Saturday, July 30, 2011

Aloha Harley!

I have not seen Harley in an entire week!

My husband and I just returned from a trip to Hawaii.  This trip was very uncharacteristic for us.  We rarely fly and have certainly never traveled so far from home.  We have also never left our birds or Harley for such an extended period of time.  One week may not sound like a lot, but it is a lot for us!  Our budgies and cockatiel were very happy to see us, but I cannot wait to go see Harley!

Hubby having fun with the camera

I felt so badly leaving him last Friday.  The temperatures on the Big Island were low to mid eighties with no humidity worth mentioning, except in the rainforest.  ;)  Meanwhile, poor Harley had to stay in New Jersey, battling temperatures over one hundred degrees and approaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit with the heat index.  The day before I left, he looked so awful that I almost did not want to go.  Harley enjoys 24/7 turnout, so he is well acclimated to his environment, but the heat was so extreme that he was beginning to struggle.  Although there is plenty of shade and shelter in his paddock, Harley and his buddy like to nap in the far sunny corner of the turnout during the afternoon.  I guess that habit trumps heat waves, because I found the two horses napping in full sun.  Harley's fur is light-colored with dark skin, like a polar bear.  This is helpful in the winter, not so helpful in the summer.  Both horses were sweating, but Harley looked terrible.  His dark skin was visible under his coat, slick with sweat.  The profuse sweat made his body look charcoal gray instead of cream-colored with shiny wetness around his eyes and ears.  The vet says to be happy if your horse can sweat, because some horses do not sweat enough and have difficulty thermoregulating.  Harley can sweat with the best of them, but I am not sure for how long his body could have handled the heat stress.  He was successfully cooling himself, because he did not actually feel hot when I touched his chest and flanks, but his face said it all.

"I feel yucky.  Take care of me."

After a cool shower and lavish use of the "horse squeegee", he was looking much better.  Harley confirmed that he was feeling better, too, when he did not hesitate in hoovering up a stray clump of hay in the aisle.  But it was not until I returned from the tack room and he was wearing his "carrot face" that I breathed a sigh of relief.  He was officially "okay".  I parked him in front of a couple fans and gave him a thorough grooming and detangling before my departure.  I topped off his fly spray, installed a fresh mineral block in his stall, and left instructions to please keep him inside during the day while I was gone.  I would not be there to take care of him if he decided to nap in the blazing heat again.  I said good-bye to him about four times before I finally left.  It was so difficult to leave my horse during such extreme temperatures, but I knew that he would be well cared for under the watchful eyes of my barn owners.

The Pacific Ocean

Evidence that volcanoes and rainforests can be explored on horseback

Harley has a connection to Hawaii.  Can you guess what it might be?

Friday, July 22, 2011

The 50th Post

Starting this blog has been a lot of things.  I had not written for enjoyment in years (ever?), which is probably because writing has always been an assigned task in term papers, research papers, lab reports, and lesson plans.  The same can be said of reading books, which I loved as a child, but do not make time for as an adult except to read expository horse books and nonfiction online, including blogs.  I think that I may be one of those students who read every single novel ever assigned in high school and college.  I thought that every student did this, until I noticed others mentioning things like CliffsNotes and online summaries.  My art teacher in high school called me a "purist" for completing a pen and ink drawing with an old-fashioned dip pen and ink well.  I guess that actually reading, cover to cover, assigned books in school also falls into this category as does becoming a teacher who expects the same from her students.  Not only has this blog, and blogs that I read, allowed me to discover the benefits of creative, personal writing, it has also inspired me to read fiction again.  I am the proud owner of a new Kindle with some freshly downloaded books.  Now if I could also download some time, that would be perfect!

When I started this blog, I had already been reading several blogs for going-on two years, although I had ignored the Follower button completely.  I did not like the term "Follower", but now that I realize it just means that you get a list of blogs that you like and their updates, I have learned to relinquish my skepticism and enjoy this feature offered by Blogger.  I do not participate in other social media (at least not yet), so blog-reading was my first exposure to the lives of others in cyberspace, their horses, and a community of people who share my interests and background.  I have also found a new love in writing and its benefits.  Nothing tops my list of topics over horses, especially my horse, so thinking about topics for the blog, collecting pictures and video, and letting my creativity have some "loose reins" has been an unexpected delight, albeit time consuming.  Writing has also forced me to think about what I do, how I do things, and what I believe in when it comes to horses and riding.  This has been a valuable experience, in much the same way that teaching is a profession of self-improvement, and I hope that my cherished group of Followers has enjoyed the process with me.  I also hope that there are a few readers like I once was, reluctant to press the button, but still interested enough to come back once in a while for a visit.  To those of you who frequent my blog and leave comments: Thank you for reading, for leaving your thoughts and input, and for often contributing little tidbits of your own experiences.  I had no idea how rewarding this type of discourse could be in both directions, as I greatly enjoy reading the updates from my blog roll, learning about you, your animals, and everything in between.  Thank you for taking me with you!

It is far too hot to ride, so Harley decided to offer some amusing photos.  As the frequent star of this blog, I hope that you have gotten a feel for his character.  He was born just before I graduated high school, and it took nearly nine years for us to find our way to one another.  Not bad for a future dressage girl born in Texas and a quarter horse born of barrel racing stock in North Dakota.  I look into his eye and I cannot help but feel that there is more than just an animal looking back at me.  He is a very special horse and I am grateful for every moment that we share together.

My horse, my love

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Memoirs: A Horse Girl and a Petite Stallion

My favorite fictitious horse is "The Black"  from Walter Farley's The Black Stallion.  I am forever captivated by the relationship between Alec and The Black.  Many, many horse stories recreate the bond between human and horse, like National Velvet, which is another favorite of mine, but in my opinion none can compare to The Black Stallion.  I own the story in numerous forms which reflect the evolution of audio/video technology: the book, a small vinyl record for children, a cassette tape and book, a VHS movie, an older DVD, and most recently we bought the movie on Blu-ray.  It is stunning.

The Black Stallion film was released in theaters during my birth year and was shown again locally when I was old enough to sit in a movie theater.  I believe that it was the first movie that I saw in the theaters, although it is a close tie with E.T.  From age three, I do remember seeing the movie and that it coincided very closely with my first time sitting on a horse.  These two experiences solidified my fascination with the animal, which, thirty years later, has never lost momentum.  I am physically unable not to shed tears when Alec and The Black make contact for the first time and during the flashbacks to the beach in the race scene at the end of the movie.  In my opinion, the film is remarkably and undeniably beautiful: the scenery, the cinematography, the music, and how these elements of film come together to color the story of a boy and his horse, two souls who saved each other.

As a kid with a healthy imagination, sometimes I was Alec, sometimes I was The Black.  I inspired other girls on the playground at recess to be my herd and we cantered and galloped around the school yard like a horse-crazed mob.  I guess that my dedication to the role was contagious, because a surprisingly small number of kids made fun of us.  Most girls wanted to "run with the pack" and a few boys who dared criticize usually got their toes stomped on, stallion-style.  I was actually reprimanded for this, because I liked to wear black shoes with a heel that could seriously deal a painful blow.  I grew out of this before fourth grade, but it must have been a sight on the playground.

Fast forward to the years between college and marrying my husband, who was my long-distance steady after graduation.  My riding instructor, the dressage rider with the lovely chestnut mare, surprised me with a newly purchased horse.  He was blond.  He was handsome.  He was five.  He was a "whole" male horse.  And the best part?  As a registered, pure-bred Halflinger stallion, "Harry" was my size!

Harry: At 14.1 hands, he is the petite stallion.

Less than a year before, I had lost my (leased) beloved mare, who will certainly reappear in my memoirs, so I had been riding my instructor's lovely Garbo.  This was a cherished opportunity, since she was an FEI dressage horse, but when a horse has a very strong connection with another person, it always feels a little flat riding that horse if you are not "that person".  This was especially noticeable after losing a horse and the bond we had developed over several years.  I had actually started looking for other places to ride, because my sadness was leaving me restless and I wondered if it would be best to move on.  Enter Harry.  We became fast buds.  I needed a new horse to love and he needed a feisty girl to ride him.  Boy were we in for some interesting times.

First Show: Introductory Level Dressage, 67%
There was no doubting Harry's talents in dressage.  He also developed skills in jumping and driving.

I only rode Harry for a year or two, while I was working as a chemist.  Unfortunately, I did not have many daylight hours for riding, but I made do with the time that I had.  When I got married and moved away, I had to say "Good-Bye" to this handsome fellow, but his lessons stayed with me.  The most valuable was the importance of riding a horse who fits your person.  I used to love riding big (16+ hand) horses, undeniably because I liked feeling taller.  But truth be told, I rode Harry with much more ease than the larger horses I had become accustomed to riding.  I finally appreciated the horses of my height and enjoyed riding with less muscle and greater effectiveness.  I thank Harry for influencing me to choose a rather small horse in Harley and for teaching me the tactfulness that is required to ride even a petite stallion.

Look for Harry in future Memoirs!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Riding Video About Contact, Sitting Trot, and Connection

My husband recorded this video after we warmed up in walk and rising trot.  I wanted to show how Harley has learned to lift his back up to my seat in trot with minimal rein contact.  I like that he is willing to make contact with my seat without aids asking him to go on the bit or lift his back.  Some horses may offer their backs from the start, but this is a skill and body awareness which Harley has been growing as we ride together.  He has taught me to stay light on my feet and seat, so that I can vary the distribution of my weight in the saddle.

Some things to look for and the elusive sitting trot:
  1. Harley's swinging tail
  2. My swinging bellybutton, which returns my pelvis to neutral
  3. Harley's long neck and lifted back: he lifts up the saddle.
  4. Harley experiences a "release" when he walks and stretches his neck and back
  5. My feet in the stirrups: I trot with the horse by alternating some of the weight in each stirrup in rhythm with Harley's steps and tempo.
I have relearned sitting trot more times than any other riding skill.  I was never taught what to do with my legs or stirrups except to "relax".  Sitting without stirrups builds confidence and may help the student find the seat, but I strongly advocate learning to sit the trot WITH stirrups.  I find that this step is often overlooked once a student can perform sitting trot stirrup-less.  I did not have too much trouble sitting without stirrups, but adding the stirrups back in was another story.  The rider must learn not to brace against the stirrup or float above the stirrup by clenching the leg, which are two mistakes that I had to unlearn.  I used the latter to "fake it" in order to avoid a scolding from my first dressage instructor.  What I needed to know was that an effective way to sit the trot was with a neutral pelvis and by gently sinking my weight into the right and left stirrup alternately and in time with the horse.  This is something that was never explained to me, but I learned to do with Harley by standing in the stirrups in trot.  You cannot remain standing unless you trot with the horse.  The same skill is required to sit!

This is a riding paradox.  
 You must stand in order to sit.  

Of course, none of this will work if your horse is not offering his back with softness and forwardness.  Attempting to sit on a braced back can be detrimental to the horse.

Once we move on to rising trot, Harley and I begin to have a conversation about contact.  The tempo is slow, which helps Harley focus on carrying as we warm up.  I do not "set his head".  I ask him to move forward and I receive the contact which he creates as our conversation progresses.  I am not concerned with the steadiness or perfectness of his head carriage.  He will settle in the rein contact when we find the length of neck that allows him to balance comfortably.  My priority is to meet the connection he offers with support, but softness in my wrists, elbows, and shoulders.  This is a challenge which I must rediscover every single time that I ride.  Forcing it to happen instantly tightens my shoulders (my personal brace), which blocks a working connection.  We can increase the power and energy of his trot once we have reached an understanding in this all important discussion about contact.

    Sunday, July 17, 2011

    Some Dressage Philosophy, Lateral Work, and an Itchy Public Service Announcement

    Harley and I had a nice conversation under saddle on Friday.  He warmed up really well and I paid special attention to my left side in the warm up:  raise my left wrist, feel both seat bones in the saddle, drop my right shoulder and leg.  This was combined with thinking about the bend in my elbows, especially the outside elbow.

    Some Dressage Philosophy...

    Over the years, my horse and I have developed a working connection, which I believe trumps the partnerships I have had with other horses.  I like to describe Harley as "particular".  If the rider (me) rails against him (even a little) with a fixed position and/or leaning back, he will tighten and invert.  If the rider (me) is able to keep him from inverting with effective aids, he can still brace against the bit and the fixed position.  This tips his balance to the forehand and defeats the purpose the training.  To be fair, rider error is not the only cause.  He can throw himself into this off-balance situation if he is pushing more than he is carrying with his hind legs due to habit, excitement, conformation, or a loss of rider balance (Oops!  Me, again).  If he is moving flat and rushing, the problem is best fixed by returning to a slower gait and reestablishing relaxation and the conversation between horse and rider.  If balance has been compromised, but he still has some softness to his back and neck, then a check of rider position and a well-timed half-halt is usually a successful remedy.  The rider position check is a must, but somethings my version of a half-halt is a transition or school figure or the verbal cue "aaanndd" from our lunge line work.  Correcting my position and riding a nice corner or volte with the purpose of rebalancing my horse, gives him the opportunity to improve his coordination as a ridden horse from the inside out.  This is very different from packaging the horse and trying to control every step.  Harley's "particular-ness" prevents me from overriding and has taught me to listen to my horse and become a better rider.

    I have heard riders who describe their horses as having to be "held together" or if they do not ride every step the horse comes to pieces.  Although I understand the importance of providing support and that sometimes this support may be quite large, these descriptions do not speak to my training philosophy.  Training should teach the horse to learn better balance himself, not just learn to take cues from the rider to maintain a frame or balance and fall apart when the supports are removed.  In the other direction, I also do not agree with leaving the horse to his own defenses and expecting him to just figure it out.  For example, riding at a trot or canter with loose reins on a horse that has not learned how to lift his back or balance under a rider and is not straight.  At best, the rider learns to stay with the awkward movement of a horse running on his forehand or the horse adopts a very low-impact gait that may be more self-preservative, but does not necessarily improve the horse.  I do not like to think about worst case scenarios, which definitely depend on the individual horse and rider, so I am just going to say that I think this strategy puts a disproportional amount of responsibility on the horse.  My challenge, as Harley's rider, is to present safe and challenging movements or figures that help my horse improve his ability to carry me.  As we improve as a pair, he requires less support from me and this is how we strive towards lightness.  We each maintain our individual balances, which allows us to maintain our collective balance.  The horse learns from the movements under a balanced rider, which is my understanding of the essence of classical dressage.

    ...Lateral Work...

    Friday's movements were small circles (voltes), shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass in sitting trot with some rising trot and forward stretch to reward his efforts and relax his muscles.  Asking my horse to move his shoulders and haunches independent of one another improves every aspect of our work together.  Since he has practiced lateral work many times, I feel him rebalance himself as my position requests a new body position from him.  After bending the joints of a hind leg a little more to accomplish a haunches-in, we straighten to a springier trot.  The lateral stretch required for haunches-in, improves his longitudinal stretch which allows him to collect his body.  I feel him carry me more easily with each repetition.  There is an elastic flow under the saddle, like a cloth being tugged out from under my seat and then rebounding for the next stride.

    I was very careful about only using my legs to ask for the body position.  If his responsibility for impulsion had to be refreshed, I used the whip in time with his steps.  Using the whip as a metronome was very effective, even with gentle taps.  A couple times I did not ask for the movement.  I just changed my leg and seat position, felt him change his, and then I praised him and returned to straight.  This was good practice for both of us and gave me a chance to release my tighter right seat bone forward.

    The neatest repetition was our last time at half-pass right.  This is our more challenging direction, because the right side is less bendy and the left side resists stretching into the outside rein.  I turned Harley in a small half-circle, ready to approach the rail in half-pass.  Before changing my legs for the half-pass, I asked for shoulder-in down the quarter line.  He did some of the most lovely shoulder-in right that I have felt and then I gently swung my inside leg and seat bone forward, bending my outside leg behind the girth.  I also remembered to keep my wrists lifted and level.  Lovely, forward half-pass back to the track.

    Good boy.  I dropped the reins and patted Harley, thinking about how focused he was and how nicely he was carrying himself.  Then I realized that my stomach felt itchy.  I scratched what I thought was an insect bite, but when I looked at my stomach my heart sank.  Hives.  My horse needed cooling, so I started to walk Harley around the ring and then thought better of it.  He nodded toward the gate and I agreed.  Better get off now and get Benadryl.

    A couple Benadryl later, I was rinsing his legs and my wrists and stomach, trying to stop myself from sweating.  My scalp and underarms were itching and my palms were burning.  This is not a convenient situation when your horse still needs to be cleaned up and your tack put away.  I have a sensitivity to preservatives containing "sulfites".  If I eat foods containing this preservative and then sweat, I get hives, probably from the preservative or its byproduct excreted through my pores.  I have read that it is not a true allergy, since my body is not reacting to a protein, but Benadryl still halts the allergic response.  Unfortunately, I had eaten at a diner, which I do not frequent, for lunch.  This was probably the source of the sulfites, as this preservative may have been applied to prevent food born illnesses.  This is quite ironic for me and my husband, as we both experience itchy misery from the preservative.  I read labels like crazy to avoid purchasing foods with these preservatives and foods naturally possessing sulfites or sulfur dioxide such as balsamic vinegar, concord grape juices, and wine, but it is still a risk when eating at a restaurant.

    I finished everything in record time and rushed home for the relief of the shower.  The Benadryl halted and reversed the itchiness.
    Thank goodness!

    ...and an Itchy Public Service Announcement:

    If you suffer from mysterious full-body hives especially after exercise, have been allergy-tested and do not know the cause, I encourage you to read about "Sulfite Sensitivity".  This preservative (any chemical name ending in "-sulfITE"  and sulfur dioxide, not sulfATE.) is present in so many forms and used so frequently that it is consumed by most people on a regular basis.  Some foods contain sulfites naturally and this information will not be included on a label.  Concord grapes and any food derived from this fruit always possess sulfites.  I have been allergic to concord grapes since I was a child, but only learned of the probable cause as an adult.  Avoiding foods containing sulfites effectively prevents the itchiness!

    Thursday, July 14, 2011

    Riding Reflection: Canter Repeat and Starting Canter to Walk

    We found our canter groove again yesterday.  I have to make sure that my thighs are open during the transition to canter and then my seat snuggles in this wonderful spot in the saddle.  My saddle, an Albion Original Comfort, has a very wide twist and a flat seat which was designed for the female pelvis.  I love the wide, flat surface of my Albion.  It offers me a stability unmatched by any other saddle I have tried.  I do not like really deep seats, because they tend to trap me in the deepest part of the saddle, which may not allow my leg to hang in a balanced place.  I also cannot tolerate a narrow twist, which goes back to my "Princess and the Pea" qualities (Rider Confessions).  A narrow twist and a deep seat usually leaves one of my seat bones without an honest contact in the saddle.  This compromises stability and communication, to say the least.

    We tried the left lead first, and I have to give Harley some credit.  This is his more bendy side so he tends to find it easier to stretch on this lead, but more difficult to remain balanced laterally and shift his weight back to his hind end.  After viewing some photos of us riding, I saw that I am dropping my left wrist, arm, and side.  Guess what?  The left is my bendy side, too!  I remembered this (most of the time) while we were riding and Harley straightened right up.  When I forgot, my left hand started creeping lower and lower, almost resting on my saddle.  This was married to a dropped left shoulder and a raised right shoulder (my tight side, of course).  Naturally, Harley followed me in this decline, but as soon as I picked my left side up and relaxed and dropped my right shoulder, off we went in a lovely balance.

    A very exaggerated example of our mutual lean, which becomes more prominent with speed (Photos from a previous ride).

    Remaining balanced laterally is easier on straight lines, even when we are just having fun rather than schooling collected canter or transitions.

    Who starts the left-side lean?  I have seen Harley lean in this direction at liberty or on the line, so he can make it happen on his own, but I have also noticed my own inclinations.  When I watch TV, I sit next to the right arm of the couch, propping up my right arm and shoulder and happily collapsing and curling my left side into a concave form that fits into the couch arm.  So comfy!  But this reveals my natural tendency to collapse or lean left, like my horse.  When I purchased new high boots this year, I developed a painful rub behind my right knee.  The left knee was rub-free, which led me to discover that I was hiking up my right leg and knee more than I realized when I used my leg.  There is nothing like a zipper biting into your leg to alert you to your own riding asymmetries.  I think that I am doing a much better job of keeping that leg down, because my rub is finally healed, but once in a while I feel it bite again.  OUCH!  My leg relaxes down immediately!

    I am happy to find that my horse is just as willing to pick up this side as I am, because when I deliberately raise my left hand (and side if necessary), he settles in the bridle, becomes straighter in his body and snorts or clears his throat audibly.  He once snorted and cleared his throat like this for an entire twenty meter circle.  This was during a lesson with my teacher.  She adjusted the saddle and me and then asked us to trot off.  Harley started making such a ruckus that I was bouncing out of the saddle each time he let out some exhaust through his mouth and nose.  I was laughing like a crazy person.  Needless to say, the changes she made were very pleasing to my horse.  While he was doing this she just said, "I hear you, Harley."

    When I pick up my left hand and side, Harley does the same.  The change in my horse is immediate, but remembering to keep one's natural tendencies in line (pun intended) is an ever present challenge in riding.

    So with all this in mind, and you probably know what I mean if you are a rider, I asked Harley to canter from the walk.  The transition was effortless, even to the left.  Knowing my horse, this does not completely surprise me.  Harley loves to push against the ground and a canter from the walk or halt is more push than carry.  A couple times we cantered from the halt, too.  These feel like great ways to build strength in the carrying department, and my horse clearly enjoys the exercise.  The transitions started to collect his canter and this is where his right lead shows its talent.  He was honestly giving me some gorgeous collected canter on the right lead.  The left was good, too, but the right felt like he was stepping into a smaller frame with power.  As long as I kept my thighs open and my pelvis upright through the transition, he did the rest.

    The next step is to transition to the walk from the canter.  This is a tall order for Harley, because canter to trot is still challenging and probably always will be for my horse.  I am familiar with the adage "walk before you run", but I feel that skipping a generation can do wonders for easier movements.  Trot to halt improves the trot to walk transition.  Practicing haunches-in or half-pass, lends a new perspective to the aids for canter.  Riding counter canter improves true canter.  My intentions of teaching Harley canter to walk are not entirely a means to their own end; I hope to see his canter to trot become easier as he practices a more challenging transition.

    To make things as simple as possible, I tried to slow his canter to the speed of a forward walk.  I did not ask for the canter to walk unless he felt like he was holding himself in a better balance for a couple slow strides.  Sometimes I allowed him to trot, sometimes I asked him to canter on with a larger stride.  When it felt like we had a chance of success, I held my abdominal muscles very rigid and tried to marry the outside rein to his outside leg through my outside seatbone and said "Aanndd Waallkk".  This was one coordinated hold when the outside hind was on the ground.  Harley needs to bend that leg more and first in order to lower his front end into walk.  Riding a good canter to walk is like landing an airplane.  The nose touches down last.

    My aids were very strong, but this conveyed to Harley that we were doing something very new.  With each attempt, he gave me less trot steps between the canter and the walk.  He became very focused and got into work mode.  I could tell that he had some understanding of what I wanted, but was not sure how to coordinate his body yet.  The transition also requires a lot of strength.  The attempts which I ended on were getting very close.  He was starting to slow down his front end and lower it with a couple shuffling steps.  I was providing support through the reins and my abdominal muscles had to be very strong to help him engage his own.  Ultimately, I would like to cue the transition from canter to walk with my seat and abs alone.  After the efforts of our ride yesterday, I believe that this movement is in our future.

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    Playing At Liberty With The Excitable Horse

    I think my vet summed it up best when she and Harley's dentist were briefly discussing how to proceed with a dental appointment.  The vet has seen him run off when spring shots were on schedule and calmed him when he tried to avoid being tube wormed.  She has known Harley longer than I have, so I can only guess if she has more stories locked away from when he was with his previous owner.  But she has also watched me trim his bridle path and jaw with a low, relaxed head and seen us under saddle from time to time.  She let me hold him in just his halter while she removed stitches from the underside of his neck and, although he was scared, he did not move a muscle.  So she knows that Harley is a good boy, but keeps a few wild cards in the deck.  Her advice to the dentist?

    "It depends on how worked up you get him."

    A wise and experienced vet who regularly treats thoroughbred race horses, and even owns and schools (!) some of her own, she was certainly correct.  I keep this statement in my mind when I ride Harley or work with him on the ground.  Sometimes I do want to let the fire out of the gate a little bit, but floodgates, if they are opened too wide or left open too long, can become very difficult to close again.  Harley used to own the keys to the gates and opened them whenever he pleased, but more and more he trusts me to hold those keys and waits for me to be the one to say "Now!".

    The most challenging time to keep a finger on those keys is when we play at liberty.  I want my horse to have some freedom to express himself and push against the ground in such a way that he cannot (or should not) with me on board or on the other end of a line, but I do not want him to completely lose himself in the excitement.  If he does lose himself, his excitement can turn to fear or anger.  He showed me on the first day that I owned him that if he feels too much pressure, he will try to save himself, even if jumping out of a round pen is not a feasible plan.  On occasion, I have seen his excitement turn to anger out of frustration.  An example would be when he starts to run like a maniac, without my intention, and then looks to me like

    "Why are you making me run?  Aren't I running fast enough!?"

    This becomes very precarious, because he can interpret very tiny things as pressure and take off.  Once he takes off he stops thinking, or at least it seems that way to me, and the excitement escalates.  Some philosophies of round pen or liberty work suggest chasing the horse when he does wrong.  The idea is that he will not want to run and will choose, at some point, to respect your wishes rather than complete a marathon.  This is probably effective for lots of horses, especially less forward-thinking horses, but would be a train wreck for Harley.  Under that type of pressure, Harley would run and run and if that did not improve his situation he would risk injury by jumping out of his confinement.  I have to wonder if he was subjected to such training in the past, and that contributed to his attempt, four and a half years ago, to jump out of the round pen at basically a suggestion and a loud noise.  Thankfully, he is not on the edge like that anymore, but he is definitely the kind of horse who "winds up" rather than "winds down".  I encourage him to embrace the latter, but not at the expense of his spirit.


    So playing at liberty with Harley is delicate business.  There is no doubt that lungeing and other groundwork have made an immeasurable difference, as well as the many hours that we have spent together.  However, there are two other physical items that keep our liberty work productive and safe (and fun!).

    One is a single jump.

    If there is a jump set up, Harley is far less likely to lose himself in the excitement.  The jump is like a tangible anchor with an objective that he understands and enjoys.

    The other item is food.

    Cookies work, but carrots are really his favorite and baby carrots make a nice-sized treat.  I used to poo-poo the use of food to train a horse, but over the years I have changed my mind.  I do think that you have to be careful how you feed the treats.  I do not want to blur the boundaries of respect by letting my horse walk all over me for food, but I have found that if you keep this in mind and make it clear that you decide when the treat makes it to the horse's mouth, the animal tends to remain respectful.  Like the jump, the carrots are a tangible anchor for his mind.

    This week, I did a little bit of liberty work with Harley.  He has been responding beautifully on the line by trotting or cantering when I do the same, so I wanted to try this without a line in the small ring.  I showed him that I had carrots by giving him a couple, then I picked up the whip and pointed in the direction that I wanted him to go.  I hold the whip as a reinforcement, like when I ride or lunge, and use it as an extension of my body.  We started off in his preferred direction (to the right) and I asked him to stop frequently in the beginning, giving him a carrot each time.  If I stop him frequently, he tunes in to what we are doing and then I can let him go longer without a carrot.  This also keeps him calm, preventing the "winding up".

    To trot, I trotted myself and he quickly obliged, keen on the mirroring pattern.  When we travel to the right, he will keep a circle around me pretty consistently.  I keep my own feet moving and try to stay behind the point of his shoulder (the drive line).  Sometimes I hold my inside arm up, pointing where I want him to go and I raise my outside hand with the whip so that my body looks like a capital "T".  As I rotate the "T" and stay behind his shoulder, I can turn him in a circle around me.  Frequent stops with carrots are important to keep him motivated and reinforces that he is correctly interpreting my requests.  Once in a while he breaks the circle or turns left as if to say

    "You cannot make me!",

    but since he does not receive a carrot for this and I do not chase him, he usually returns to play.  I will toss the whip and and yell "Hey!" if he tries to eat grass through the fence, but he seems to accept this correction as "Fair" and does not get upset.

    After a couple good trots, it was time to try the canter.  From the walk, I started cantering about twenty feet from him, but still behind his shoulder.  I kissed to show that I really did want him to canter with me.  He started by rocking his head and neck up and down.  He started to kind of hop from his front to his back legs and then sprung into a few strides of canter.  I immediately stopped and praised him.  He stopped and waited for his well-deserved carrots.  With each repetition, he became more and more expressive.  He started arching his neck and bouncing his front end up with each stride.  I would stop and reward him for these beautiful moments.  One time he felt the need to go fast, so he continued down the long side away from me, but still traveling to the right.  In the back of my mind, I wondered if I had let him go too long and if I was going to lose him, but I kept cantering my little circle even though he was at the far end of the ring.  To my delight, he continued his canter and met me back at my side of the ring, arching his neck and tossing his mane.  Stop.  Praise.  Multiple carrots and rest.  To have him come back to me and keep his mind in the game was a huge success.  I let him know how proud I was by stroking his neck and just standing still with him.

    We gave it a go in the other direction, with similar results, although it took longer to get him traveling to the left.  I reversed my inside hand and whip.  I stopped rewarding him for going right, but started rewarding him very often for traveling to the left.  This took some persistence and I did not let him go very long without a reward, until he did not seem to be thinking about his favorite direction anymore.  One time he ran off to the right and I just stood there.  I was thinking about what I was doing that might be confusing the signals and not really intentionally ignoring him.  Actually, I was tired and feeling a little annoyed that he had changed direction after traveling left with some consistency.  When he realized that I was not responding to his antics, he stopped.  I heard him stop behind me and I knew that he was staring at me.  Then I realized that I had done the right thing by accident.  By not turning my body or even following him with my eyes, I had completely removed the pressure and perhaps any enjoyment he might have derived from getting me to bend my rules and play under his.  I slowly turned my body and looked at him.  I took a deep breath and asked him to go left.  And he did!  We trotted together.  We cantered.  He wanted to stay farther away from me in this direction, but he kept coming left so I accepted the compromise.  This is part of the excitement of playing at liberty.  You cannot control everything.  All you can do is make suggestions and hope that your horse feels like dancing.  A motivator like carrots is not to be overlooked.  If my horse is having fun through food, then I am having fun, too.

    I did not expect it, but he cantered all the way around the ring going to the left.  I kept cantering slowing and watching his tempo for an increase in speed.  He was energetic and expressive, but over-excited he was not.  When he finished the loop he returned to me for his carrot and praise.  I stood still with him for a while and gave him the rest of the carrots with the floodgates safely latched.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011

    Riding Reflection: Sitting the Canter

    Harley and I developed an interesting connection between his back and my seat during our last ride.  While in canter, his back felt very inviting and wide.  This is significant, because my horse has a rather narrow build, especially in the ribcage and shoulders.  I found that I could sit very easily on his back and my pelvis could stand very tall, which is also significant because at 5 foot 1 inch, I am very short!  It felt like my seat was directly over my feet, which also made me feel taller.  With each stride my seat swept forward, gently, and this kept him cantering.  He was in the bridle with minimal pressure, but I still felt very connected to his tempo and rhythm through my seat.  My seat also felt like a continuous arch more than seat points, and this arch possessed a large surface area.  I felt very stable.

    My teacher has said that the three-point seat can be expanded to five.  If your seat is very open and the muscles relaxed, the tops of the femurs contact the saddle and offer additional stability.  I believe that I was experiencing the sensation she described.

    We tried some walk-canter transitions.  The right lead is easier for him to balance so we started there.  I started to shift my inside leg forward of the girth and I felt him fidget like he wanted to trot before cantering.  My seat bones pushed separately against his hindlegs, keeping them in walk.  At least that is what it felt like, as my reins confirmed that I wanted to walk by resisting a change in gait.  When we cantered my seat immediately fell into this groove, like his back was providing a space for me.  It felt so neat!  And it made me think that Harley wanted me sitting there.  He was providing the seat and I was just sitting.

    To my surprise, the left lead was even easier.  He cantered from my inside leg (and seatbone) shifting forward with a lovely jump.  Again, I felt cradled by his back and my pelvis felt very tall.

    These photos tell me that I need to pick up my left wrist (and my eyes), but at least you can see that my bellybutton is pushing back toward my spine.  This keeps my lower back soft and my pelvis upright,

    which helps my horse grow tall with me.  I love the fall of Harley's mane as his neck and shoulders come up and the vertical surface of his chest.

    As my upper body comes forward in the downward phase of the stride, I am keeping my center of balance above his center.

    If I leaned back here, I would risk throwing his balance onto the forehand and we would most likely brace against each other.

    In hindsight, I know why the left lead was easier even though typically this direction is more challenging.  My right leg is stronger and tighter than my left.  I bet you can guess my handedness from that tidbit.  This gives me the tendency to draw my right leg back and/or up.  There goes my inside seatbone, blocking his right hind and hip.  This mistake was demonstrated when he picked up the left lead when I was asking for the right lead on a circle.  It is unusual for him to pick up his less favored lead, but my seatbones were telling him to do just that, as I was preoccupied with keeping him from trotting before the transition.  Interesting.  I did not correct this mistake, because I was pretty sure that he was just following me and the transition to counter canter from the walk felt effortless.  I am excited to see if we can recreate this sitting experience and I may throw in some counter canter to further the experiment.

    A fun moment in the stride and my eyes are up, because I see my husband with the camera.  Thanks, Honey!

    Nice tail, Harley.

    He shows a nice reach with the inside shoulder and hindleg.  I also like how he is making the contact in the bridle,

    even though we are already connected through the seat.  These photos were from a previous ride, but I thought they were still interesting to include and discuss.

    Friday, July 8, 2011

    My Horse Is Fearless

    The last couple days have been way too hot for any kind of work under saddle, so I joined two friends on a casual trail ride through the woods.  Harley was a gem.  He was peppy but obedient, even though we were nearly always going at a slower pace than he would like.  He doesn't mind following in the middle or at the end, but clearly prefers to be in the lead, probably for the pace reason.  I love that he can do the "quarter horse walk" on the buckle or trot in the bridle with enough power to gain on another horse's canter.  We need a good stretch of trail to canter ourselves, but when we have the opportunity there is nothing like cantering threw the trees and leaning down beside my horse's neck to avoid low branches and pine needles.  Even though he interprets little changes in my balance in the ring, on the trail he knows that he should continue straight ahead even if I am hanging off to the side or stealing a look behind us.  He has saved my skin more than once, like the time we got stuck in a bog and I had to trust him to slowly work his way to stable ground.  Feeling your horse sink into the earth and then walk like his legs are supported by pudding is not something that I want to experience again anytime soon, but it was amazing how he kept us upright and knew enough to slowly rotate 360 degrees and back track our steps.  I was pretty shaken by the event, but Harley seemed no worse for the wear, eager to continue down a dry section of the path.  He basically came to me with the sensibilities that I now enjoy, although I did have to teach him that ignoring his rider while cantering down the trail like a bat out of hell was not acceptable.  I suspect that he was encouraged to barrel down the trail like a freight train, because his previous owner had such a thing for speed that he owned not one but two Harleys (one motorized and one in the flesh).  I like to go fast, but not at the expense of safety and balance, and now that Harley has experienced the two, I think that he agrees.

    However steady Harley may be when we are out and about, occasionally I am reminded that even a confident trail horse can become afraid.  At the very end of our ride, we walked by a neighbor's backyard and they had a silvery, birthday balloon tied in the garden.  The helium-filled, reflective object bobbed in the gentle breeze before I noticed it and Harley actually stopped and balked.  I turned him and re-approached the balloon, but he balked again.

    I stopped and thought for a moment.

    Should I force him up to the balloon?  He is not putting up a real fight and it certainly feels like I could make him walk up to it.  On the other hand, he is a reliable horse and it seems unfair to turn around and demand that he ignore his own feelings of caution.  Harley's ears were back listening to me even though I was not speaking aloud.

    I decided to pass on the training opportunity and give the balloon a wide berth.  We were still within 25 feet of the silvery foe, but Harley appreciated the space and relaxed, marching forward like the object had never crossed our path.  In the back of my mind, I will store this incident and if I remember, bring a silvery balloon to the barn one of these days to show him that there is nothing to fear.  I know from experience, that all he has to do is touch the object with his nose and he will no longer be afraid, but a significant factor pushed my decision from "try" to "pass".

    There was pavement under our feet.

    A paved driveway.  I will admit wholeheartedly that I have a fear of riding on pavement.  My horse is not shod, so the likelihood of slipping is small, but I still possess this lurking image of falling on the pavement.  If we hit the concrete, one or both of us will break.  I do not like the feel of pavement under my horse's feet.  It reminds me of ice.  I vividly remember my Dad relaying a story in the paper when I was kid.  A woman was riding her horse along the road, fell and hit her head on the asphalt and was killed instantly.  I do not recall if she was wearing a helmet, but you can still get plenty hurt wearing a helmet.  More recently, I read about a horse slipping on pavement and falling on his shoulder.  The road to recovery has been very long, as the horse is still stiff and not back to full work even a year later.  I also bear a couple noticeable scars on my right wrist and knee from when I fell from my bicycle in middle school.  In my early twenties, I probably would have pressed the issue, but I no longer feel that I have anything to prove.  Harley trusts me to keep him safe, as he has me, so that is my priority.

    After this minor event, I thought about what scares Harley:

    1. Things that resemble holes (dark piles of mulch, dark puddles, or the dark face of a fallen log), although touching these things dispels his fear.
    2. The vet.  He knows the sound of her truck and becomes visibly worried.  On one occasion when I was at work, he refused to be caught, so he now has to be collected before she arrives.  She is a very kind, compassionate vet, but unfortunately she is the one who has to stick him with needles.  He does not forget!
    3. Loose and/or snarling dogs.  Me, too!  I often carry a dressage whip on trail rides for this very reason.  We met up with an unleashed, bristling golden retriever one time.  I did not think such a creature existed, and I was equally terrified.  The owners were able to call the dog back before it reached us, but I had to wonder what turned the golden into "Cujo".
    4. Miniature Horses.  The only time that I have seen him really wig out was when two miniature horses charged us from across an arena.  I am sure that he had no idea what they were, but they smelled like horses and looked like dogs going in for the kill.  He ran backwards 50 feet before he would be consoled.  He did touch noses with them several minutes later, but has remained very skeptical of miniature horses, especially when they are harnessed to a cart.  Apparently, he makes a distinction between ponies and miniature horses.  Go figure.
    Although I recognize these things as scary to Harley, I always think of him as fearless.  I got a funny look from a friend when I stated in complete earnest that "Harley is not scared of anything."  Even though I can be realistic in this discussion, when I am with my horse and riding my horse I believe it one hundred percent.  My horse is fearless.

    Truly believing that he will not be afraid is a powerful prevention.

    Thursday, July 7, 2011

    The Therapeutic Quality of the Horse: A Theme in War Horse

    Spoiler Alert: I look forward to reliving some parts of this play through writing.  Future posts will discuss the play in detail, including the ending.  If you would like to see the play in person and feel that too much prior information may dampen your experience, then read no further.  That being said, if you live near New York City, London, or another city, which the production may visit in the future, go see War Horse.  If nothing else, I promise a unique theatrical experience, but I am confident that you will walk away with much more.  No prior knowledge of horses or puppetry is necessary to enjoy the show.  If fact, I would say that I do not really like puppets and found them a little scary as a child, but the puppets of War Horse are totally original, like nothing I have ever seen before. 

    War Horse is a National Theatre of Great Britain production, based on the novel by Micheal Morpurgo.  The play was adapted by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company.  I enjoyed a matinee show at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont on Saturday, July 2, 2011.


    The Therapeutic Quality of the Horse: A Theme in War Horse

    The Premise
    The war is World War I.  Albert and the horses are British, but the play also includes German and French characters who speak their native languages, though the audience hears them speaking English with their respective accents.  Albert and his parents struggle to pay the mortgage on their farm as well as manage the father's insatiable betting habit and unhealthy competition with Albert's uncle.  This eventually leads to Joey's sale to the army as an officer's horse.  The intent is for Joey to return to the family in six months, but when his officer is shot and killed in battle, the whereabouts of Joey become unknown.  This ultimately leads the distraught Albert to lie about his age and enter the army, without his parents' knowledge or blessing.  His hope is to find Joey and return home, but he does not know that Joey is now in the hands of the German army.

    Winner of Five Tony Awards including Best Play!

    The War and the People
    This is where the story explores the dilemma of war.  Joining the service is not just taking up arms and defending one's country in glory.  The soldiers must dig trenches and face unexpected weapons such as automatic machine guns, tanks, and toxic gas.  The trenches are lined with barbed wire, which proves particularly treacherous for the horses.  Some of Joey's talents and training from his time with Albert save his life, as he is able to leap barbed wire and pull the medical wagon in a harness.  His willingness to adapt in order to survive is mirrored by a human character, the German captain, Friedrich.

    In the second act, Friedrich finds himself separated from the German army.  It is very likely that all his men are dead.  His character seems delirious and confused.  Somehow, he has Joey and Topthorn with him as he wonders the battlefield.  He thinks of his daughter, Sophie, and wonders if he will see her again.  When he stumbles across a fallen medical officer, he decides to transform himself.  He removes his captain's jacket and steals the medic's clothing,  hoping that he may survive long enough to return to Sophie.  He has lost the zeal to lead the cavalry, which is certain death.  He offered this same transformation to the black thoroughbred, Topthorn, in an earlier scene.  Friedrich lamented that it was sinful to harness such fine horse flesh to a medical cart, but worse to see them killed in battle.  He tries to coax Topthorn to wear the collar by explaining that it may save his life.  Albert had much the same conversation with Joey earlier in the play, when Albert's father wagered Joey in a bet requiring that a horse bred for jumping and galloping be harnessed and drag a plow in a week's time.  Joey shows his heart and love for Albert when he learns to wear the collar and harness and drags the plow a short distance.  The implication in the play is that the plowing scene threatens to break Joey, as he nearly falls several times trying to cut through the earth.  This lesson saves both horses during the war, since Joey willingly wears the collar and harness, impressing upon Topthorn that there is nothing to fear.  Captain Friedrich was noble to put the safety of the horses first, but later his desperation leads him to also pick up a disguise, no longer thinking of victory or sides to the war.  He seeks comfort and companionship as he promises the horses that he will look after them.  They will survive together.  Over great distance, Joey is providing a similar solace to Albert, who rests in a trench with his comrade, gazing at a drawing of Joey and dreaming about when they will meet again.

    Overlapping with Friedrich's scene is the introduction of Emilie, a French farm girl who is no more than ten years old.  Emilie was examining the fallen medic when Friedrich enters the scene.  She appears at first to be frightened of the dead soldier, but quickly reveals her resourcefulness as she searches his pockets finding chocolate.  She relishes the "chocolat" like a child who no longer expects things like candy and sweets, but reluctantly abandons the find, when Friedrich enters the clearing.  The man is unaware of her presence, but Joey finds Emilie hiding under a log almost immediately.  She is drawn to the horse, probably remembering when her family used to own horses.  In her attempt to prevent Joey from revealing her hiding place, Friedrich hears her and fires his weapon.  Even the audience is not sure if she has survived, as Friedrich drops his gun and wrings his hands.  She stands, unharmed, and swallows her fear of Friedrich in exchange for touching Joey's nose.  The German captain quickly realizes how the horses may help him communicate with the French-speaking girl, so he introduces the horses and then himself.  The French girl has an adorable accent, pronouncing their names "Shjoey" and "Top-zorn".  Friedrich tries to help her pronounce the "th" in Topthorn, which she fails miserably, in exactly the same fashion that my French-speaking Swiss grandmother used to struggle with the "th" sound.  I loved it!

    Emilie wastes little time with introductions, immediately tending to the horses.  She finds two water buckets and some brushes, singing a little girl's song as she brushes Joey's red coat.  Friedrich second guesses himself, asking Topthorn if she is real or a ghost.

    "Did I shoot her?"

    In a poignant scene, he calls her "Sophie", which Emilie assertively corrects, but the audience has to wonder if what we are watching is real or fantasy.  Has Friedrich been overcome by his delirium?  Has war driven him mad?  Emilie's mother appears and the three of them decide to hide in the country, pretending to be a family despite their different countries and languages.  Friedrich places a crown of flowers upon Emilie's head and tosses her on to Joey's back.  The little actress giggles and clings to Joey's neck as he joggs in a circle behind her mother.  Their happiness is only temporary, as is their makeshift family, but for the time being they can forget the war.  A symbol of strength and normalcy, the horses are likened to children, innocent and worthy of protection even though the family has barely enough to survive themselves.

    The Ending
    War Horse is not a sugar-coated play.  Friedrich and Emilie are separated when a German regiment recognizes the deserting captain.  Friedrich promises to keep the horses safe, who are promptly confiscated by the German army, but shortly afterward he must watch Topthorn collapse under the burden of pulling a huge gun.  Friedrich cries for Topthorn, wishing that the noble and hardworking horse could return to Sophie, but Topthorn has never met Sophie.  Friedrich is speaking of himself and his own death is soon to follow.  Emilie reappears in a scene with Albert, but she is barely the same girl, dirty, tattered and without her mother.  She almost reveals to Albert that she knows Joey when he leaves the horse's picture on a carcass, having given up hope that his horse is alive.  Gunfire causes her to flee before she can utter Joey's name.  What becomes of Emilie?

    Miraculously, Joey escapes the gunfire which claims Friedrich and gallops across trenches leaping barbed wire.  He finally becomes entangled in the wire, which is truly nightmarish, especially for any horse owners in the audience.  In an intriguing twist of fate, he is rescued by two soldiers, one German and one Welsh, who decide to raise the white flag in an effort to free the animal.  The attempt of the two soldiers to communicate in their separate languages is extremely amusing and well-done, ending in a coin toss.  The coin falls in the red horse's favor and Joey gets to return to the British medical base, where he will find a defeated Albert, temporarily blinded by tear gas.  Their reunion is highly climatic, as Joey nearly falls by a merciful bullet, only to be saved by Albert's call when he recognizes his horse's cries.  In a final tribute to the nobility of the horse, injured but mending, Joey carries Albert back to this family.  With all the destruction and death of war, their bond remains in tact, a boy and his horse.

    War Horse: Unforgettable.
    I believe that it goes without saying, but I loved this play.  If it did not cost a pretty penny to travel to the city and purchase tickets, I would see War Horse again in a heartbeat.  I have read that Steven Spielberg is recreating War Horse as a movie to be released at the end of this year and that the play will travel to Los Angeles in June 2012. 

    Will the movie hold a candle to the play?  Only time will tell.  The magic of the story relies heavily on the puppets, which leads me to believe that War Horse, as a National Theatre of Great Britain production, will remain one-of-a-kind.

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    Intermission: Brought To You By Harley

    After hearing about the play, War Horse, Harley wanted to show you how inspired he was by the story.

    Here is a short clip of Harley "being Harley".  He already had his name when we met each other in 2006 and the namesake suits him.  This was after a very "dressage-y" workout, so "lettin' 'er rip" was part of his reward for his delicate and stretchy efforts earlier in the ride.

    I love the look of "grit" on his face when he digs in and I must admit that I, too, love to go fast!

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    My Favorite Moments of War Horse

    Spoiler Alert: I look forward to reliving some parts of this play through writing.  Future posts will discuss the play in detail, including the ending.  If you would like to see the play in person and feel that too much prior information may dampen your experience, then read no further.  That being said, if you live near New York City, London, or another city, which the production may visit in the future, go see War Horse.  If nothing else, I promise a unique theatrical experience, but I am confident that you will walk away with much more.  No prior knowledge of horses or puppetry is necessary to enjoy the show.  If fact, I would say that I do not really like puppets and found them a little scary as a child, but the puppets of War Horse are totally original, like nothing I have ever seen before. 

    War Horse is a National Theatre of Great Britain production, based on the novel by Micheal Morpurgo.  The play was adapted by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company.  I enjoyed a matinee show at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont on Saturday, July 2, 2011.


    My Favorite Moments of War Horse

    The Entrance
    War Horse is more than just a horse story, but still, a horse's tale would not be complete without the bond between horse and human, and, here, the play does not disappoint.  The young foal is purchased by the gambling father of a young man, Albert.  Albert, an only-child of sixteen years, immediately accepts the task of gentling and training the foal, whom he names "Joey".  Albert notices that Joey will half-rear if the young man throws his hands and arms up to the sky.  The excitement builds as Albert runs to different corners of the stage, throwing his arms up, asking little Joey to rear.  The foal begins to reach up higher and higher with each attempt.  In his final attempt, the foal is at the back of the stage and Albert is at the front, with his back to the audience.  

    Albert yells "Come on, Joey!" and throws his arms up.

    Little Joey rears up and is immediately swept away by the puppeteers as a spotlight reveals a life-sized, adult horse who rears, leaps forward towards the audience and rears again, high above our heads!  The audience gasps and cheers.  Everyone is clapping with childish grins on their faces at the magnificence of the play's hero.  The magic of Joey's entrance does not end there, as Albert hops onto his back.  The huge red horse gallops around the stage and they leap into the shadows behind the curtain.  My mouth is agape and my eyes deceive me.  What did I see?!  This sequence is truly so fast, and Joey's movements and mannerisms are so dead-on lifelike, that the audience is left starstruck.  My breath was gone and all I wanted was to see Joey again.  Since this was the very beginning of the play, I knew that I would get to see a lot more of the red horse and this made me very happy.  We were in for a great ride! 

    The Puppets
    For the most part, the puppets only depict animals.  There is Joey, the red horse who really deserves the title of hero even though Albert is also the play's star.  Joey is described as a hunter, a draft/thoroughbred cross.  Another life-sized horse puppet is the character Topthorn, a black thoroughbred who is a British officer's horse.  There is a goose, who provides comic relief with a reoccurring gag (no pun intended).  The goose wishes to enter the family's house, but consistently has the door slammed in his face.  The goose also eats from the ground, follows Albert's mother around the farm, flies, and bites unsuspecting visitors.  My husband and I loved his feet.  The puppeteer rolls the goose around on a wheel, which had goose feet attached to the surface  This makes it look like the bird is taking steps forward as the wheel rolls along the ground.  The play also included song birds on long poles, which flew above the audience, and crows with bright red eyes who preyed upon the fallen on the battlefield.  Joey and Topthorn were the only complete horse puppets, but there were a couple half-horses that did not require as many puppeteers and were ridden by soldier dolls in the cavalry charge.  Soldier dolls were also used to represent the fallen or wounded.  Now that I am writing this, I remember that there were two other full-sized horse puppets, but they were shadows of living horses as war had robbed them of their flesh and spirit.  They were literally skeletons pulling a large gun on wheels and they quickly succumbed to their fate before the audience's eyes.

    Bringing Joey and Topthorn to Life
    Each horse had two men wearing the frame of the horse on their shoulders.  One man stood in the hindquarters and worked the rear legs, which had stifles, hocks, fetlocks, and hooves, all with realistic movement.  The hip and stifle joints were represented by a wheel or gear that would raise the leg and engage the joints as the gear turned.  This was controlled by the rear puppeteer who was holding poles with levers that reminded me of the handbrake on a bicycle.  A second puppeteer wore the shoulders of the horse and worked the front legs in a similar fashion.  The front legs also had accurate joints, which the puppeteer could manipulate.  Someone in the puppet was also controlling the expressive tail and mane of the horse, although it was very difficult to tell who was responsible for these endearing movements.  A third puppeteer stood outside the horse, with the all-important task of controlling the head, neck, and ears.  These craftsmen must have studied horses immensely or are already horse people.  Joey stomped an occasional fly.  His ears were never still and his head movements illustrated the complexity of the axis/atlas joint between the skull and spine.  Like the foal, Joey's ribcage moved as he breathed and the puppeteers created all of the sounds from blowing and snorts, to whinnys and screams.  More than one puppeteer chimed in for the whinny, which created a resonating harmony.

    Joey and Topthorn were surprisingly athletic.  They could walk and trot with accurate footfalls.  I believe that the canter was also accurate, but the movement was very fast, so it was difficult to see.  During a slow motion gallop or jump, four more puppeteers would surround the horse, each assigned to a hoof.  The legs were elegantly lifted up and forward with great precision and synchrony, in a transfixing dance as the music lent drama and purpose to the scene.  The puppeteers were not just talented actors, they were also physically strong, as much of this was done with a rider in the tack.  The puppets were wide, like a draft horse, and approaching 17 hands tall, which you can imagine because the shoulders and faces of the men inside the puppet were completely concealed as they balanced the weight of the puppet and man above our heads.  I only saw one female puppeteer, although there could have been more.  She worked the hind legs and tail of the foal, but since she was dressed exactly as the male puppeteers, her femininity was easily missed.

    Hanging inside the theater

    How I would have loved to have a puppet on display for photos, but I can understand on many levels why this was not possible.

    The Art of a Dream
    If you have seen the movie Inception, then you may be familiar with the concept of trying to make a dream seem real, when, in fact, dreams cannot be real by definition.  Upon learning about the art of creating a dream space, the female "architect" in the movie explains that it is more about the feel of the place, not so much the details.  This rings true for the puppets of War Horse.  They are intricate and complex puppets, but the magic is in the life which the people pour into these creatures who are really just movable frames with unblinking eyes.  If you watch the puppeteers inside the puppets, their joints, like the horse, are always engaged.  They were almost never rigid or still, even when the horse was standing at attention.  The horses did not talk in words, but did exhibit the body language of horses which was demonstrated beautifully in a paddock scene between Joey and Topthorn.  My husband noticed that the expression on the puppeteer's face matched the expression and emotion of the horse's character.  I was surprised that I missed this, but that reinforces just how difficult it is to see the puppeteers themselves.  They are quickly masked by their characters, who appear to move, think, and respond all on their own.  I would have liked very much to have taken a picture of the actors and Joey.  I would also have loved to reach my fingers up to the red muzzle and experienced the liveliness for myself.  I can imagine that the Handspring Puppet Company does not allow you do this, because to touch the inanimate horse would break the spell.