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Please select any of the following articles and reading material:
TRANSITION TO HARMONY
REMEMBERING TOM DORRANCE
PYRAMID OF TRAINING SERIES
|PART I||PART II||PART III||PART IV|
DRESSAGE LEVELS FOR THE EVERYDAY HORSEMAN SERIES
|PART I||PART II||PART III|
THE NATURE OF BEING
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Written by Terry Church
© Copyright 2016
|The AHSA (now USEF) Rule Book defined dressage as "the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible but also confident, attentive and keen thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider." How many of us have read these words? How many of us, never really having experienced them, take them seriously? How many of us idolize them yet never think of them while straining to rectify an uneven half pass, a stiff-strided shoulder in, or a crooked medium canter? We are ever striving to "get there," perform the movement, get that score, win the ribbon. While winning may be a positive and worthwhile achievement, this article is about my observations of riders who are driven almost exclusively by their goals. Most do not get the best performance from their horses - or themselves.||A number of years ago, I retired my Thoroughbred from competition. My willful and goal oriented ambition wound his high strung and sensitive character into a web of tension that became increasingly difficult to smooth out in the show ring. To have 11 years of hard work come to such an end was humiliating, to say the least. I had ridden under successful and well known trainers, spent a year training in Germany, had myself been a professional dressage instructor for well over ten years, and rode up to nine horses a day.
A year later, I happened to be visiting a friend in Carmel, CA. She had two stallions in training. One was a six-year-old going under saddle. He had developed a rearing problem and would fling his head side to side, snapping at the rider's toes in mid-rear. The other, a three-year-old barely halter broke, would lunge and
| strike at the handler on the end of his lead line. My friend told me she was having a man named Tom Dorrance help her with the two horses and that I was fortunate to be there to watch him.
"Who's he?" I asked.
She described Tom as the "guru" for men such as Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman - "those guys" who purportedly knew how to take a "wild" horse and tame it without saddle or bridle within days or an afternoon. Intrigued by what I had heard of such persons, I stayed to watch.
The next day found me completely absorbed in the manner and actions of this lightly built 80 year old man with lively blue eyes and gentlemanly demeanor. He, together with Joe Wolter, a rancher from Grass Valley,
CA, worked with the two stallions. I remember Tom talking about listening to the horse, when to ask, when to back off, and letting the horse move into his own pressure. It was not like any "training" session I had ever been to before. I had a frustrating sense of waiting and of time slowed down. I wanted something to happen, because much of the time it appeared as if the two men weren't doing anything. After what seemed an eternity, I suddenly noticed that Tom had the three-year-old looking like a puppy dog under saddle with Joe riding him on a halter and lead. I checked my watch. Only 3 1/2 hours had passed. Soon the other stallion was cantering around the big arena, ears up, stride forward, and unrestrained with Joe riding arms folded and reins looped over the pommel. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed that such a thing could take place.
After all the time, effort, and expense I had put into my years of education, training, and experience, I left wondering why I had not been able to see what made the dramatic change in those two horses. I would learn later that I had actually seen it. I had, in fact, been looking at it every day I worked with my horses. However, in an effort to be the "trainer," I had acquired a strong attachment to my own agenda. As a result, many concerns of the horse became insignificant and therefore invisible to me. I had become skilled in the application of aids, in perfecting movements, and in being the boss. But I had lost respect for the horse and so likewise the art of true communication.
A year after meeting Tom, I purchased a ten-year-old Thoroughbred as a resale prospect. A product of the racetrack and
|mishandling, he had become unmanageable over fences. The sellers thought I might like him for dressage. Six months into his training, he was still bolting out of control, grinding his teeth, and generally unfocused. I was baffled. Tired of trying to use my force and will, I remembered the previous year and called Tom. So began a lifelong apprenticeship, if you will, away from method and technique and into the realm of thoughtful approach, feel, timing, and balance, of becoming more aware of who the horse truly is and the importance of what he is communicating through his everyday expression, actions, and reactions. "Well, I already do that," I hear a lot of trainers say. I guess I would have said the same thing at that time. But within the first year that I worked with Tom, I saw that I, like most others in my field, had been educated to be a "trainer." I had a goal of what|
I wanted to achieve that day, week, month, or year. I applied a specific set of aids to get the horse to that goal. Sure, I was aware of tension, stiffness, irritation, and back talk. But I dealt with that by holding fast to my goal until I got what I wanted regardless of the resistance. While I have always believed my goals to be an integral part of doing anything, it took me a while to realize that the horse, in his mind, may have a good "reason" for his resistance. Learning to respect that, even though I may not like it, has made the difference in how I approach a situation and how my horses have come to respond to me.
"He's not listening to me," "I didn't ask for that," or "He's doing that on purpose (just to get me)" are also typical comments I hear from riders - comments that anthropomorphize the horse and express a way of thinking that allows us to feel justified in dominating the animals we say we want to have as our partners.
A horse will enjoy even disciplines such as dressage that require a high degree of confinement if introduced to their work with sensitivity and respect from the rider. A preparation to half-pass at the canter shows SALVO'S SASHA with relaxed and supple body, good expression in eyes and ears, and quiet mouth and relaxed tail.
In my own work as a rider, instructor, and competitor, the most important and most difficult thing I have had to learn is a willingness to think my own behavior through instead of holding the blame to the horse. Not a small order, and, after all, we all make mistakes - a consideration we could lend to the horse as well. However, what I think important to point out to riders truly interested in bettering themselves and benefiting their horses is that any anger or frustration we may feel (and we all do) as well as our ignorance of any given situation (which we all have to one degree or another) are not
|solely expressed through the obvious whip and spur. We usually express our emotions and beliefs in ways which have become so much a part of our daily routine that we do not realize we are expressing them. Yet the horse, more sensitive and aware than we have come to understand, is ever responding while we wonder why they are behaving the way they are. An example of this might be described by a rider practicing a movement - half pass, leg-yield, or pirouette. (It could also be jumping a fence, crossing water, loading a horse into a trailer, or riding in and out of a gate among infinite other possibilities.) If this rider has too strong a focus on achieving that movement or goal, he or she will inevitably miss many vital moments in which the horse is trying to respond. This is because the goal itself has become the most important thing instead of the efforts of the horse that go unnoticed. Perhaps the horse is||not responding in the way the rider thinks he should. The rider may interpret this as disobedience. In reality, however, the horse is simply responding to what he, with his own individual strengths, weaknesses, habits of behavior, and ways of perceiving his experience, can discern from his rider. The rider, not understanding this dynamic (and perhaps frustrated and angered by it), continues to push for a "better" response and does not afford the horse relief - or release - in those vital moments. This release and relief mean everything in terms of attaining lightness and self-carriage, as well as allowing the horse time to relax within a movement and thereby gain confidence, understanding, and enjoyment in what he is being asked to do. If you consider this single lack of rider awareness throughout the entire span of time he or she spends with that horse, it will not be long before there is tail swishing (or||wringing), teeth grinding, body stiffening, and great poundage on the reins, which riders have taken to lifting weights to compensate for. In the dressage world, these tension signs exhibited by the horse have also become so everyday and commonplace that they, too, go virtually unnoticed. Oftentimes it is only when the most extreme and dangerous reactions develop that a few come to ask themselves if the path they are on is the best one. Most continue to blame the horse.
More and more, I see the importance of allowing the horse more time and freedom to find his own balance and carriage on straight lines, on circles, and in transitions. If I only have 20 minutes to ride a horse that day, I have to tell myself that within that 20 minutes, I have all the time in the world. I think in terms of preparing for movements, staying out of the way when things are going
| well and directing (not forcing) when the horse is stuck in a pattern that is not leading in the direction of my goal. Communication with the horse starts with my attitude, which is then a basis for the way I approach his training. It has to do with paying attention to the horse and working from where he is so that I am able to present myself to him in a way he can respond favorably to. He is then not only ready to do things I have decided upon, but to do them with focus, ease of movement, and tranquility of mind. It has been interesting for me to note that more often than not, this seemingly long way around has been far shorter in the end.
MOZART, the Thoroughbred once unmanageable
Only in this way do I feel that I open the doors to the kind of communication that leads to that perfect understanding the rule book talks about.
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Remembering Tom Dorrance
Written by Terry Church
At Tom's memorial gathering in Carmel Valley, I sat and listened to many stories that other's had to share. I was with several of my working students who had never had an opportunity to meet him, but whose lives and careers had been so profoundly influenced by him. I never got up to speak - there was too much to say. Writing is a venue I much prefer being able to express myself through, particularly when dealing with a subject as profound and moving as the life and passing of Tom Dorrance.
In giving clinics around the country, I have the opportunity to meet many horsemen and -women who are on one path or another, searching. On the flight home from Michigan two days after I'd heard the news about Tom, I gazed out the window teary-eyed, and saw his face as the sun rose above the clouds. He was beaming with that open-mouthed laugh, and I heard his voice again in my mind: "Every person is a gift," he said, and I realized that, while he was living among us, he never showed any doubt about someone's ability to begin from wherever they were and move towards some better place. For me it began with an attempt to better my relationship with my horse - horses were usually, but not always - the means by which he helped the willing make the journey.
"How do I do it?" I asked him, watching myself mechanically cue another mare into a compulsory movement with her ears pinned - then later rush to some appointment, cut someone off on the freeway, barely stand long enough for a person to finish their sentence before I was off to the next thing - I can't remember what it was now, but it seemed real important at the time.
He never answered me directly, regarding me instead in the same kind manner in which he wanted me to treat my horses, myself, another person, all living things. It seemed like most people thought he didn't put it into words because he couldn't. "He doesn't know how to explain things," they'd remark, thinking they already had the answer and could say it better.
"I never liked calling myself a teacher any more than 1 like calling myself a trainer," was Tom's reply. "And if I say something too specific, then the person tends to focus on that one thing, instead of learning to see the big picture."
The big picture. The third factor. The spirit that can't be contained in a mold, can't be defined in a list of instructions. With Tom you had to be willing to be there inside yourself, beyond the confines of assumptions or preconceived ideas about what you were supposed to do, say, think - or how things were supposed to end up. Most of the time for me that meant feeling like an idiot—the "type-A" work-a-holic perfectionistic competitive Dressage Queen didn't know all she thought she knew after all.
But then there was the feeling that came when I stopped trying to prove myself, when I stopped trying to preserve what had once made me feel so important - and just be with my horse. Observing. Learning without judgment. And it was the "without judgment" part that took me the longest. How can I ever describe what it was like to spend one of the most significant parts of my life with someone who knew about that, who treated me with utmost respect in spite of all the ways I'd been lying to myself - as if I mattered anyway?
"And now what will we do without Tom in the world?" I hear a lot of people ask the thing that's on everyone's mind. But as Tom would say, "Learning has to come from the inside of a person, same as it does for the horse." It was that self-reliance that he waited for in each of us, regardless of the hours, days or years that it took to finally happen.
It takes courage to trust oneself, to risk trying something different because it was our horse that showed us we were missing again, to ignore the criticisms of other trainers in high places who knew the way you were supposed to have done it because it was the way they were taught and so it must be right. Yet each of us has the power, the ability to take the journey from our place of ignorance toward being a little more aware, a little more respectful of the spirit in all things. In this way, each of us continues Tom's legacy, whether or not we were one of the ones fortunate enough to have worked with him. Our daily progress, no matter how small, is our gift - and our proof that we have not really lost the one who may have helped us realize it to begin with.
Answered by Terry Church
© Copyright 2016
1. How did you get involved with horses?
I saw my first horse when I was two years old and knew then what my passion was. I can't explain this - it is just what I've always known. I was born the daughter of a fashion designer and grew up in Los Angeles. That's about as far away from dirt and manure as you can get. My parents did not support my enthusiasm for riding, but I had an older sister who drove me to Griffith Park where I learned to ride by renting horses for an hour on the weekends. Meanwhile, I saved a $5 allowance my grandfather sent each month, and when I was 16 bought my first horse (an Appaloosa) for $400. When I moved away from home at age 17, 1 could make my own choices and began teaching kids to ride hunt seat. It was truly the blind, leading the blind but I was so excited to finally be doing what I loved. It also allowed me to make my rent and work off my own lessons. This is the first time I received any real professional training. I have been learning ever since.
2. What one word describes your ideal horse-human relationship?
If I had to use one word, it would probably be "harmonious." By this I don't mean that everything has to go as planned in my day-to-day work with them. But I can learn to accept and "ride through" challenging moments and to not allow rough spots to undermine the value of my efforts to be a better communicator. If I am open to the horse, to learning, and to reassessing my own actions without blame to myself or the horse, then inevitably there is harmony in my day.
3. What are your current professional goals?
When I first began working with Tom Dorrance twelve years ago, very few dressage riders knew that his approach could be applied to FEI levels in their discipline as well as anywhere else. I felt it my mission to convince this particular population that such a thing was possible. Now I receive emails from all over the world from dressage and hunter/jumper riders hungry for a way to "train" and compete without sacrificing their horse's well-being - that says a lot coming from advocates of a sport oftentimes overshadowed by mindless ambition and widespread use of force. Now I have many professional goals which include writing a book, performing in dressage and establishing an experiential learning center which uses horsemanship as a means of self-discovery. My daily goal is twofold: One is to first help students stop punishing themselves for their own limitations. This lessens their inability to take responsibility for their own actions - vital for the second goal which is to respect their horse as they would a good friend, and to apply that awareness and sensitivity from the most basic action to the most complex use of their aids. They are then open to learning what their horses need in order to maintain a sense of freedom and well-being, especially within the confinement of collected work. If this dynamic has taken place, a person will enjoy the day-to-day relationship with their partner as well as the process of achieving their individual goals.
4. Do you see yourself as part of a larger community of horse people, and if so, how do you fit into that community?
Fortunately, I work in a collaborative environment with other trainers, assistants and working students who are all enthusiastic about learning, sharing and helping each other. I am grateful to be surrounded by good people who are okay with not having all the answers and are interested in maintaining a supportive and creative working environment, each playing an important role in their area of interest. 1 also see myself as part of a community of everyday students, and students I meet in clinics. I learn as much from them as they do from me.
5. What horse-related product do you use that makes your life easier?
Duct tape! 1 cannot count the times a horse has pulled a shoe in the mud at the most inconvenient time, and duct tape, wrapped around a hoof, can mean the difference between working with a horse that day or not.
6. What is the most important character trait for a great horseman to possess? Why?
I do not believe that there is one character trait - or what I like to call "qualities" - more important than another. To me the beauty of working with horses is what horses teach people about all the qualities we have forgotten, have lost sight of, or have a weakness in: softness; strength, humility; fortitude, openness; firmness, thinking; feeling, patience; steadfastness, perseverance; expectancy - to name a few. Each needs the other for balance and to enable us to develop our abilities in a way that's appropriate to each unique situation at hand.
7. What do you get out of working with horses? What do you give?
From working with horses, I learn more about who I really am. I learn about what makes a good relationship and about life before my intellect gets in the way. I learn about love. My aim is to be present to the horse in a way that allows him to feel both secure and respectful in my presence. Each horse has an athletic potential which I encourage and work toward. But more fundamentally, horses naturally enjoy themselves and their work, whatever that happens to be, so I try not to get in the way of that.
8. Who is a favorite horse of all time?
My Thoroughbred gelding, Pan. He was the one who made it too difficult for me to continue on a path of blind ambition via mindless training "techniques," and who forced me to reassess my life, and then seek out a man named Tom Dorrance - who would then change my life with horses forever.
9. What horseman, living or deceased, would you most like to study with? Why?
Tom Dorrance. He not only has the greatest understanding of and compassion toward horses of anyone I've met, but the greatest understanding of and compassion toward people of anyone I've met. To me, that says it all.
10. What is a very memorable horse moment?
A time as a child when I leased a horse from the rent string for a week with a friend. I came out to the stable to find her combing out a long black tail that she had just washed. I hadn't known that one could care for a horse in this way and learned then that being with horses can take many forms besides riding.
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