So you want to buy a dressage horse …..

School should only be for smart people.  I mean come on, your child might be cute, but if they aren’t going to win academic prizes and become a doctor or lawyer, your wasting your time sending them to school, aren’t you?  If your child is going to be average and end up with a non-academic job, school is a waste of time and effort.  Isn’t it?

I imagine that comment going down like a lead balloon.  School is (generally) for all kids.  It doesn’t matter if they are bright and going to become a doctor, all kids need to be able to write, read, add 2 + 2 (or at least know how to turn on a calculator).  Some form of history, geography and science would be useful.  And, if they aren’t ultra-talented, they still need an education.  When girls are educated, birth rates (population) drop, there is less poverty, more enrichment and development.  Health and welfare improve.  Education is power.

And why am I on about this.  Do you know what enrages me more than almost anything else in the equine world – I want to do dressage, I need to buy a dressage horse.  A dressage horse isn’t a thing.  The word “Dressage” means training.  To do dressage doesn’t mean to take part in a beauty competition, it means to take a green horse, and to train it.  A horse doing dressage is exactly the same as a child doing school.

Chico the New Forest Pony, is being trained in dressage on long reins… Is he a dressage horse? In fancy blood lines, no, but in stretching into a free walk, absolutely!
Chico the New Forest Pony, is being trained in dressage on long reins… Is he a dressage horse? In fancy blood lines, no, but in stretching into a free walk, absolutely!

Some children are more gifted at maths and sciences.  Some are gifted in language.  Some are not academic at all, but all children can be taught something.  Even the most mentally disabled children can learn things, such as getting dressed, feeding themselves, walking, or smiling when someone they know enters the room.  Sure, not all kids will be doctors, but do you even hear a parent saying, oh, this one isn’t so bright and I wanted a doctor child, so I’ll go and get a brighter child?  Horses are not for dressage, dressage is for horses.  There is so much more skill in taking a horse who is slightly less able and training him in dressage, than taking an athlete and calling him a dressage horse, just because he has naturally easier paces.

Dressage is about making a horse’s life easier and longer.  He learns to move in better balance.  He learns to move lightly on the ground.  He learns how to move straight.  His body is given longevity.  He moves like a dancer.  He doesn’t receive training in dressage to win ribbons.

Many, many moons ago, I was riding a young mare in Elementary.  I was still at the point where I thought elementary was really quite clever.  We were lucky enough to have a big, grown up, dressage trainer come to town, and off I went, taking this little mare for a clinic.  When I was introducing the mare and I, I told him, we are doing dressage.  Really, he asked, what grade.  Elementary.  Now, he wasn’t the nicest person, but what he said has always stuck with me…  Elementary?  Elementary?  That’s not dressage, its basic flatwork.  Even the simplest hack or most unruly show jumper can do Elementary, dressage only begins at advanced.     Elementary is the absolute primary school for kids, we only begin real dressage much later.  Hmmmm…

This is one of the most important videos that I wish more rider’s would watch and take note of…  When is a dressage horse not a dressage horse?

Fast forward a few years, and there I am, working for a show jumper in Belgium.  Now, this is another very big grown up, having won 4 Olympic medals.  On one of the first days, I watched him school a horse.  He rode in walk, trot and canter, he rode collected and extended.  He rode lines of shoulder in, travers, renver, big swinging half passes and diagonals of tempi changes.  He collected into canter pirouettes and had the horse reaching in elastic, stretchy free walks.  After 45 minutes of impressive schooling he stopped, and I asked if the horse was a visiting dressage horse.  Certainly not, he replied, she’s the horse I am preparing for my daughter, to begin training as a jumper.  No horse can jump if it doesn’t have the basic education on the flat.  Basic, I asked?  Why yes, basic. If the horse cannot lengthen, shorten, be held straight and change leads, how will the horse even make it around a course of show jumps?  The only things a high-level dressage horse knows that a showjumper doesn’t, are piaffe, passage, quicker flying changes and more sit in pirouettes.  A show jumper, an event horse, a hack pleasure horse, should be able to do an advanced dressage test.  Incredible advice from a champion rider.

So, unless you’re heading for the Olympics, tell me again, why do you need to buy a particular horse to do dressage on?



Punishment Chair

Last summer, I was exploring a new town and handed over a vast amount of cash to explore their famous palace.  It was well worth it, after my bank balance had recovered.  (And yes, I do know why all these places charge a small fortune – it costs a massive amount to maintain these ancient buildings, but it’s still always an internal debate for me – do I pay that much, or just enjoy from the outside?)

As I was wandering through the rooms, there in the children’s nursery stood a very tall, very narrow, very rickety looking small chair, a tiny child’s high chair, with exceptionally long legs.  I was just thinking the legs looked as if they had had some uneven wear and tear – all four legs seemed to be slightly different heights, leading to the rickety appearance.   As I was looking, one of the castle guides came up, and asked if I knew what I was looking at.  A child’s chair?  Well, yes.

But this is different – this is a punishment chair.  Huh?  This chair dated back to 1700 or 1800 ish.  The royal nannies who looked after the young princes and princesses were not allowed to physically raise a hand to a child or punish them in any way.  Which meant that these young royals were running riot.  So, they developed the punishment chair.  Because of its height, with it’s extremely narrow base, it was already not terribly stable.  Add to that the legs all being at different heights, and the whole thing was liable to topple over.

Sadly, photographs are not allowed within the palace, and the only image I can find of the chair, is this one that isn’t terribly clear…

And this was the first naughty chair.  If a young prince or princess was being naughty, they were put in the chair for a while.  And while in the chair, they had to sit absolutely still, otherwise it would topple over.  Quick fix for temper tantrums, right?  The staff didn’t inflict any actual punishment, but the child very soon learnt to be still and quiet.  Hmmm…. And what does that have to do with you, and why I’m writing this?

How often have you heard instructors yelling across arenas, just sit still, stop fidgeting, and relax, just sit there.  There is nothing relaxing about sitting still – it takes a fair amount of physical effort to “just sit still”.  Hello, it was a method of punishment…  It takes physical and mental effort to be still.   I bet those young royals learnt about using their core and stabilizing themselves in a hurry.  It shouldn’t be torturous to sit still, but it certainly isn’t something to “just relax” about either.

(In a totally unrelated thought – follow me here – just think about normal school kids. They have to sit still in class, not get distracted, not move about, not make a noise, and if they don’t – straight onto Ritalin….  Hello, sitting still is torture!)

But, it also made me think about horses, and what we inflict upon them.   Get your horse’s head down – put him in one position and keep him there….  How is this not a torturous punishment?  Every living being, be it human, horse, cat, dog, any animal, needs to MOVE.  You cannot tell a rider or a horse to sit still in one position and hold it.  And yet, what do we spend much of our time doing?

Happy Valentine’s Day

It’s Valentines – which made me think for a moment…  I don’t do the whole “significant other” …  I love my independence and the ability to up and off at a moment’s notice, and having to discuss with a partner about what, where and how is really not my thing.  I even resist going on holidays with a friend, since there is always the, “Well, where would you like to go, and what would you like to eat?” conversation.  But I do have a whole team of “matchmakers” in my life, without whom, what I do would be impossible…

They even ply me with chocolates…
They even ply me with chocolates…

In every city that I go, I have a wonderful lady (I really don’t know why they are all ladies – come on guys, catch up), who organises my life.  They chat to venue owners, they contact riders, they cajole people who they think would be interested in booking a strange lesson with an unknown person, and they “matchmake” all my meetings and lessons.  I believe there have been literal blood, sweat and tears involved…

Sometimes, they get it wrong – oh my, yes.  They’ll arrange a lesson with someone who’s mindset and ethics is a mile off mine, hoping that we may have a meeting of ideas, but the rider is really not ready to discuss a new way of thinking, and it’s that really awkward blind date – especially with the pony being the third wheel and trying to side of the more friendly, relaxed way of working.  But generally, my matchmakers are right on the money.  Once they convince a rider to have one lesson, we usually have a lot more.

Once they are set up with those who all are interested, my amazing helpers then get into hyper organised mode, and fill my dance card…  It’s really no use me trying from the other side of the globe – people contacting me, saying can I have a lesson at this time in venue A, when someone else is an hour later at venue B, and I don’t have a clue where anything is, or the politics of who is welcome to who’s yard….  So, by the time I arrive, there is a colour coded, beautifully efficient list of names, times, locations, and all I have to do is pitch up.  It’s just MAGIC!

And, my wonderful helpers don’t even stop there!  Many welcome me into their homes, they cook vegetarian meals (even if it’s out of their norm), they ply me with chocolate, coffee and wine, they don’t complain about how I am so not a morning person, they fetch and carry, they share their cats, and they’re just awesome.

I get to share their cats!
I get to share their cats!

One of these special people was quizzing me for the dates I’m looking at for their area – I told her some dates, and, the very next day, she tells me that there are over 90 lessons booked – talk about speed dating!

Last week, one amazing organiser, organised a massage, lunch, chocolate, and tourism on the free day – this week, my current spectacular person is sourcing cough sweets, painkillers and “knock it on the head” flu meds.  You see, my life is like Valentines every day!

If you are the kind of person who likes having a “significant other human” in your life – Happy Valentines.  If your S.O., is four legged – well done you, even happier days.  And, if you’re like me – buy yourself that chocolate, it’s all about treating your self right!  Oh, and please buy a carrot for your pony!


Every situation will bring about a different priority.  In Singapore, all cars must be parked by reversing in, nose facing out.  Because? The car parks there are so small that it’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle getting in.  In the event of fire, they want to evacuate fast, which is much easier if everyone is going forwards.  In Germany, they all park nose first.  Why?  Because, reverse parking means exhaust pipes against walls which leave dirty marks.  Evacuation isn’t a priority.  They do, however, have a lot of spaces painted pink, which are for single women.  These are closest to the lifts and security, well-lit and bright, because their priority is stopping the attacks on lone women leaving work late.  And now, here I am, thinking of this in Kenya.  Again, they reverse park for the bulk of the time, and yet there is space, and the majority of parking is outside, where there is less fire risk.  So why?  Terrorism.  Kenya has been victim of few terror attacks, and again, evacuation is faster if you’re pointing the right way.  

So, what’s the relevance to you?  

Picking out hooves should be a priority for everyone.
Picking out hooves should be a priority for everyone.

In every country, every community, every culture, we deal with what is the most urgent.  In Nordic countries in winter, snow control is vital.  This wouldn’t be much of an issue on the Middle East.  In Africa, we worry about Malaria and tick bite fever, not really an issue in Europe.

In the UK in particular, things seem to be becoming more and more pedantic.  Yes, a horse must be comfortable and well cared for.  But where it gets me is if it clouds people’s judgement. 

When I am in foreign countries, I often get asked to help people with their tack fitting, shoeing or feeding issues.  Two feeding issues made me think recently.  The first has a big, strong, exuberant young warmblood.  He forgot to stop growing and is a VERY big and strong young lad.  He is, if anything, rather too prosperous…  He is a little too round and well covered and has a little too much boing in his step.  His owner asked me to check out her feeding schedule since she had been reprimanded by her vet for not feeding him enough.  Ummm, I said…  On the back of her hard feed bag is the feeding guide.  For a horse of his size, he should be getting 5kg.  He is currently getting 3.5kg.  But he is also on 15kg of very good quality hay, as well as chaff, extra sugar beet, vits and mins etc.  He is VERY well fed, and looks as if he is VERY well fed.  Did your vet ask about what else he is getting I asked?  No, she replied, only about how much hard feed he is on.  Maybe, particularly a vet, should trust his eyes instead of sticking to the letter of what the feed bag says? 

The other was about an adviser who lives in a country that has excellent feed, hay and grazing, telling a questioning owner in a country with bad feed, bad hay and no grass, that they should dramatically reduce what they feed their horse out of a bucket.  Yes, if the horse in question was getting a few hours of high-quality grass grazing they could be eating less, or even if they had a lot more access to better hay, but with no grass, limited bad hay, they wanted to reduce his food?  Well, no, how can you advise from a different country without asking for enough information? 

Horses should be fed according to where they are and the quality of their grazing and hay among other considerations, not solely by the very general guide lines on the back of the feed bag
Horses should be fed according to where they are and the quality of their grazing and hay among other considerations, not solely by the very general guide lines on the back of the feed bag

Both the vet and the feed advisor are qualified professions and I am sure they are good at their jobs, however, they both have a different country priority.   

The thing that affects me most though, is probably tack.  In developed countries, if a saddle is 99% ok, it’s considered a problem for some people.  A good while ago now, I walked into a riding school and several of the horses had bad saddle sores, some openly bleeding.  When I questioned the manager, I was told that was part and parcel of a riding school horse’s lot.  Did I agree?  Absolutely not.  My first priority was to fit all the saddles, allocate each horse their own saddle, the best possible option, adding pads when they could be useful, and labelling the saddles, the pads and the racks, so making sure that it could be maintained.  By European standard, where they ideal?  No.  Were the horses an awful lot more comfortable, and open wound and blood free?  Yes.  We have an obligation to do the best by our horses, but we do, realistically have to accept that we must have priorities, and often we have to offer the best we can, instead of being paralysed by the knowledge that it can’t be perfect in everyone’s eyes…. 

What compromise would you accept, where are your priorities?