Monday, April 11, 2011

Eventing The First Time

Plain Truth warming up for his first dressage test

Saturday was one of those first times. I got to ride Plain Truth, aka Brownie, in his first event at the Maryland Horse Trials near Frederick. It was an unrecognized event, which means your screw-ups don't go on the horse's official record, and it costs less to enter. It was at Carolyn Macintosh's magnificent Loch Moy Farm, which means that the footing is perfect, the jumps are like art, and the organization is flawless. It also means that everything is pretty much maximum height and to the standard of a recognized event.

Brownie was my second horse of the day. Perfect Eli went first at the same level, so losing my way was unlikely.

Brownie has never been one of the easy ones. He is by my stallion, Salute The Truth (Willy), out of a Thoroughbred mare who we leased for a year because her owner was moving and she was a pretty nice mover. Brownie was always pretty plain looking as a foal, not particularly friendly, and brown. We knew he would become gray and I couldn't think of a good name. Plain Brown Truth became Plain Truth, but Brownie stuck at the barn.

We raise our youngsters like cattle in the far field. They get their feet trimmed and dewormed, but it's always an ordeal because they are wild. Our farrier Angus Whyte would be happy to share some stories.

Brownie got real big and ugly fast. When we brought him down as a three year old to start him we were very careful. He was close to 17 hands, very nervous, and really powerful. Most of Willy's offspring act like they were ridden in the womb, but Brownie made us treat him with respect. He also made the effort worthwhile.

No two horses are alike, but I can't help but lump them into types sometimes. Brownie had developed into the type that has a lot of suspension when inspired, a looseness throughout his body that makes his movement feel like slow motion, and a way of reacting to stimulus that has a little agression mixed in with the fear. He's a pure Thoroughbred that looks, feels, and acts a lot like a quality European warmblood. I love the big, athletic, loose and powerful warmbloods, but they are usually the scariest horses to train. Brownie was all of that.

He never bucked anyone off, but he had a way of tensing up when his environment was unpredictable. He would sometimes lock and stop, sometimes throw a threatening little buck, and generally become angry.

Michelle Warro, our super tactful and super talented assistant trainer did a lot of his early riding, fell in love with him, and then lost the ride to her boss. I get the big ones, she gets the little ones.

We got Brownie going in the fall of his three year old year and had an advanced level event rider do a pre-purchase exam on him that winter. The price was $20,000. The vetting went great, except for a small chip that the radiographs showed in his hock. Maybe never an issue, but you never know. I agreed to do the surgery at my expense. The sale was still on track until the hock got infected. In total the ordeal cost $10,000 and left him with a perfectly good hock but a permanent "bog spavin" or pouch of fluid.

We put Brownie back in work last fall after 8 months off, got him jumping, and took him to some neighbors to school over their jumps a handful of times. Brownie never really stopped at jumps, but the new environments would make him think his world was caving in and it would always take a while to settle. I would hold the neck strap quite firmly.

When I walked the cross country at Loch Moy Saturday I thought that maybe this was too much. We'd really only schooled cross country twice away from home, and the second time he was so worried about his little girlfriend Truce that we didn't accomplish much. Brownie isn't the kind of horse that responds well to pressure of any kind. I couldn't make him jump if he didn't want to. 

I decided that my big-ass ego would not get in the way. If we only trotted a couple jumps on the third try and then went home, that would be OK. If we only did a bit of time standing around the dressage warmup and then called it quits that would be OK too. No expectations.

Brownie was Brownie on the way to dressage. He was petrified, but fortunately also a bit curious. I think he really wanted to leave the trailer and go see what all those horses were doing up on that hill. It was just really, really scary. Malinda walked alongside him and led him when he needed the help. It took a while. The show jumping, three dressage arenas, and dressage warm up are all in one huge enclosed arena. There were probably twenty horses in the warm up, plus three doing their tests, and another jumping the colored rails on the other side. 

We sort of scooted in the gate of the warm up arena and then spent five minutes darting this way and that like a pinball. If he just had to stop and snort I let him and then coaxed him forward. When he was going forward I nudged him along even more forward with my calves. My salvation, I knew, would be the incredible trot that he was born with. He can't help but find rhythm in that trot, and that rhythm and full use of his body has a way of captivating his mind and reminding him that it's really all about him. When I finally got that trot we were good. The canter made us even better. I swear he knew he was the best moving horse in that herd and forgot that he was the newcomer. By the time we entered the arena we owned the place.

Even if you own the warmup arena, being all alone in the 20 x 40 is a different scene.  He spooked hard at the scribe's paper shuffling as we took our tour around the arena just to show the judge he was a greenie and get some sympathy. He did his absolute best once we entered. He couldn't do better than he's trained to be, and he really isn't very polished yet in his transitions, but he sure can walk, trot and canter like he belongs there, and he showed that. The judge was generous, the competition was light, and we finished in third with a 35 (that's 65% in dressage numbers).

Going from the trailer to the jumping warmup was easier than our first trip away. He was only a fraction as tense as in the dressage warmup, but still a bit tight at first. It's amazing, by the way, how much more dangerous a warm up arena with eight Beginner Novice horses is at an unrecognized event than a warm up with twenty upper level horses is at a recognized event. It's just really hard to figure out what direction some of those wild ponies are going!

Brownie jumped the warmup fences just fine, thank you. We got going forward, almost a gallop, and let him use his body. Jumping 2' 6" doesn't really count as jumping for a horse with Brownie's talent, but I wouldn't have wanted them any bigger. We trotted out of the warmup area to the gate for show jumping like we meant business. At least I wanted Brownie to think he meant business. Poor guy didn't even know what the business was going to be.

Lucky for me we didn't have to wait long. The gate person, Tom Smith, is a friend from the horse council and after his public pronouncement after my first ride that I'd never win the Medal Maclay he owed me one. I got into the arena before Brownie had time to get distracted.

Often I trot the first fence on a really green horse and then just kind of let them tell me how they want to proceed. The jumps are enough of a shock, and if they come up too quickly the youngsters don't have time to process what they are going to do and they freeze. Brownie has such a balanced canter that I picked it up right away and let him find that magic rhythm in a nice big loop around to the first fence. That was, of course, after I walked him past the first fence in an obvious effort to cheat legally. The canter felt good so we cantered right down to the first fence, and he stepped over it like it was one of the jumps at home. He jumped the whole course like that, pretty much waiting for me to ask him to shorten or lengthen his stride. They weren't all perfect, but that's because I didn't give him a perfect ride. The dude was ready to be perfect. Next time I'll be ready.

He did offer a bit of humor to Tom Smith and company at the gate on the last fence. It was a two stride combination, with the second element right in front of the in-gate. The two was riding very tight for most horses, so I made a point of getting close to the first element and jumping in small. I was too successful at that and the two strides suddenly became long, giving Brownie an opening to see the gate. As I was about to ask him to stretch forward in his second stride he veered right toward the gate. I managed to swerve back, add a third stride and get over the fence, but I used my voice at a fairly high volume to get it done. I can't remember what Tom said, but he certainly cut me no slack. That's ok. My horse just grew up. He's two thirds of the way to becoming an event horse. Just getting through the finish flags is enough to make my day.

Like most events these days, we go straight from show jumping to cross country with just a few minutes to catch our breath, adjust our tack, or jump a couple warm up fences. I slipped into the cross country warm up area on my way and let Brownie feel the spongy wet turf that had soaked up a lot of rain the previous day. We cantered a few circles and jumped the log jump that was set up for schooling. Brownie was a little confused about why we were going in circles at the edge of a huge field, but no real problems.

Dale Clabaugh was the cross country starter. Seeing people like Dale at events always makes me feel safe and among friends. She used to organize the Menfelt Horse Trials, she's active in the Maryland Horse Council, she sponsors this event in her role as a State Farm agent, and she would do anything for anybody. She introduced me to her college-age daughter as we waited to start. While Dale spoke over the radio I told her daughter that I was part of Dale's Fan Club. Her daughter said she was President of that fan club and gave me the thumbs up. Off we went, smiling of course.

Again, we picked up a canter and headed toward the roll top that was fence #1. We went for a conservative, close distance, stepped over the jump like it was nothing new, and cantered on. Fence two was a little bigger and more interesting looking with a shine from the rain that was no longer falling. Perfect. He used his body a little more and it was fun. Fence three was a little weird looking. It had stone dust to repair the footing at take off and chopped up mud on the far side. It had that airy hanging log effect, and was at the end of a line of bigger jumps for the higher levels. Brownie actually hesitated here, broke to trot, and then jumped. I like that carefulness. If they never question the jumps at the lower levels, they never learn to think. We want them to get there, ask if it's ok by hesitating a titch, and then go when we answer them with a reassuring squeeze. That little conversation works like a half-halt to shift the balance back and increase power and adjustability for the jump. Horses that are too brave don't check in with us that way, so we have to check in with them. That's harder to do without interfering with the rhythm. It won't be long before this huge subject gets a blog posting of its own...if I ever figure it out myself.

Brownie did everything right. We trotted the downhill house with the slippery turn after it to the water. He went into the water at a trot and cantered out. He cantered over the ditch with no fear. On we went.

The coolest part is just being out there. Cross country jumping is so natural for a horse that we don't have much work to do. In dressage and show jumping we as riders have to be on the ball, but on cross country, especially at the lower levels, we spend most of the time just balanced over our feet feeling the incredible beast beneath us doing what he was bred to do, which if he is all or part thoroughbred is to run. A little daydreaming is ok. A little listening to the horse is even better.

Wow. Brownie just went around his very first cross country course and proved to the world that eventing is the sport for him. He's brave, he's adjustable, he's athletic, and he did it so calmly! I always say that horses only learn when they are relaxed. This horse just learned so damn much in six minutes. He mostly learned that it feels really good to do this. I'm damn lucky to be there for the ride.

Oh, and don't feel bad for Michelle who did the hard work with him early on. She had an identical experience Saturday with Salute The Truce, our four year old who has been under saddle for only 6 months and placed 2nd in her division at the same level. I didn't steal the ride on that one because she'd look like a pony with me on her. The two of them were magnificent.

And big, bad Brownie finished his day tied to the trailer with Sam and Andy, my 20 month old twin boys, taking turns on his back.

PS. If you are wondering where this whole "Listen to The Horse" thing came from, it's part two of our answer to the Natural Horsemen who seem to be in the habit of copyrighting phrases and words for their training materials. First we thought we would copyright the phrase "Learn to Fucking Ride." It's a pretty good answer to people who ask why their horse misbehaves, don't you think? When you've done that, you get to compete. When you are at the competition, the hardest thing to do is to "Listen To The Horse". It may sound a little hokey, but I swear it's the best advice you'll ever get as you enter the arena. In another blog post I will tell you what it means to my father. For that be prepared to go deep.

So, whatever it means to you, Listen To The Horse.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Today was only day two on Annie. She's a nice looking bay Thoroughbred mare who I met last month when her owner, Shannon Bristow, brought her to a clinic at Stonewood Farm in Pennsylvania.

"She just gets really quick and locks against me," was Shannon's initial commentary. After 15 minutes of trying this and that without much progress, I asked if I could ride her. Usually at clinics, I get on and within ten steps or so the horse accepts the bit, and a couple circles later starts to accept the leg, and everyone is really impressed. Then I get off and have at least a chance of getting the rider to produce the same result.

Annie wasn't playing that game when I met her in PA that day. After about twenty minutes she started to give us a glimpse of where we wanted to go, and Shannon was able to get on and get a glimmer of it, but we were both pretty clear that it wasn't the breakthrough that was going to stick. Shannon asked what I thought I could do with her in a month, and I promised the world...or at least that she'd be doing basic training level dressage respectably and ought to be cantering small fences quietly.

So, she arrived Friday afternoon. Training horses only get ridden on weekdays unless they are competing, so Monday was day one. I got on in the indoor. Annie jigged. A little tension at first isn't unusual, but most horses will settle at the walk if you ask for nothing. Annie's walk wasn't settling, and there was enough natural impulsion in that walk that I decided to close my fingers on the reins and wait for her to soften to my hand. The idea is that the horse figures out that the bit is establishing a boundary. The horse accepts that boundary and settles within it, like it accepts the walls to a stall or the pressure of a rider's leg. Moving the bit a lot or pulling it hard does not convey the idea of a stable boundary.

As I walked around the indoor arena on Annie yesterday I stabilized my hands, but felt no need to squeeze my legs because she was already going quite forward and any additional pressure anywhere felt like it would make her explode. It worked to some degree, but slower than on most horses. She ended the session having found the round frame, or at least softened poll (arched neck if you're not a horse person), some of the time. While that was a relief to her, she would still lock against my hand and throw her head up defensively at the slightest distraction. I thought we had made progress, but not as much as I'd hoped.

Tuesday it was raining hard outside. Horses are never as settled in the indoor arena when it's raining outside. She started out even more tense than yesterday. We walked for 20 minutes. I worked to maintain my position and the consistency of my connection while thinking back on similar mares I had ridden when I was younger. I remembered how much more demanding I was then. I was like my younger students who want so much to get it right, whose bodies get more and more tense as progress slips further and further away. Those thoughts would have made me smile had my arms not been getting sore from the fact that Annie really wasn't softening to the bit.

Michelle, our assistant trainer, came in on Truce, and then barn manager Emily entered with my next horse, Brownie. Annie became even more oblivious to the guy on her back and just had to check out the new arrivals. Quick, quick, quick. Everything she did was quick. A good quiet rhythm is hypnotic to a horse. Rushing is bad.

I walked her into the corner. When she figured out that she couldn't go left and couldn't go right, she actually took a deep breath and stood still. Hmmm. That was interesting. I had never before put a horse on time-out like that. It worked just like it does with a child. She had time to settle and reorganize. So did I. We both needed it.

I used my time in the corner to slow things down and come up with a new plan. I'm always in a hurry to get all the horses ridden. Don't like delays. Annie needed help. Emily, I'm sure, was a bit surprised when I said she could take Brownie back and put him on the cross ties. Annie and I weren't done.

Things needed to be simpler for Annie. One issue at a time. Accept the bit.

Side reins are straps connecting the bit to the saddle with a rubber doughnut in them to soften the connection. I dismounted, walked to the wall where we keep but rarely use such paraphernalia, attached the side reins to the saddle at the top of the girth, and connected the longe line. Before attaching the side reins I let Annie walk and trot on a circle around me on the line for about a minute. Longeing was not new to her. I slowly and deliberately attached the side reins to the bit on the longest hole. Some very defensive horses try to fight the restriction of side reins and run backwards or rear. Annie did not. She put pressure on the bit, tested the restriction, but did not fight.  

Watching a horse like Annie in side reins is fascinating. She locks her left jaw more than her right, and prefers to bend her neck to the right. As a rider we know that if we can work through the resistance on the stiff side, wonderful things start happening. The horse discovers that its body moves in a way that it thought was impossible, and the opening of vertebrae in its back and neck feels so good that tight muscles become soft, tension disappears, and everyone smiles.

Annie walked and then trotted with her head in more or less the correct position, with her nose only slightly in front of her forehead, but from the expression on her face and the shape of the muscles in her neck it was clear that she still was locked in her neck and jaw. I asked her to walk and then halt by stepping slightly to the left as she circled me counter clock-wise. She did so like an expert. I walked slowly toward her and tightened the left draw rein by two holes. Then I showed her at the halt how to bend all the way through her neck in a deeper frame by working the bit with one hand and pressing her neck with the other. She got it. I cooed to her.

OK. Now lets see what we've got.

Annie walked forward from a voice command in a circle to the left. I was really into it by this time. I found myself straightening up my own slouchy posture and twisting the kink out of my own neck. I took a little feel of the inside ring of the bit with the longe line that was attached to it. Annie found the spot. She looked good. I asked her to trot. She looked even better. Wow. Nice trot. She's got rhythm, swing, even a little suspension. Her hard eye got soft. Her neck had a shape. All the tension left my body as soon as it left hers.

I don't normally ride a horse in side reins, especially one who carries a lot of tension, but I really wanted to be sure that before we ended our session Annie got a feel of her new shape with me on her back. I mounted really carefully, a little nervous still that she could react to the side reins in a way that would leave my face black and blue. She walked on just as carefully, but without the tension I had felt earlier. I picked up the reins and connected to something soft and elastic. It was every muscle in her neck unlocked and willing to move wherever my hands led. She was elastic. I rode for about 30 seconds at the walk, dropped the reins and dismounted. I can't wait to ride her tomorrow.

This wasn't about the side reins. It was about showing Annie just how safe and comfortable life can be inside of the boundaries that we create. Some people don't ask horses to accept the bit or accept leg pressure in the way we do for dressage and eventing. That's OK. Some horses go just fine on a loose rein for certain activities.

Annie, however, was stuck. Going above the bit for her was a demonstration of dominance, a way to increase her pace at will, a way to avoid bending laterally, and a barrier to the softening of her back. The dressage training scale says contact and submission to the bit comes after relaxation and rhythm. Some horses, particularly those who have raced, won't find relaxation and rhythm without roundness and acceptance of the bit. Annie is an extreme case.

I don't know what Annie will do tomorrow, or a week from tomorrow. Were I a gambler, I'd bet that tomorrow she'll be as steady as a rock in her new round frame and that I can start work on transitions and acceptance of my leg aids. She just seems to me like a very serious horse who believes that she discovered a way to make being ridden more comfortable, and she won't forget that. But I'm not a gambler, and if I get too invested in the notion that I have had a breakthrough with Annie I'll be frustrated tomorrow when she comes up with new ways to demonstrate her dominant nature.

My obligation to Annie is that I ride without expectations and continue to listen, continue to feel, and continue to think. Not a bad lesson for me. Thanks Annie.

I hope tomorrow that again I will Listen to the Horse.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Steuart Pittman's New Blog

Steuart and Salute The Truth

Welcome to Listen to the Horse. Future posts will have a subject and a theme. This, however, is just a bit of a ramble on what to expect if you choose to subscribe. Consider it a warning about who I am and what I am likely to say.

Training horses is most of what I do, and most of what this blog will be about. We do it for clients by the month on our farm, and we train the ones we own that are for sale. To my simple mind, training is about learning to ride well, knowing what you want to achieve, and then listening to the horse. The horse tells you what you need to know to figure out your road map to get where you're going. It's pretty simple, except that the horse is changing every second, so to be any good at it you have to pay attention.

I also get paid to teach people to ride their own horses well. I charge more for that because it's harder work. Some of my teaching is private lessons with regular students here on the farm, and some is at clinics elsewhere. It's a nice mix. Regular students test my creativity and force me to take some responsibility for progress over time. Clinics give me a snapshot of horse and rider on a day, and challenge me to create for them a breakthrough in their learning that puts them onto a new trajectory that they will have to manage in their future.

What I like about teaching people is that most really want to succeed. The sensation of the horse as an extension of one's body is enough to motivate folks to try really, really hard, but humans are a lot less honest with themselves than horses, and their brains get in the way. I'm no psychotherapist, but people who learn to "think like horses" sure do seem to catch on quickly to riding. Seems to me that they also enjoy living their lives. I am sure that I won't be able to resist the temptation in this blog to tease humanity, and maybe a few individuals within it, about the intellectual knots they tie while seeking to connect with nature's most powerful domesticated beast. If you are offended, please remember that I also am a human being.

What horses will do for people is amazing to me, and what people will do for horses is pretty impressive as well. I find the whole thing fascinating, but it goes further than that. When humans share a passion they connect with each other. They connect and become communities. That gives purpose to people's lives and makes us evolve as a species. Sorry, I know I shouldn't preach like that. Just read on even if you're disgusted.

In addition to the horse thing, I consider myself a lifelong community organizer. It's kind of like a religion. From 1984-1994 I worked for what used to be the largest national network of neighborhood organizations in low and moderate income communities of America. I organized in Chicago, in Iowa, and then was Director of National Campaigns in the Washington, D.C. office of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). It was a fantastic organization that eventually fell victim to its own success long after I had made a decision to return to my family's farm in Maryland and make a living with horses. I mention this only to warn you that some of my thinking is tainted by a social conscience. It pops up unexpectedly.

Three Day Eventing is my sport of choice. The challenge of training horses to do dressage, cross country, and show jumping not only makes for strong horse-to-human bonds, but also is the basis for a community of people that shares a connection like nothing I have felt anywhere else in my life. Serious eventers are all friends at a deep level. They are organized locally and nationally in formal and informal structures, and their gatherings are always fun. For information about the sport go to

People from other horse sports also organize themselves and love each others' company. To some degree horse people organize geographically across disciplines. The Maryland Horse Council is one such group that I know well because I am about to begin my second (and last) two year term as president. Pulling horse folks together who don't necessarily ride together is challenging, except when outsiders are messing with our world, or when our animals are being hurt. Then we mobilize and kick butt. It's something I get a real charge from because it's people at our best. It's people in community.

The final aspect of what I will write about is the Retired Racehorse Training Project. Teaching to large audiences at horse expos gave me the confidence to organize a Retired Racehorse Training Symposium in the fall of 2009. When 350 people bought tickets I knew we were onto something. Filling the four hours with good information and entertainment was easy, and our post-event survey of attendees showed a huge demand for more education and promotion on the subject. Look for future posts about an apprenticeship program, training camps, and our new web site that is soon to be launched.

So after years of resisting the trendy word "blog" I am jumping in with my own. If reading my posts makes you feel part of a community, gives you ideas about training, makes you think outside the box,  or makes you laugh, please subscribe and ask others to do so as well. The more readers we have, the harder I'll work at this.

For more information on what we do on the farm, go to, and for regular news click "like" on our Dodon Farm Facebook page.

My parting line will always be the same...

Listen to the horse.