Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Riding on the Rox

No therapeutic riding center for me this week as I took a trip back to middle America to see the folks and attend the multi-disciplinary Equine Affaire, a conference of all the latest and the greatest in the horse world. One day is never enough at such an event, but since that was all I had I made the best of it via a whirlwind tour of clinicians, trade vendors, and the riveting Pfizer Fantasia horse show.

The highlight of my visit to Equine Affaire was the short clinic I had the pleasure of watching featuring Road to the Horse winner Stacy Westfall, whose natural horsemanship methods and stellar success with bridleless reining have made her an overnight training phenom. Watching the woman work truly gives one the feel of being in the presence of a horse person whose goal is first and foremost to make training fun and positive for all involved, and who knows horses to their core. She has remarkable patience and sees the humorous side of horse training, as evidenced by the way she compassionately discusses the foibles of equine behavior and negotiates their moments of resistance.

She introduced one particular technique that I found to be remarkable, and had never before seen presented. First, she had the clinic participants work getting their horses to give to an inside/direct rein by taking up the rein and then holding tight to the seam of their inside jeans leg while moving the horse forward in jogging circles. The horses learned very quickly the fundamentals of giving to that rein because the asking hand was planted firmly and consistently upon the inside leg. But then the real fun began as each rider asked their to horse to simultaneously give to the outside and indirect rein by picking up on that rein at the same time. The amazing part was that the horses did give to both, moving off of their inside bend to track to the outside while still keeping their head turned to that inside rein. These were moments of maneuvering that resembled half-passing and side-passing. Stacy suggested that using this exercise frequently with young horses increases their aptitude for neck reining, as it mimics the feel of the outside rein contact that happens when neck rein is applied. It was a complicated training point but one I thought would be worthwhile to practice. After the clinic, and later in the evening, everyone at the Pfizer Fantasia got to watch Stacy perform the bridleless reining routine that made her and her gorgeous black QH Roxy (aka Whizard's Baby Doll) famous, for the final time. The connection she had with that horse was so intense that I choked on tears for most of the routine.

The other good news about going to Equine Affaire was the opportunity it provided to network with some of the best in the industry. As director of fundraising for the therapeutic riding center, I have been tasked with the large challenge of getting horse care products and tack donated for our small string of school horses. The good news is that people's hearts seem to open quite readily for a cause that connects animals with children, and I made some tangible connections with a trophy retailer and a saddle retailer that might produce future valuable donations.

By next week I hope to be able to post my first book review, of Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling's "Dancing With Horses: The Art of Body Language" which is proving to be an inspiring and informative read. His training has evolved out of several natural horsemanship traditions, and does have similar features to some of today's prominent American clinicians, but his philosophy of connectedness with one's horse, and his commitment to retaining the horse's natural spirit throughout all the gentling and training work that he does sets him apart from much of the crowd.

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