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This Is What An Equestrian Looks Like, and What Change Looks like

The late Sally Swift, author of CENTERED RIDING, adjusts a rider's leg.

Sally Swift was diagnosed with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, when she was seven. Possibly the result of polio, it caused weakness in her back and bodily tension that manifested in temper tantrums. Her mentor, the pioneering Mabel Ellsworth Todd, recommended that her mother ignore them, as the energetic trapped in the little girl's body needed to find release. Her mother agreed, and matter-of-factly engaged therapists and exercise programs without ever giving Sally the sense that her handicap constituted a grievance. This was just the way her life was, and did not stop her from walking two miles to school and back, just like her sister.


Horses had been Sally's passion ever since she could remember, and Miss Todd encouraged her to ride, as riding used both sides of the body equally. She needed a steel and leather corset brace to support her back, but with that she was able to ride safely and even come through a few falls with no damage. Riding strengthened her lower body and balanced her uneven muscle tone. Todd worked extensively with thought and imagery; she believed some muscles could be influenced by the mind even though they were beyond concious control, very similar to the tenets of the Alexander technique. In her twenties Swift discovered that using Mabel Todd's imagery and riding from the center of her body made her better balanced, and that horses appreciated the approach.

When Sally's back deteriorated in the late 60s, she found a therapist who did similar work. Jean Gibson emphasized that each part of the body must balance correctly on the parts below, and that proper breathing was crucial. Swift had already experienced that as a teenager, when just by breathing slowly and deeply she was able to walk around the indoor arena on the horse who NEVER walked. She wrote in CENTERED RIDING that, "I began to realize that there was a great gap in most people's riding knowledge. Even the best riders and instructors, with their innate coordination, were not teaching people how to handle their bodies. They were teaching them only what to do. We who have struggled with physical disabilities can often teach and explain coordination more easily." 


After a 30-year career with the Holstein-Friesian Association in Brattleboro, Vt., Swift returned to her first love, horses. She began to spread her new ideas through riding lessons, $10/lesson or $50/day, at first locally, then up and down the East Coast, and eventually internationally. Students were continually urging her to "write it down, organize it, create a book!", as USET event champion Denny Emerson wrote, and in 1985 that book came out. CENTERED RIDING was the first title from Trafalgar Square Farm Books, and has been a perennial best-seller for the publisher ever since, with an international Centered Riding Association continuing Swift's work. 


CENTERED RIDING was the first introduction many equestrians had to martial arts like tai chi, the use of visualization in sports, breath control, chi or ki, and energy work. It also familiarized the Alexander Technique of allowing freedom and balance in the body, something Sally Swift discovered when again, her back fell apart and she needed additional help. The four basics, Soft Eyes, Building Blocks, Breathing, and Centering, all have deep roots in the therapy Swift received to keep herself pain-free and functioning well into her 90s.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS: Sally Swift was my first riding teacher, years before CENTERED RIDING. It was in a neighbor's hay field. We tied our ponies to a fence while watching other kids' lessons, and the draft horses used to come over and intimidate them. I love how Sally's handicap, addressed directly, with intelligence, imagination, and openness to new ideas, yielded knowledge that has helped many thousands of riders and their horses. Like Lis Hartel, Sally could not muscle her way through riding. These women needed to learn a subtler form of the art. Lucky for us, they both went on to teach what they'd learned, so many more riders could develope the powers we all possess. Family: Sally's mother persisting in finding her fragile girl the help she needed to become someone who didn't have the word can't in her vocabulary. Honestly, I don't remember a thing about my lessons with Sally Swift, but her basics remain with me, and that makes me feel lucky. Read More 

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This Is What An Equestrian Looks Like, NOW

This is what an equestrian looks like, Now. Lis Hartel on Jubilee. (Getty Images)

This is what an equestrian looks like, NOW. But within living memory, only commissioned (male) military officers were allowed to compete in Olympic equestrian sports until 1952, when Lis Hartel, riding for Denmark, became the first woman to ride in the Olympics, the first to medal (a Silver in dressage) and unbeknownst to almost everyone, the first Para-Olympian. Her secret was only revealed when the Gold Medalist, Major Saint Cyr, lifted her off her horse and carried her to the podium.


At 23, pregnant with her second child, had Hartel contracted polio. (This was in 1944, with Denmark under Nazi occupation.) Doctors told her with luck, she might walk again. Certainly her riding career was over. But Hartel had been the national dressage champion in 1943 and 44, and could not accept this verdict. Pausing only to deliver a healthy daughter, she first crawled, then walked with crutches, and then began riding again. She had to find a whole new approach, as she had no feeling in her legs below the knee. In fact, her whole body was weak. Her daughter Pernille Siesebye recalled that Hartel's horse Jubilee "was brilliant." The mare stood "still like a statue" when Hartel was lifted on and off, and quickly learned to respond to the weight and back aids which were all Hartel had to use. With encouragement from Colonel Podhajsky of the Spanish Riding School, Hartel returned to international competition, and three years after polio won Silver at the Scandinavian Riding Championship. Her Olympic medals came in 1952 and 56 (another Silver). But the achievement she took greatest pride in was founding Europe's first therapeutic riding center. They soon spread all over the world, opening equestrian sport to countless other people who had never expected that horses would be part of their lives.


Chandra Thurman is also what an equestrian looks like. A Black woman of what old novels like to call "a comfortable habit," she is featured in a lovely short film from US Equestrian, https://www.usef.org/learning-center, posted in March 2021. In the film Chandra says, "Don't think that just because you look a certain way you can't do it."

We have strong images in our minds of what an equestrian looks like. Today it's a thin blonde woman bearing a certain aura of entitlement. Often we don't realize how new that image is, or what burden those riders may be carrying, concealed beneath the equestrian uniform. I know women alive today who were discouraged in their teens and twenties from becoming horse trainers or veterinarians because of their gender. Today the horse world is majority-female, and majority-White. But it's a kaleidoscope; give it another turn and the colors will shift, making a new and beautiful pattern.


What I Love About This: My first riding teacher was the great Sally Swift. (It was in a hayfield. We used to tie our ponies to fence posts when we weren't riding, and the farmer's draft team would come over and intimidate them.) In her first book, Centered Riding, Sally used an image of riding with "stubby legs," as if you had no legs from the knee down. It encouraged you to ride using your weight and back, just like Lis Hartel did. Swift and Hartel were from the same generation. I wonder if Hartel was the inspiration for this very powerful image. When I'm riding at my best it's all about very tiny weight cues and shifts of my seatbones. I don't even think about my legs. Maybe that's a legacy from Lis Hartel. I love the change she represents, and the change Chandra Thurman represents--and the beautiful connection in this image, between her and her mare, exactly like the connection between Lis Hartel and Jubilee. I also love knowing (see the Eurodressage article in the link below) that Jubilee was not a special horse to begin with--just a nice hack for the kids and Hartel's father to ride. But she had a special ability to connect with her human, and became far more beautiful in training. Dressage changed her shape, as it's supposed to do. Though she had a mushy piaffe that never improved much, she (and her rider) gained points for their exceptional lightness. It's what many of us love about dressage, as a shaper of both horse and rider.





Great article in Eurodressage focusing on Hartel's horse Jubilee


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This Is What An Equestrian Looks Like

Shariah Harris was 8 years old when her mom took a wrong turn in Philly's Fairmount Park neighborhood, and she saw other Black kids riding horses. They were with the Work To Ride program, in which children ages 7-19 participate in equestrian activities, and receive tutoring to maintain grades and enroll in college. There is an intern program for youth in which they get a stipend as a junior counselor at the Summer Camp.

Work to Ride was love at first sight for Harris and her siblings, who spent hours at the barn, learning to ride, groom, and clean stalls. At age 12, Shariah joined the polo team and ended up playing mostly with boys. They didn't cut her any slack, and the challenge turned her into a very physical player with exceptional drive.

Work To Ride offered Shariah amazing learning opportunities, including trips to Nigeria and Argentina, and led to her acceptance at Cornell, where she captained the polo team for 3 years and earned a reputation as a formidable player. She got her degree in animal science, then went back to school for a registered nurse degree. She played on the Work To Ride team, sponsored by Melissa Ganzi, with British 10-goaler Nina Clarkin, Maddie Grant, and Caitlin Cregg, and scored the winning goal in a match on 2.7 in the U.S. Women's Open Polo Championship. Harris is the first Black woman in America to play polo at this level. She also organized the team.

My favorite Shariah Harris quote comes from the National Public Radio piece. Shariah says, "I hate to lose more than I love to win." That article has more about Lezlie Hiner, the force behind Work To Ride. Lezlie is also 'what an equestrian looks like.' These photos were taken at the Wellington, FL, Grand Champions Polo Club. See more on the Work To Ride Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/work.ride


 copyright Lezlie Hiner. All rights reserved



Why I Love This Story: It's the plot of half the horse stories I ever read, or wrote. A young person with disadvantages; a 'chance' encounter with horses; a stable as refuge; a wise mentor; add hard work, courage, and a supportive mom, and bingo! Several years later, 'instant success'! I also love how formidable Shariah Harris is, and how she rocks that polo helmet. And I love the smile. Harris is an operating room nurse, a skilled and dedicated professional, yet she is finding time and creating opportunities to keep doing the sport she loves.






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Tombstone Hay Feeders? Is That a Thing?

You live and learn. Sometimes you don't learn soon enough to put it in your big new encyclopedia. That's why you won't find tombstone hay feeders in The Horse-Lover's Encyclopedia. The phrase was new to me when I spotted it in an equipment ad. Sounded grim and dramatic.
So I looked it up. Turns out "tombstone" refers to the shape of the metal gizmos that form the slots. They look like a circle of old-time tombstones. Tombstone feeders with their rounded shoulders are better for horses because the smooth shape doesn't catch and pull out mane hair. Horses slip their heads through and eat--though I would worry that my dominant mare would come around and chase the other two, and they could get hurt if they were caught with their heads through the slot.
My guess is that they would worry too, and would adopt a snatch, pull out, and munch outside the feeder style of eating. That's why a basket-style feeder would be better for a herd with bossy horses in it. Horses don't put their head into the basket at all. They pull hay through, as they do from a manger or hay net.
Right now though, my horses are eating hay from piles on the snow, and getting lots of exercise walking (or being chased) from pile to pile. It's the most natural way, and they sure look pretty out there. Read More 
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Horsemanship In the Digital Age

THANK YOU FOR BEING LATE, the new book by Thom Friedman, has me thinking about the pace of change in modern life. Shocking to think that the i-phone came out in 2007! Facebook, Twitter, just getting off the ground. They feel like they've been around forever--but forever is briefer these days, apparently.
One seismic changein the horse world since 2000, when The Horse-Lover's Encyclopedia edition 1 came out is the rise of Natural Horsemanship (NH). Back then it wasn't even an entry, and 'round pen' wasn't a verb. Today NH is huge, with popular clinicians like Pat Parelli having enormous followings, and almost everybody has some idea of how to do 'round penning.'
NH has its critics, too, many of them among what may be the next tidal wave poised to sweep the horse community. It's difficult to put a name to this group. In fact, many of those I conceptually place in a single bucket would resist being included with some of the others, possibly with good reason. I'm open to hearing arguments about that, but here's how I see it at the moment.
There's a movement toward softer forms of training, and in some cases, keeping riding completely voluntary on the horse's part. Clicker training; groups like Empowered Equestrians, who use and understand terms like +R, and aspire to train horses using only +R methods. People who will not ride a horse unless he clearly signals his desire to be ridden.
There are research groups like ISES (International Society for Equitation Science) and universities studying equine cognition and behavior, and who have brought us fascinating new info like the blanket study, and new insight into how horses see us. (Hint: wipe that frown off your face before you walk into the barn!).
There are people who love horses, but have no interest in riding, who are coming out of the shadows and claiming their right to be horse-owners on their own terms. Some of them 'just' feed and love on their horses. Others play with them (careful!) and some take part in sports like Equine Agility. This dovetails with another group who would like to compete in a mild sort of way, but don't want to truck horses anywhere. Some of them participate in contests where you set up and video, or score, a test, then email it in. (Agility, Mounted Archery.)
Then there are the myriad of sports that expand our idea of what a good horse can do. Far beyond the categories of my youth--English, Western, trail, racing--these extend into Iberian riding traditions with doma vaquera and Working Equitation, expand ranch horse concepts with Extreme Cowboy competitions, and move way past the old trail classes.
It all feels like its moving a lot faster than it used to. It's much easier to start a new sport, spread the word about it, get in touch with like minded folks, and even compete remotely. Our idea of horsemanship is getting gentler, more nuanced, more scientifically informed, and more multi-cultural.
I tried to touch on as many elements of this as I could in the new HORSE-LOVER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA. But we had to be brief, for reasons of space, and we still ended up with a three-pound book! Still, it makes a good jumping-off point. Mounted archery? Who even knew that was a thing? Except the Mongols, the Scythians, and our remote Indo-European-speaking horse-riding ancestors--and now, the practitioners of this multi-cultural new sport. Korean, Hungarian, and other forms exist, there's a serious degree of costume involved, and the process of teaching horses to tolerate having arrows fired from their backs leads to calm and a high degree of control. It's all really exciting. Can't wait to see where horsemanship goes in the next fifteen years.  Read More 
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Horse Pasture Weeds and Soil Carbon

My newest passion is soil carbon. Soil is where much of the atmospheric carbon that is causing so many headaches came from in the first place, and the good news is that we can put it back, quickly, using a very old technology called plants.
Plants build humus in soil through a process of feeding the bacteria and fungi that support plant growth, in a mutually beneficial cycle. Grazing can help or hurt that cycle. The good news is that permanent pasture accomplishes one main goal of soil-builders--not plowing. Opening the soil up to wind, rain, and sun leaches carbon out rapidly. So our hay fields and horse pasture are doing that much right.
And I feel pretty good about the hay fields with regard to carbon. Half of the field gets only manure, no chemical fertilizer. Fertilizer damages the carbon cycle--basically, the plants stop feeding their micro-organism buddies because they are getting fuel elsewhere, but as fertilizer is applied as a top-dressing, it encourages shallow roots.
The hay fields get lightly grazed in the spring. Pulses of grazing stress the plants in a good way, allowing even more carbon to build in the soils.
My concern is with my pasture, and whether I can afford to do what I would like to do--build carbon--and still keep my horses in good health. The problem with Morgans and Belgians is that they can't stand too much prosperity. Both breeds are prone to laminitis on rich pasture. Ideally I would be dividing my pasture into paddock and rotationally grazing them. But I don't have quite enough pasture during midsummer for that to work. If I bring up the fertility so the grass grows better, will I create a health problem?
This is something I'm committed to studying. The horses' health must come first, but I'd love a way that the soil could also be improved. The good news, for the horses and the soil, may be the weeds. With their deeper taproots, they access more minerals. If I clip them before they seed, they open up the soil as the roots die, reducing compaction. And horses do graze a number of these weeds, sometimes seasonally, which I believe is beneficial to their health. I just read an account from an English breeder of successful race horses, who never fertilized pasture, and believed that a healthy pasture for horses should support 50 weed species. I'll be out there counting this summer, and meanwhile, I'll go on researching. If you have experience in this area, I'd love to hear about it. Read More 
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Naturally Curious, Day By Day

It's muddy, icy, snowy, wet, and miserable out on the woodland trails right now, here in Vermont. But in a few months it will be trail riding weather.
In the meantime, we can dream and get prepared. One of the nicest ways is to pick up a copy of Naturally Curious, Day By Day, by Mary Holland. This gorgeous book takes you on a day by day tour of the Northeastern woods, fields, and marshes. Holland is a gifted photographer, and lucky. This book is like having your most fortunate day ever out in nature, and then having 351 more of them all in a row. From snow fleas so bobcats, ferns to foxes, Holland reveals the life going on all around us, and the tiny signs of events that are so easy to overlook. I found the book completely absorbing. I have given two copies away to elderly people who can't get out in the woods anymore, and they, too, found it fascinating.
So if that's you, if trail riding is just not happening for you anymore, Naturally Curious makes a very pleasurable substitute. And if you have lived in the woods for 35 years, as I have, I guarantee you'll be saying, about every other page, "I didn't know that."
I understand that was the reaction of the launch committee down at Storey Publishing, when they saw the first copy of The Horse Lover's Encyclopedia. I hope so. I would love to think that my book could also bring readers as much pleasure and education as Naturally Curious, Day By Day, has brought me. Read More 
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New Ancient Horse Discovered

A 700,000 year old horse fossil discovered in the Yukon Territory has yielded the oldest DNA ever decoded, according to Western Dig, a website devoted to the Ancient West. (Who knew there was such a site? I'm almost as excited about that as I am about the horse bones!)
The findings allowed scientists to date the shared ancestor or all equines (horses, donkeys and zebras) back 4 million years. Previously this ancestor had thought to date to 2 million years ago. Comparison between modern horse DNA, the Przewalski Horse, and a previous fossil, allowed them to establish a "molecular clock"--no, I don't understand this, but I appreciate it.
The article contains a link to another, which finds that humans in Oregon lived in the at the same time as a "stocky-legged" horse. Remains of both were found in caves. The paleontologist who examined the bones, Brianna McHorse (really!) believes that further analysis may help us understand if there were many types of horse in North America fourteen thousand years ago, or just a couple.
I'm curious about that, but also about the cave itself, and the Paleo-Indians who may have lived in it. I have always wondered about the meaning of the legend, which I think is widespread among American Indians, that their ancestors came out of a hole in the ground. Is this an ancestral memory of cave-dwelling? Or did the so-called "ice-free corridor" feel like living in a hole? Or what?
Somebody, build a time machine. Please!  Read More 
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Mysteries of Type and Blood

Looking at my two classically bred Morgan mares out eating their hay this morning, I admired for the umpteenth time Robin's beautiful long legs. She is a fourteen-two hand mare with a round barrel--I won't reveal what the weight tape said about her poundage. Let's just say she has well-sprung ribs!
Her elbow isabout level with my waist. The elbow of her companion, the fifteen-hand Woodgate Martha V, comes only up to my hip.
This evening I got out the weight tape to confirm this measurement. Indeed, there is a four inch difference. Robin is 36 inches at the elbow. Martha is 32 inches. Martha declared that in her former life she was only measured with an oak measuring stick with brass ferrule, the hundred-dollar or so kind, not a free grain store weight tape. So I was unable to compare their weights, and we have a little training project for tomorrow.
Both these mares have a lot of Flyhawk and old Government breeding. Martha V is by the tall, athletic stallion, UVM Springfield. Robin is by the small, athletic stallion River Echo Hamilton. At pasture running together, they often look startlingly alike, making the same head motions and flagging their tails in a similar way. Yet standing still, they are very different in type and conformation. It would take a wiser person than me to run through their bloodlines and see just where Martha gets her extreme depth of body, and the characteristic of being rather heavy on the forehand, and where Robin gets her race-horse balance.

Robin bears a startling resemblance to a classic trotting horse broodmare of the 19th century, Green Mountain Maid. She doesn't descend from the Maid, but shares crosses to Henry Clay and Iron's Cadmus, horses in the classic mare's pedigree. Green Mountain Maid has a statue in her honor out in California, and $10,000 was offered for her when she was 20 years old. The offer was turned down. (Thanks to the excellent research of Brenda Tippin for this info, and the photo of Green Mountain Maid which you can see by following the link. Same lovely long legs, same butt, same belly, same white hind feet, and very similar head. They could easily be mistaken for the same horse. I wouldn't take $10,000 for Robin, either.  Read More 
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Book Review: Lead With Your Heart

In Vermont in winter, my horse activities boil down to careful feeding, watering and shoveling, greetings and once-overs, and a lot of reading by the wood stove. I hope some of this reading will stay with me into spring and summer, when it's possible to work horses again.

A book I'm reading this winter is Lead With Your Heart; Lessons From A Life With Horses, by Allan J. Hamilton.

This beautiful small book is not a training manual, not a book of theory, not a story. Instead, 112 short meditations, each titled with a short aphorism, consider categories like Teaching and Learning, Energy and Emotion, and Breaking Through. Hamilton believes in good observation, in becoming still within, in taking the time it takes but not drilling the horse into a state of boredom. But my summaries don't give you the poetry of his writing; this is one to look at for yourself, to enjoy for the design as well as the words, to savor slowly, put down periodically while reading to think about your own horse, and situations you've been in with him.

We aren't all lucky enough to have a wise mentor in our lives, especially atthose crucial training moments. But if you read Lead With Your Heart slowly and thoughtfully, it may be that one of these aphorisms will come to mind at one of those moments. Like, "A windy day can make a horse stupid." Or, "More than four is a bore." (In other words, don't drill a new behavior to death. Three or four repeats, then do something else.) "Find the curve of compromise." That is, approach a horse's shoulder, on a curving line, greet, then turn away.

This paragraph stood out for me. "When the problem starts to seem too complex or stubborn, we need to stop. It means we are close to a new revelation. That is where the turmoil is coming from. There must be a moment of torque before there is traction . . . "

The book is illustrated with beautiful photo-collages by Robert Farkas, and is handsomely designed. Published by Storey in 2016. Read More 
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