt chaps, asking Kelso for forgiveness even more than I usually do (my poor sacrificial lamb), and practicing a simple travers on the circle at the walk. We weren’t on the same page that day, and the line of nerves and relaxation was too blurry for us to decipher. But sometimes the rides that seem to go nowhere, or even backwards, teach you more than the rides that are nearly perfect. This ride gave me a lot to lick and chew on, and more tools than I would have gotten from smooth sailing.

This ride was thankfully after our weekly lesson, and our weekly lesson was on a completely different planet. The biggest thing we focused on was our in-hand work. Kelso and I have been playing with half-steps, and I think we both “got it” this week. He is understanding the idea of loading his haunches even more, and I am better at toying with his boundaries of nerves and relaxation. At least in that.

Off to go practice things we know like half-steps and think about maybe, possibly practicing demi-volts,

Erin and the one and only Wonder Pony

Week Four Trivia Question: On a tour of the United States, The Spanish Riding School of Vienna Lipizzaners visited Madison Square Garden in 1950. On this historic visit, Colonel Podhajsky gifted something to General Patton’s widow. Can you guess what it was and why?

Week Three Trivia Answer: Francois Baucher is credited for inventing one-tempi changes. He was a French riding master who worked as a circus horse trainer, and is also credited for the phrase of “hand without leg, leg without hand.”




Demigods and Demivolts

In the first week of my internship I was watching a lesson with a student who was working on demivolts, or a haunches in on a half-circle. Paul shared how it built on the haunches-in and similarly works to improve hindquarter strength and flexibility. I remember thinking “That looks so fun! I wonder when Kelso and I will be able to do it,” not actually thinking it would be anytime soon. I also giggled at thinking of the similarity of the words demivolt and demigod. [A demigod is a mortal or immortal who is born of a human and a god, like Hercules]

Only a few short months after our arrival, and my demigod creature of a horse is trying out demivolts. There is no accident in me finding the play in the words, and it was yet another week of me being humbled by how hard my little guy works for me and how athletic he is. I can’t say I would be surprised if he grew wings and lived forever as a sort of second-coming Pegasus. Except, in the true nature of gruesome Greek mythology, Pegasus was born out of Medusa’s neck;  we can skip that part.

The demivolt is ridden from a travers down the long side. The horse then keeps this travers in the half circle off the wall. It can then turn into a half pass to return to the wall; as it develops, it will get smaller and smaller, which requires more hindquarter strength and balance from the horse. As you can see in the video, ours starts out quite large, extending all the way to centerline. Our demivolt to the left is also much more balanced than the one to the right, and this is obvious when Kelso switches his right lead to the left lead when it gets tough. However, the fact he has enough hindquarter strength to attempt these is worlds of a difference from when we first arrived. We had a tough time even doing canter-walk transitions, then! This system is a simple (but not easy) one that actually works!

This system is also one that linearly and fairly builds on itself. In the beginning, Kelso and I focused on hindquarter strength with various lateral movements. While it might not seem obvious to how travers can one day lead to canter pirouettes, it linearly progresses from travers on the wall to travers on the circle which will get smaller and smaller to working and performance pirouettes. While it is easy to get lost in the million exercises that are out there, or quick fixes that will get you to the next movement in the next level, it can be often forgotten that the movements are in the tests for a reason. A shoulder-in is not just something that should be ridden to get a 7 or 8; it is a gymnastic movement that will strengthen and straighten your horse. It is this strength and straightness that is needed, in different doses, from training level to Grand Prix.

You can also see in the video that Kelso and I are still focusing on swinging his canter in order to loosen his back. He can get pretty tense and also evade the load of his weight when I ask him to carry more in his hindquarters. He does this by doing a small travers on the left lead, and he will sometimes swap his hind lead from right to left when we are going to the right. We are introducing more counter canter, and have also been riding simple changes along the wall every couple of strides. Our goal in the counter canter, which is discussed in the video, is to have Kelso relax into the corners; if he were to get tense, he would be more likely to break or switch leads. Paul also informed me that I can start asking for even more trot. Our lengthenings are lengthening again. 

Paul keeps bringing up The Big F’s (Flying Changes) more and more. There were a few times Kelso would switch by himself, and Paul is quick to reassure us that we will need them someday and it is nice to know they are in there. I will often joke about this, along with telling Paul that Kelso and I are going to hit the competition world and beat all the big warmbloods. He will smirk and say “Young Grasshopper, focus on riding well. The winning and moves will come with it.”

Hopping my way off to work on our demivolts,

Erin and the Wonder Pony

Week Three Trivia: Who is credited for inventing one-tempis?

Week Two Trivia Answer: The passage is also called the Spanischer Tritt at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.


Mind your Melon

Let’s talk about your head. Maybe it’s big, maybe it’s small. It might be full of hair, or missing the days it was. It has lots of good (and not-so-good) stuff in it. Whatever it contains and whatever it looks like, I promise you, we all have a couple things in common. First, it’s super important. Second, it’s not invincible.

In fact, it is pretty fragile. Add this fragility to the equation of being on the back of an unpredictable horse and you have a pretty daunting problem. However, I am here to tell you that there is a simple solution! A helmet! They come in all shapes, sizes and colors to fit all shapes, sizes, and colors.

The inspiration of this post came from two sources. This week on the Facebook group Minnesota Horses, a member asked why people wear helmets. Similarly, Norway recently passed a law that all riders in all disciplines are now required to wear a helmet during competition. These two things had my wild-but-safe self geeking out.

The responses on the open discussion post included close-calls, realizations that life is too good to risk not wearing a helmet, lists of people they want to live for, and scary tales of falls that would have been catastrophic if they had not been wearing a helmet. There were countless people that had been taken to the emergency room, and had the cracked or shattered helmet to show.

At first, I was hesitant to write this post. Who wants to hear my opinion? I had the realization that by having a blog, I am always, by extension, sharing my opinion. And this is an opinion I will hold on tight to and fight for. And who am I to tell someone what to do? This post might offend someone; I respect your choice. By the same token, if this post causes someone to think twice about wearing a helmet and then actually wearing it at least once, I will be so happy. It’s not like you have to go out and buy a Samshield Helmet, a Troxel will do, or anything else ASTM/SEI. (I mean, the prior costs about the same as a down payment on a house. I am convinced they must be made with fairy dust or something.)

Many are familiar with the story of Courtney King Dye, the olympian who was schooling a young horse when he tripped and fell and she hit her head. She was in a coma for nearly a month. She was not wearing a helmet. Spanning to another discipline, Fallon Taylor is a competitive barrel racer who suffered a broken neck. She now promotes helmets so much so that she has her own line of Troxel Helmets. The list goes on an on; how many stories will it take to convince those who don’t to wear a helmet to put one on?

For me, it was something that was never questioned. I am not sure why, though. I never remember my parents making me when I was younger. (They know how I feel about wearing a helmet now and are relieved.) I grew up as a barn rat at a stable where it was required. Was my habit started then? But at the same time, I was running wild and free without supervision in fields on the backs of barely-started welsh ponies; I was still never without my helmet then. I don’t remember being grateful I had a helmet on when Kelso took off on me two weeks after I got him; I broke the majority of the fall with my head and suffered a mild concussion. While I don’t have vivid memories of being thankful for my safety gear, I am sure I was and I sure am now.

I have watched countless falls and near misses to know the precariousness of this passion. I have been in the presence of a woman who broke her pelvis after a freak fall; thankfully, she was wearing a helmet. That ambulance call was one I would like to never relive, and I like to think I lessen the chances by popping a hat on my head.

We get in cars and wear seat belts without talking about how uncomfortable/hot/ugly/etc. they can be; these are objects that are manufactured, tested, and supposedly ones we have complete control over. When compared to this, it truly baffles me that people will get on innately wild animals with no safety measures. No matter how good the rider or the horse, it is something that shouldn’t be questioned. Every horse. Every ride. Every time.

Stepping off my soap box and off to go wear my helmet,

Erin and the Wonder Pony

Week One Trivia Answer: Guérinière is credited for the invention of the shoulder-in; he insists it be on four tracks. Guérinière was a french man, and is one of the fathers of classical dressage; his teachings were the basis of the system for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. He was also the ecuyer (a title used to express a rider/teacher) to The Sun King.

Week Two Trivia: What is the alternate name for the passage at the Spanish Riding School?





Lengthening our Lengthenings

Kelso did well with the week off from a lesson because he let his little Wonder Pony colors shine this Thursday morning. I could not stop smiling for a few hours after dismounting; I don’t know why the universe put him in my life, but I am sure grateful it did.

I arrived to the ring with a mouth full of food and Paul giggling, commenting that “you would show up to the Spanish Riding School and my formal lesson chowing down…” I am running out of wild-but-still-allowed things to keep Paul on his toes. Now taking ideas. [The WP was shaved off the one and only’s hindquarters this week because it isn’t becoming to shed out with patterns, but we haven’t lost our goofy spirit. Life is too short to be anything but fun!]

After our normal lunging session, we proceeded to our lateral movements of shoulder-in, renvers and travers. When crossing a diagonal I encouraged Kelso to do a lengthening. Paul then informed me that was the base line trot we needed; I nearly fell off my little guy. What used to be our lengthening is now our everyday trot. Our lengthenings are lengthening!

One of the biggest points that was focused on during our lesson is me using my back and not solely my hands to work on the submission of Kelso. I have a tendency to use my back while forgetting to hold him in his hands; I attribute this to Kelso’s [quite] old habit of curling. Now that we have somewhere to go, he doesn’t do this at all. Imagining my hands attached to the reins are then directly connected to my hips and back made the world of the difference. This causes it to be tough for Kelso to throw his head without having to pull on his mouth. It also solidifies the idea of “pushing them forward into the bit” rather than pulling them back. I am super excited about this new feeling and skill because I think it has been a pretty big missing piece. We seem to find a lot of those every ride, which is pretty exciting. [This also makes me think about my poor little sacrificial lamb.]

From there, we moved onto half-pass, and due to my inexperience with riding and training these, I would start it too late after getting on centerline, causing Kelso to have to do a pretty steep half-pass to make it to the wall. I pinch myself every time Paul says to do a half-pass; my pony is so fancy! After these, we continued on to do trot-halts. In-hand work has really improved Kelso’s sitting ability in this particular movement. By working him on the ground, I am able to encourage his hind end to be more active without causing him to run out from under me. Paul was quick to comment on how much they have improved, and it is pretty wild to feel the difference in the strength and swinging ability of his back. This improved overall quality of his trot was also felt in his new lengthening. We feel like we are floating and it is an out-of-this-world feeling.

The canter was the next focus point of the lesson, and it is a night and day difference from when we first arrived. We began with working on canter-walk transitions, and Kelso is getting to be calmer in the uptake. I had a good conversation with Rose [a generally great human who trains here at the farm] about how canter-walk transitions can be very difficult to horses to learn as they need so much impulsion with the ability to calm down immediately after. Previously, they were able to use their forward momentum from the trot to spring into canter, where they are now being asked to sit and use a lot of power and then asked to immediately relax. I am just holding on to the hope that Paul said having that excitement will be helpful in teaching flying changes.

In this group of circles, Paul encouraged me to do a travers on the circle, which will graduate into a working pirouette. The preparation for the canter-walk transition is to swing Kelso’s back up more to encourage him to collect his canter. While the canter is not supposed to necessarily get slower, by the rules of physics, it will slow down some as his stride gets shorter but simultaneously springier. I do this by pushing him with my back and encouraging him to sit more. Paul introduced the travers on the circle as Kelso is a clever little guy (a phrase he used multiple times in the lesson) and can fake using his back without actually becoming springier. The travers on the cirlce forces him to use his back as he has to engage his little hindquarters.

From here, we went large around the ring and did renvers and travers. Initially, I could barely move Kelso around as he was not strong enough to do anything. It is incredible how much more adjustable he has become. Finally, we played with lengthening the canter, which helped him use his back even more.

At the close of the lesson I exclaimed “This stuff really works!” While there are days it seems simple, it is anything but easy at times. I am thrilled with the Wonder Pony’s progress, the instruction I am getting here, and the fact Kelso is willing to give me his little heart in all he does.

Off to be thankful for how lucky I am,

Erin and the WP

Week One Trivia: Who invented the shoulder-in?

Principle Seven

The system of Parelli Natural Horsemanship has eight principles that express core ideas of the program; Principle Seven states “Horses Teach Humans and Humans Teach Horses.” (You can find the other principles here.) This week, after Kelso came down with a flu, I was able to learn from not one, but two, of the farm’s schoolmasters. Both of these horses reminded me of the invaluable lessons that can be learned from riding different horses, especially horses that are schooled by such talented riders as Paul and Andrea.

Kelso came in from the pasture acting a little weary on Wednesday morning. It had been raining all day, and so at first I chalked it up to being depressed due to the weather. When I went to bridle him, he wasn’t seeking the bit as he normally does (which never happens) and then he wasn’t interested in treats at all (unheard of.) He did end up taking the bit eventually and I anthropomorphized and thought he was refusing treats because he was mad at me for the ride the day before (he learned bucking every right lead canter depart was not the correct answer.) The ride was calm and he was a little tired, but nothing that had me really worried such as coughing or snotty noses. However, later that night, when grain was thrown, he didn’t even look at it.

I took his temperature and he was running a fever of 103.4°. Cue my panic. For a horse who has rarely had any health scares (knock on wood), when he does it sends me over the edge. He was given a full dose of Banamine and was back to normal the next morning, which was odd in itself. It is pretty typical for fevers to spike the same night or next morning as their body can still be fighting something. However, he was back to trying to eat my fingers and couldn’t leave me alone, so back to my Wonder Pony.

This all happened on Wednesday afternoon, so Kelso was given the day off for the normal Thursday morning lessons. My temporary mount was Ciela, one of Paul’s mares. I have been lucky enough to watch one of Paul’s longtime students work Ciela every week, so I was excited to get to ride her myself. It was also an opportunity for me to focus more on my position, which is always a plus!

The biggest take-away from my lesson with Ciela was my hand position as well as half-halts. After warming up and working on canter-walk transitions, I returned to the trot and immediately commented that she was pretty heavy in my hand. Paul instructed me to take more intentional half halts, and raise my hands a little bit. She became a different horse! With Kelso, I am able to use pretty small half halts to rebalance him, but he is also about half the size of Ciela….Paul told me that he doesn’t necessarily encourage riders to ride with very high hands, but sometimes it is necessary in order to bring the horse up. Previously, I was half-halting back too much and causing her to dive into the forehand. It was a lightbulb moment!

The next day, I went from my smallest-horse-on-the-farm to the biggest! Ted is a gelding who we joke is the old man that yells at the kids in the neighborhood, “Get off my lawn!” Despite being a grouch, he was so much fun to ride! Andrea had me focus on collecting his canter and doing canter-walk transitions. I didn’t know what using my back was like until I worked with Ted. Andrea commented that if I can collect his canter, I can for sure collect Kelso’s, too. We also played around with baby working pirouettes, and it was invaluable to have Andrea’s eyes on the ground telling me how crooked I was while going to the right. I was riding the shoulders too much, causing myself to become crooked and making it impossible for him to correctly doing the travers he needed to do. Another lightbulb moment!

I included some video of my lesson with the big guy who is not a big Teddy bear, despite the name. (Sidenote: I am my own worst critic and it’s still pretty tough to share videos of me struggling, but I do it in the hopes that you can learn something, too! Thanks for being kind and supportive!)

I was humbled and so excited to be able to learn from Paul and Andrea’s horses this week, and by extension, from them. I am a pretty lucky girl to have such invested and knowledgeable trainers as mentors. Even though I had a ton of fun, I am definitely excited to have Kelso back in action this week to apply what I learned from Ciela and Ted. Kelso might not be, though!

Off to go practice using my back more,

Erin and the Wonder Pony

Dressage Art

During my last lesson, I commented on the incredible difference Kelso has made in his muscle and build in only six weeks. Paul was quick to respond that there was a reason that this stuff really works, which is why it has been around for thousands of years. This response, and the discussion that followed, is one that caused my gears to start going. It is a clear and just system that makes sense to both horse and rider, but, just because it is proven, doesn’t mean that people will follow it. Sometimes, fads or celebrity riders have us seeking the newest secret or trick that will get us up the levels quicker. Often times, in this chaos, the true purpose of this great discipline is lost; the idea that Dressage is truly the art of horsemanship. This is a point that I have been licking and chewing on for the last few days, and one that I will continue to mull over during my time here.

It brought back a conversation I had during my first few weeks here with the farm’s farrier, John. He crafts incredible hand-made leather goods, including all the personalized halters for the farm’s horses. We started talking about how he once made a knife holder for an employee at the racetrack and was curious to see what other personalized knife holders sold for. This then started a discussion on what people were willing to pay for handmade versus manufactured goods nowadays. In a world where we can go on Amazon and get something for as cheap as possible, it is often difficult to justify spending significantly more money and time waiting for a custom item.

I realized this is how we can feel about our journeys with our horses sometimes. We forget that spending more time can also mean the difference between getting a custom work of art instead of a hurriedly and mass-produced product. The art can be lost in the ribbons or medals and quickly swept up by the rushing current of the industry. It is more fun to run to a big-name clinician and work on something in the next level than sit at home and do three more weeks of trot-halt transitions because your horse still isn’t sitting. Or canter-walk transitions because your horse can’t walk-canter without going through the roof. (Guess what we’ve been working on? Paul said Kelso’s excitement about the canter will help in Flying Changes, but I am not sure we will make it that far without hitting the rafters first.)

I didn’t know what drew me to the Pennsylvania Riding Academy during my first few days here. Over every other working student positions, why did I pick Dillsburg, PA, and not Wellington, FL? (And, despite what you might think based on the name, it is not because it is the most exciting town in USA.) It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was drawn to this place because of the respect that both Paul and Andrea have for this art form, and for every horse that they take the time it takes to mold into incredible dance partners. It is not performance or ego driven, but it is fueled by a passion to do right by the the history and the horses, which is what drew us to this place.

The WP and I were also excited to haunt Paul with my pink stirrups for eight months! He still loves them. He also asked me if I find enjoyment in trying to keep him up at night after I told him Kelso and I would start practicing bucking on command, an air above the ground taught in the French school.

While we didn’t get to the bucking on command in our lesson this week, we started to play around with a few new things. We warm up with lateral movements that include shoulder-in and haunches in, and recently introduced shoulder-in to renver (haunches-out.) We start on the wall in shoulder-in, and then switch the bend to renver. If you are looking at the horse’s feet, the tracks should not change; only the bend should. Half-pass was introduced a few lessons ago, and we are having fun with doing pretty shallow ones but still half-passes!

From these, we move onto trot-halts in which our goal is to get Kelso to sit as much as possible. This sitting ability has already improved since we have been here, and Paul and I decided we are able to start asking for even more from him. The most exciting part of the lesson is our canter-walk transitions because you never quite know what is going to happen. Will Kelso be calm? Unlikely. Will Kelso throw in a frustrated I-don’t-like-the-right-lead buck? Probably. Will they get better? Debatable. They are slowly coming along, but Paul is always quick to reassure me that they will come. Eventually.

To strengthen our canter even more, we have started to do shoulder-ins and counter canter loops and figure-8s. Kelso is already able to hold himself up so much better, and my butt is actually staying in the saddle now! After riding for 6 weeks without stirrups, I earned them back! (No, really, I didn’t ride with stirrups at all. It was an exercise in self-exploration, core work and some self-loathing.)

As always, thanks for all your support in our journey, and thanks to Kelso for being my sacrificial lamb and staying strong while I learn everything on him!

Off to go ride with my {pink} stirrups and work on dressage art,

Erin and Kelso