Popular Posts

Total Pageviews

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Kingdom for a Horse

Horse, thou art truly a creature without equal, for thou fliest without wings and conquerest without sword.

~the Koran

As a horse runs, think of it
as a game of
tag with the wind.

~ Tre Tuberville

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.

~William Shakespeare, Henry V

The wind of Heaven is that
which blows between a horse's ears.

~Arabian Proverb

A horse is worth more than riches.

~Spanish Proverb

A Hibernian sage once wrote that there were three things a man never forgets: the girl of his early youth, a devoted teacher and a great horse.

~C.J.J. Mullen

The horse though all his trials has preserved the sweetness of paradise
in his blood.

~Johannes Jensen

No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.

~Winston Churchill

You cannot remain unmoved by the gentleness and
conformation of a well bred and well trained horse- a
big boned, well muscled animal, slick of coat, sweet
of smell, obedient and mannerly, yet forever a
menace with its innocent power and ineradicable
inclination to seek refuge in flight...But when it
greets you with a nicker, nuzzles you and regards you
with a large and liquid eye, the question of where you
want to be and what you want to do has been
~Albert Borgmann, Crossing the Postmodern Divide
A horse'll cure all that ails ya.
~Charles Henry Schrader, my Grandpa

Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation Company

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Defining Your Carriage

Conditioning and Training the Whip: Body Awareness and Driving

Part Two: Hands

by Michelle Blackler

The exploration of body awareness provides the whip with a different dimension for improving the relationship with the driving horse. As we discovered in part one, the effects of tension and poor posture are translated directly down the reins to the horse. Improving posture not only alleviates discomfort for the whip and the horse, but redistributes muscle control where it is most effective- in maintaining proper alignment. Correcting posture is the first step to opening communication with the horse. The second step is refining the communication with the use of the hands.

The idea of ‘good hands’ is familiar to all equestrians. It means that the equestrian uses subtle shifts in pressure of the hands holding the reins to cue the horse of his or her intentions in direction and speed.

Still, our hands can be only as good as the arms, shoulders and trunk that support them. It is an integrated system. Take, for instance the movement of raising your arms to use the keyboard or mouse on your computer, something many of us do all day long. However, if this movement is poorly coordinated, tremendous strain is placed on the neck, shoulders and back, consequently interfering with the proper functioning of the hands.

Similarly, placing too much importance on the role of hands for driving, can and strain other areas of the body, and interfere with effective use of hands for communication with the horse. Consider the following exercise, based on the Feldenkrais Method of Awareness Through Movement, to aid in body awareness for driving and everyday activities.

Sit in a chair, with your back away from the backrest, both feet on the floor, hands in your lap. Raise your hands to assume the position you use for driving or working at the computer. Lower your hands. Think about how your hands feel. Are they light or heavy? Raise and lower your hands several times, taking notice of how the movement feels. Inhale deeply, raise your ribcage, as you learned in the posture exercise, as you raise your hands. Exhale and lower them. Repeat and note the feeling of raising the hands. As you raise your hands, draw your attention to your shoulders lift your hands using your shoulders and arms. How do you hands feel now? Lighter?

This exercise is one of the most illustrative uses of body awareness for whips that I have found. How many times have you even considered how you hold your hands? Or how your hands hold the reins? When I redirect my carriage driving clients' attention from using just their hands and arms for transitions, they are awed at the transformation of their horses from being heavy on the bit or sluggish through a turn to the very epitome of lightness and willingness.

Half Halts

The most overused and often abused term in riding or driving must be the use of half halts. Using the hands only in cueing the horse for transitions can result in confusing the horse and becoming a counterproductive use of an aid. Consider employing a different set of signals for a downward transition involving body awareness. Instead of pulling on the reins or rein with the hands, signal the half halt with a release of breath while squeezing the shoulder blades together and releasing the tension when the horse has complied with the downward transition. If you use a verbal aid for the transition, add it during your exhalation.

Turning the Horse

The use of the hands for turning the horse is also often misinterpreted. Using one element of the integrated system leads to poor functioning of the total system. Consider turning the horse to the right using the right hand. The natural response of a tense body will be to rock forward or tip the pelvis and drop the right shoulder in front of the hip to accommodate the arm movement backwards. Hence your posture is compromised as is your stable position in the carriage. If you were a horse, you would be criticized for being heavy on the forehand!

Try the following exercise to encourage body awareness and integration for turning the horse and carriage. Sit on a chair, away from the backrest, both feet on the floor, hands in front of you, simulating driving. Turn to the right and then turn back to center. Think about how your body feels as you turn to the right and turn back to center. Is there any stiffness in the turn through your shoulders, neck, back or arms? Turn to the right and turn back to center. Inhale deeply as you turn to the right, exhale as you turn back to center. How did your breath affect the turn? Inhale and begin the turn with your eyes, exhale and turn back to center. Inhale, turn your eyes, head, neck and bring your left shoulder and left knee slightly forward, exhale and turn back to center. Notice how as your left shoulder comes forward, you right shoulder and hence your hand naturally move back.

Transfer this natural engagement of your own body to your driving and feel the ease and comfort it brings to your turns. When you are mindful that your whole body should be employed in the turn and the hands are not the first signal to the horse, your performance as a team will solidify. You ask your horse for collection, flexion and impulsion at the same time, why shouldn’t you return the favor? The result may well be inclusion into the elite ‘Good Hands Club’ and who would turn down that compliment?

One Step Further

When you notice a particularly good transition or turn, take inventory of how you were able to accomplish the maneuver. What did you do differently? How did you use your hands? How did you engage your torso? Was your posture more balanced, weight distributed more evenly? Once you begin to identify the correct use of your body, the processes you involve in driving will become as natural and involuntary as breathing.

Learning to drive with minimal effort and maximum freedom of movement by maximizing body awareness will transform not only how you drive, but will add to your enjoyment of it and many of your day to day activities. It makes sense; a more responsive whip will turn out a more responsive horse. A more responsive horse greatly improves the satisfaction of driving. Beware, Feldenkrais told us, it just might alter your life forever…for the better.

Michelle Blackler is the president of Serendipity, an Iowa based equine company that provides riding and driving instruction and seminars. She is active in Pleasure Driving Competitions and has earned championships in several divisions. For more information: www.hossbiz.com

Monday, September 28, 2009

Definitions of Carriage

Word Origin & History

1388, "act of carrying, means of conveyance," from Anglo-Fr.cariage "cart, carriage," from carier "to carry" (see carry). Specific sense of "horse-drawn, wheeled vehicle for hauling people" first attested 1706.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper

Conditioning and Training the Whip: Body Awareness and Carriage Driving

Part One: Posture

by Michelle Blackler

As 21st Century horsemen, we are bombarded with ways to improve our horse’s performance through training methods of top clinicians, the latest bits or training devises, and videos and books galore on the subject. We are so busy concerning ourselves with conditioning, suppling and training our horse that we overlook an essential component of the partnership- it takes two. Communication is not a one way street; when do we concentrate on ourselves and our performance from the driver’s wedge?

Body awareness is essential in top level riding. Cues are subtle: a shift in weight from one seat bone to another, the release of breath, the turn of the rider’s head- imperceptible to any but horse and rider. Driving should be no different. After all, we compete in driven dressage, have our own version of three day eventing, and desire soft, round, forward moving horses. If your hands feel like a brick wall at the end of the reins, your horse will have a different interpretation than yours of just how much weight he is pulling.

So how and where do we start suppling and conditioning our selves? Thankfully, it does not involve expensive gym memberships and exhaustive yoga techniques, but, of course, those help. We can do it simply by addressing body awareness and the beneficial byproducts that accompany it.

Sally Swift, in her excellent series of books, Centered Riding, gives us many tips for improving body awareness. Peggy Brown applies these principles to driving. “When you watch others drive, it is obvious that poor posture is inelegant and unattractive, but lack of posture and balance has other ramifications. Notice the Whip who uses his reins to help maintain his own position in the seat during transitions, turns, or bumps. Watch the Whip who leans sideways on the turns; as if leaning is going to get that horse and vehicle around that turn.” She also notes, “Tension travels like electricity right through the reins to the bit.”

Awareness and Movement

Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, D.Sc. (1904-1984), a Russian born physicist, judo expert, mechanical engineer and educator provides valuable tools for improving body awareness and overall physical and mental health through his techniques of Awareness Through Movement. The most important of those techniques involves an association with posture and poise: mental and physical tranquility. Poor or faulty posture involves muscular tension combined with emotional intensity that is often a result of stress. Habitual tension, coupled with the associated emotional reaction, accumulates over the years and manifests in a variety of discomforts: back pain, stiffness, headaches, etc.

Learning new attitudes and mindfulness about how we carry ourselves is the first step to improving posture and alleviating a multitude of malaises. The most powerful aspect of Feldenkrais’ methods often manifests a shift in our overall perception of ourselves, which can lead to life altering behavioral changes. Here, we will concern ourselves solely with the beneficial changes that can occur in driving and horsemanship.

Exercises In Awareness

Try this exercise, inspired by Feldenkrais. Sit in a chair, with both feet on the floor, do not rest your back on the chair. Think about how your body feels. Is there any tension in your neck? Your shoulders? Your back? Is the weight distributed evenly over your seat bones? Is your pelvis tipped forward or backward? Breathe deeply through your nose. Does your chest feel heavy? Think about how your body feels as you breathe deeply. Now, as you inhale, lift and expand your ribcage. Keep your ribcage from collapsing onto your diaphragm as you exhale. How does your chest feel? Lighter? What happened to your shoulders as you raised your ribcage? Has your posture improved?

I use this exercise both mounted and in the carriage for my riding and driving clients. Their performance increases dramatically and at the end of their lesson they are always vibrant and energized. The very act of raising the ribcage allows for proper alignment and correct breathing. The body simply doesn’t need to work as hard to do its job. Correcting posture alleviates muscle tension required to adopt the incorrect position. In addition to which, by sitting tall, self confidence is markedly increased, making the learning process much freer and more dynamic to the student.

Transfer this exercise to your own vehicle. It only makes sense that if your chest felt lighter to you when you lifted your chest and allowed your body to function correctly, it will feel that way to your horse, as well. Remember the brick wall earlier? There will be a period of adjustment for you and your horse. You will forget and return to your former posture unless you employ mindfulness every time you drive. Your horse has got accustomed to your poor posture and it may take him a while to believe the new you is permanent.

Take time to experiment in body awareness. Make a mental checklist of your body as you are warming up your horse and use the time to warm up yourself, both physically and mentally. Focus on your breathing and lower your center of gravity. Open up your trunk to accommodate your breath and align your posture. Consider the partnership with your horse and do your best to ensure you are being as supple with your cues as you expect him to be in executing them.

In The Tao of Equus, Linda Kohanov describes, “the rush of clarity and serenity unleashed when one’s control of a thousand pound creature begins to flow from the mind and not the muscle…It’s about courage and humility, focus and flexibility.” This statement dovetails with the Feldenkrais and Swift teachings perfectly. And how do we expect our horse to move freely and correctly if we can’t? Through body awareness and correct posture we can begin to improve our performance and partnership with our driving horse, and begin a new journey of self exploration and understanding of our role of ‘Self’ on the box seat.

Michelle Blackler is the president of Serendipity, an Iowa based equine company that provides riding and driving instruction and seminars. She is active in Pleasure Driving Competitions and has earned championships in several divisions. For more information: www.hossbiz.com

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Therapeutic Riding: Morgan, his Morgan and Michel[l]es

The Wednesday Night Team

I wish I knew how many miles Morgan, Michele and I have traveled together in the last six years. Walking next to Don Pecos last night, I felt the usual comfortable unity of our team. Pecos and I marching, swinging, consistent, Michele and Morgan moving back and forth, side to side and up and down with the rhythm of the movement, Morgan's mom, Holly snapping photos in the gorgeous late summer sunlight.

This is a blog. I have to remind myself to resist my natural tendency towards verbosity. For I could go on and on and on telling the stories of how this little boy has taught me lessons in life. Conversely, I could write about the many times I have experienced extraordinary boundless friendship with Michele and Holly. I can never say enough about the beauty of Don Pecos. But, suffice it to say thirty minutes on Wednesday go very fast, and so easily. All those minutes, all those miles, remain among my most cherished.

If I was to make a music video of the Wednesday Night Therapy Team, it would be set to the Eagles' song, Peaceful, Easy Feeling.

Enough talk. Let the photos speak...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Carriage Driving Classics

Still feeling poorly, so I thought I'd share one of my most effective remedies: reading. I've been revisiting two of my all time favorite carriage driving books, Driving by the Duke of Beaufort and Driving For Pleasure by Francis Underhill.

Reading these books may not cure a chest infection or sinus congestion, but they make me smarter, for sure. I love the prose, the by gone erudition and the affirmation that what I do for a living is worth preserving.

"The old Morgan Trotter is probably the nearest suited to the requirements of the brougham or carriage horse of any strain produced in America." Underhill

"Remember that your comfort depends on keeping on good terms with your horse." Beaufort

I strongly recommend these books to anyone who is interested in driving horses.

Monday, September 21, 2009

More New York Times Archives

Been under the weather this weekend, so I'm going to cheat this morning. This article first appeared in the New York Times on September 15, 1910. I have been wondering how Serendipity can help expand the carriage driving market almost 100 years later. Accidental sagacity is everywhere, once you start looking...

Lenox Society Out In Coaching Parade
Miss Kate Cary Leads Procession of Eight Breaks Drawn By Spirited Horses
Rosettes and Cornflowers
Tea Served to 150 Guests At Close Of Parade
In Butternut Cottage Stables

To read the full article:

Now, about that roof seat break, Harold...


Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation Company

Thursday, September 17, 2009

New York Times Archives- Underhill

For all you carriage driving history buffs and coaching wannabes like me, check out this article, first published in 1894 about a coaching wager involving a one handed figure of eight with a four in hand and Francis T. Underhill...

Wu Wei at Serendipity

Wu Wei with Don Pecos, Lucy and TT Ali.

One of the cornerstones of the philosophy at Serendipity is Wu Wei, a Taoist principle of "doing without doing". It is a natural order with the aim of producing a state of equilibrium that results in a 'soft and invisible power'.

My relationship with my horses is a good example. Often, I go out to the paddocks or in the indoor arena and just sit there, among the horses. I ask nothing, I just sit with them and 'be'. The most astonishing things happen during these exercises of doing nothing. The personalities of the horses develop in front of my eyes. They approach me one at a time, in the order of dominance. Don Pecos will often put his entire back end in my face and stand there. Kitten usually comes up behind me, places her front legs at my back and wraps her lovely head and neck around me. Ace grooms me with a head and neck massage. Major usually tries to grab my sweatshirt/scarf/jeans and drag me around, cave man style.

What does this mean? Who knows. I like to think it is because Don Pecos knows I'm happiest when I'm driving him, so he assumes this position. Of course it could mean simply that his rear end is in my face! Kitten protects me. Ace pleases me. Major plays with me. I try to clear my mind and let the first thing that pops into it while the horses are interacting with me be the definition.

Why do this? Simple. It is a form of meditation. It brings me closer to the horses, gives me an alternate form of communication with them. They seem to appreciate it, too. It is a form of therapy for me, also. Whenever I'm feeling really low, I Wu Wei with the horses, and the answers they give me, without giving them to me, illustrate the 'soft and invisible power'. Once I was sitting, staring off in the distance searching for answers and Don Pecos positioned himself to block my far off view. He looked back at me and I realized the answers I was searching for were not in the distance, but right in front of me. Another time, it was a broken heart. Kitten wrapped herself around me and 'held' me until the tears ceased. Economic hardship- Ace lowered his head so his eyes were level with mine and looked straight into my soul, "I will carry you," his message seemed to be and carry me he has.

Horses are vehicles. They can transport us above ourselves to greater understanding, both physically, emotionally and spiritually. Wu Wei, doing without doing-try it sometime. Just go out with your horses and Be. That is my accidental sagacity wish for you today.

Accidental Sagacity for Today: Harold Ault

My friend, Harold Ault of Ames, IA, is a rare find. By all accounts, he is the purest definition of eccentric. At first glance, it is easy to misunderstand him. His appearance is usually slightly disheveled, his gait both swinging and staggering at once, his mode of transportation helped down the road with the aid of log chains and cement blocks. But look for the accidental sagacity and you trip over a substantial treasure.

Harold is a walking, talking, dog eared, highlighted, frequently thumbed through, epic volume of encyclopedias. He is a collector of nearly everything there ever was on this earth, namely carriages, their accouterments and a bevy of anecdotes. For the uninitiated, Harold is the Saturday NY Times crossword puzzle. However, if you express an interest, he will start you out with a Monday puzzle and give you many clues.

I have known Harold for 11 years, a year after learning the importance of traces. And now I can tell you the difference between a road coach and a park drag. He has only had to explain the differences to me a hundred times, but he never tires of trying. Every time, he remembers yet another story to add to the richness of the lesson.

To say that I am familiar with Harold's carriage collection would be stretching it. However, I am aware of the historical significance of many of the items. He has so much stuff, both tangible and intangible, that it is sometimes overwhelming. It is a Show and Tell that has lasted 11 years and counting, of which I am eternally grateful to him.

In order to show my appreciation, I nag him constantly about writing a book and categorising his collection. Now that he is retired, I nag even harder. The purpose for writing this blog is to engage you, dear reader, to join my cause. Whenever you see/meet Harold Ault, let this blog be your first impression of him. Look beyond the cover and encourage, berate, cheer, cajole or threaten him into achieving the potential of his collection and in turn of his life's work. And ask, if you dare, the differences between a park drag and a road coach. Someday, you'll be glad you did.

Harold driving Don Pecos put to
his Kimball Stanhope Gig, at the
Villa Louis Carriage Classic, 2000

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bob and Ace: Villa Louis Carriage Classic

What an excellent weekend we had at Villa Louis. Harold Ault, Ace, Lucy and I arrived on Thursday the 10th to get settled in and meet Heidi Kenney and her dog Barclay. The first wonderful surprise was our stall assignment, which was nestled in between carriage driving pair gods, Aaron Achenbach and Howard Kietzke. It was Aaron who helped me decipher Gambler's Choice strategies 10 years ago, at my first Villa Louis. Howard lent me a back strap and crupper when one of my horses went over backwards at a show and I wanted to re-hitch despite broken harness. Aaron and Howard are the finest of carriage driving competitors: savvy, witty, generous.

Team Serendipity's whip, Bob Nervig, and his lovely wife Kathy arrived on Friday. I put them straight to work. Harold and I had just finished stitching the new patent leather shaft covers on the gig and Bob admired all the new patent, thanks to a very generous donation by Heidi. Bob and I schooled Ace through the water hazard and after cannonballing into the water directly behind me [soaking me] on the first attempt, he showed his typical contrition and strolled through it after without question.

Thankfully, that was the only time I was soaked during the weekend. The weather gods bestowed temperance and the rain gear stayed stowed. Not the case for Barclay, however, who found tributaries of the river at every opportunity, demonstrating the Labrador aspect of his ancestry. [He and Lucy left quite an impression on Prairie du Chien, and were known by name at the hotel and on the grounds.] Early morning fog laced the river bluffs, gently dispersed by fuschia dawns followed by lovely dappled sunshine that made Villa Louis a late summer paradise.

Saturday morning found us in turnout where the judge, Mrs. Eleanor Hunter, awarded Bob and Ace a second place ribbon. Cross country was a blast, Ace went right over the bridge and through the water for Bob. [Non carriage folk will wonder why the bridge didn't go over the water, as do the horses, but they are two separate obstacles.] Crossing the road was confounding, Ace stopped at the sign, and then got road rage and wanted to continue, without waiting for the traffic on the road, hence Bob and I got off count and missed a gate.

Still, it was a fabulous morning of driving and team Serendipity took a well deserved rest in the Patron's Tent to watch the show. I found an Audrey Hepburn hat with my name on it at Colonial Carriage Works that I didn't take off all day. I donned it in Bob's reinsmanship class, where he took a third place ribbon. For his first day of his first pleasure driving show ever, Bob shined as well as the gig and harness.

After a brief break, we were back at the Villa for wine, cheese and excellent company. Then off to prime rib dinner under the marquee and the auction, where Heidi and I showed off the auction items at Mike Rider's request. I must humbly admit that I aided the auctioneer in raising $425 for a three legged stool, something that no one at the auction is ever going to let me forget. Ah, camaraderie...

Sunday bright and early was the scurry- cones. This is Bob and Ace's favorite part of the division. They made a clean, fluid course and won a fourth place ribbon against village, Meadowbrooks and road carts. Well done, boys. Working pleasure won another second place ribbon for Bob and Ace and gambler's choice awarded another fourth place. At the close of the show, Bob tied for reserve champion novice driver horse, in a very competitive division.

For team Serendipity, he and Ace were unbeatable. More important than any ribbon, is the feedback from people who go out of their way to compliment your turnout or the volume of applause from an inspired audience. Bob's story about carriage driving with an auto immune disorder is touching and affected many people.

It is my great honor to have participated in this story. Villa Louis never fails to add value to my life and I thank all the individuals for the wonderful memories I have again this year. Yet another truly brilliant weekend to add to the books.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Impressions of Villa Louis Carriage Classic

Every time I think of the Villa Louis Carriage Classic, I swoon. I cannot over sell this show. No one ever really believes me when I tell them about Villa Louis, but you see it on their faces when they arrive, "Wow! She's right!"

The excitement starts when I drive across the Mississippi and spot the tents among the trees. I get goosebumps. The Villa herself sits quietly impressive watching the arena; welcoming. Sharing her beauty with us all. The show grounds honor the historical site with their adjunct beauty. The symbiotic relationship between the grounds and the show is a tangible benefit to both. The river purrs at the hem of the grounds. It is impossible not to be moved.

As any gracious host works to make guests feel comfortable and special, the hospitality at Villa Louis is unparalleled. She wraps her arms around you and elevates you above the ordinary. It is a theme that permeates all aspects of the show from the show committee right down to the equines. All the horses I've ever taken seem to appreciate the elegance of it all.

In fact, I always consider the true winner of Concourse d'Elegance to be Villa Louis. The exhibitors are merely trying to mirror their surroundings and the show itself. At Serendipity, I urge my carriage driving clients to do everything in their power to allow the horses to be brilliant. I think that is what Villa Louis does for me.

An august thank you to Mike Rider for his splendid stewardship of this show. To determine the quality of the job, one only has to look at how easy Mike makes it look. This easy allure of Villa Louis will keep me charmed and coming back for more.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Serendipity Strategies for Carriage Driving Obstacles

Accidental Sagacity for The Day

1. Know Your Course
2. Know Your Horse
3. Love Your Horse

That is oversimplification, I know, but it's true.

This photo of The Major General and I at the Harvest Moon Carriage Classic in Urbandale, IA, shows something important that I harp on about all the time. Carriage driving clients of mine will say, "Michelle! You are dropping your shoulder!"

Yes, slightly. And notice that Major is slightly dropping his shoulder to mirror me. It is incredibly hard to drive a cones course on a hillside in the gig without dropping your shoulder, but this is what happens. This is why we placed fourth or fifth or whatever.

Second thing I say that sounds like a broken record: Look where you are going so your horse knows where he's going. I know he has blinkers on, but they KNOW. See, Major knows where he's going, he's looking at exactly what I'm looking at. He mirrors me.

Mirroring is a topic that too few people are aware of in their relationship when training horses. It can elevate you from a competent horseman to a remarkable one. It takes a study of body awareness both of the person and the horse. It takes commitment to the process both physically, mentally and emotionally. I constantly work to achieve the level of brilliance that my horses attain. The mirror works both ways.

A photo is worth so many words...